George Herriott, a writer friend of mine who was once a client, pitched me the idea of doing a story on his pro bike racing son, Todd Herriott, and the following profile is the result. I like when stories come out of left field like this because it’s unlikely I would have ever come to telling Todd’s story otherwise. Todd has since retired from the pro circuit to own and operate his own cyclist training and fitness gym, but he was full in it when I interviewed and profiled him. The story of how he came to the sport, then left it, only to take it up again at a rather advanced age, whereupon he enjoyed his greatest success, is a compelling one.
Going to Extremes: Professional Cyclist Todd Herriott
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“I have an all or nothing personality.”
The telling self-assessment belongs to Omaha native Todd Herriott, a pro bicycle racer who made a dramatic return to the sport three years ago after a long hiatus to sate his insatiable curiosity. An uptown New York City resident with the cocksure attitude of a Big Apple denizen, Herriott competed as a premier amateur racer from the late 1980s until 1995, when his sense of wanderlust got the better of him and he opted out, at only 26, to try other things.
Changing gears is nothing new for Herriott, a 1987 Elkhorn Mount Michael graduate. About the same time he got into bike racing as an Omaha teen, he latched onto a dream of being a professional dancer, even studying the art form at Emerson College in Boston, where he supported himself as a bike messenger, before his “hyper-competitive” drive made racing his focus again. When he left the sport, he worked, in quick succession, as a Hollywood film production assistant, a Boston bike messenger again and a Manhattan personal fitness guru. Wherever adventure called, this searcher went, once driving cross-country on a motorcycle because “it sounded like a really bad idea, so it must be good.” Reinventing himself is a habit.
Even when racing “back in the day,” his eclectic interests kept him from ever giving himself fully over to the single-minded dedication and discipline demanded by cycling. It’s why he didn’t graduate then past the elite amateur level. “I wasn’t ready to be a professional bike racer when I quit the sport,” says Herriott, who radiates the high-energy vibe and rebel cool of the extreme athlete. “There were too many other things I wanted to try and, it’s like, there weren’t enough minutes in the day. Unless you’re really committed to doing the sport, you can’t make it. It’s too much. It’s too hard. It takes too much time and too much energy.”
Infatuated with an actress-model during this transitional period of his life, he acted impulsively and married the woman, he says. “for all the wrong reasons.” After sampling the west coast’s “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” scene, his obsession with salvaging his failed marriage sent him on a downward spiral back east, where he bummed lodging from friends between infrequent paying gigs. “The problem is, you take all the problems you had on one coast to the other coast,” he says. “I’m one of those people who sort of lives for drama. If I don’t have drama in my life, it’s very hard for me to get motivated, so I’m very good at creating drama for myself. Life would have been a little easier if I had done some things a little bit differently.”
Salvation for Herriott finally came in the form of a light, sleek, carbon-fiber racing bike, something he swore off ever riding again.
“I was in a down period of my life and I needed something to distract me and I thought, Well, cycling has always been a good diversion. It’s challenging, it’s difficult, it’s fast, it’s free-flowing, it’s a little dangerous,” says the hard-bodied Herriott, who since reentering the sport in a Central Park club race a few years ago has found his love for competitive cycling intact. “I’m still very much in awe of the sport. I still get excited to get up and go ride. I get real giddy about it. It’s almost embarrassing to talk about. It’s very much the way it was when I was 17 in that respect. I’m still overwhelmed by the guys I race against..,I’m like, Wow, they’re really good. Am, I that good?”
He made his amateur racing comeback at 32, an age when most top-flight athletes are slowing up or breaking down, by promptly winning two of the sport’s biggest international events, the 2002 Univest Grand Prix in Souderton, Pa. and the 2003 Tour of Cuba. Despite competing as an amateur for only part of the season, he was named the best amateur male road racer for North America in 2003 by Velo-News Magazine, the top cycling magazine in the world. Things clicked just right. He was in top form. In the zone. In sync.
“You don’t have those days very often, but, boy, it sure is nice when you feel it. You’re like Superman. I felt like that in Cuba. I felt that way in the Univest Grand Prix. I didn’t think anybody could beat me. At the end of the race, with like two laps to go on the circuit, I just rode away. I didn’t attack, I didn’t make some big move…nothing. I just put my head down and thought, ‘I’m out of here.’ I looked over my shoulder and saw ‘em hesitate and I said, ‘I just won the race.’ You just know. That was a really extraordinary feeling. It’s like the heavens opened up and someone shot a beam of light down and said, You are on! I think those moments are few and far between and I think that’s what everybody’s trying to capture.”
In a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans, Herriott became the first American to win the Univest and the Tour of Cuba. Along the way, he dispelled any doubts about the wisdom or the ability of a thirtysomething trying to keep pace, much less outdistance, competitors nearly half his age.
“I knew people would have problems with it,” he says, referring to his “old man” status. “I got a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re pretty old to be doing that.’ My mother was definitely not excited about me riding my bike. She was like, ‘You’re going to do it again? Nothing happened last time. You’re not driving a flashy sports car and you don’t own a home. There must be something wrong with you.’ But there just comes a time when you have to decide what you’re going to do and do it, whether or not anybody agrees with you.”
Herriott never second-guessed himself. “That’s the thing. I didn’t have any doubts,” he says. “That’s probably why I was able to pull it off. It probably would have been more of an issue if I sat down and really thought about it.”
He was recovering from an illness contracted in Chile, where he’d traveled for a big event, when he accepted an offer to join the elite pro team, Health Net, with whom he rode the second half of the 2003 U.S. Pro Road Race season. As a Team Health Net member, he rode with one of his idol’s and one of the sport’s icons, Gord Fraser, whom he trained with at the living legend’s Tucson, Arizona home.
Now with Team Colavilta Bolla, Herriott sees this as his moment to shine. That he’s defied time by not only recapturing but improving upon his performances as a youth, Herriott’s validated his own passion for cycling and his decision to rededicate his life to it. All the while he was out of the sport, living that fast, freaky lifestyle, he says his long-suppressed desire to ride “ate at me.” When he finally heeded the hunger, he felt the timing was right.
“The way I thought of it was, it’s such a brutal sport, that by taking years off from riding at the intense level it’s made me years fresher than I would have been. Early 30s is when you really hit it hard. Your body’s really matured. You really know what you’re doing. So, I have no question my best rides are ahead of me. My training gets better every year. I pay more attention to detail. I continue to get stronger and lighter at the same time. Strength to weight ratio is a big thing in cycling. So, I’m smarter and stronger and more motivated than ever. I really believe I’m going to uncork something pretty big,” he says.
He wouldn’t be where he is today if he weren’t so passionate about cycling. “It’s just too hard of a sport to do to not really enjoy it at that level,” he says. Being good helps make it fun. Defining good from mediocre is a mix of endurance, discipline, strategy, gamesmanship and technique. It all starts with conditioning. Herriott, who still trains clients in fitness programs of his own design, follows a rigorous workout regimen. “I’m something of a psycho when it comes to training. Training is fun for me. I’m training all the time. I love it.” In what can be “a selfish sport,” he’s often off alone doing his thing. An understanding girlfriend helps.
He works on different things on different days, sometimes emphasizing aerobic-cardiovascular training and other times resistance-strength exercises. For example, Tuesdays, one of his resistance days, finds him tackling a wide-ranging cross-training schedule that is equal parts pleasure and pain and an expression of both his attention to business and his personal cycling mantra.
“I’ll get up at 6. I’ll train a client at 7. Make a little money. Then, I’ll do like a two-hour ride, usually indoors, where I can monitor the intensity more easily. I’ll be doing base intensity, but on the higher end of my aerobic capacity. I’ll ride a special crank set that forces me to use one leg at a time. You have to coordinate the strokes, which forces you to use your hip flexors and your hamstrings. I do that indoors so I don’t have any distractions.
“Then, I’ll take the train downtown. I’ll change my gear around. I’ll run in the gym. I’ll do 30-40 minutes on a climbing machine or some weird different exercises I’ve created on the gym floor. Medicine balls, stair climbers, jumping rope, hitting the heavy bag. Then, I’ll teach a spinning class for an hour. Then, I’ll go back out on the gym floor for 30-40 minutes. I’ll run back to the apartment and do another 90 minutes or two hours on the bike. Usually, I have another client or two late in the afternoon. I’ll come home and eat. I have five floors to walk-up to my apartment to drop off my bike every night. It’s that last, little extra push at the end of my workout. After dinner I take a hot soak before stretching.
“So, some of those days can be working out for four or five hours.”
Other days, riding takes precedence. “Wednesdays, I do a long ride, anywhere from five to six hours. Sometimes, I do a double session…riding indoors, working form on the pedal stroke.” Gearing up in the winter for the spring-summer racing season, he progressively ratchets up his outdoor mileage until he’s riding 30 to 35 hours a week. During a December swing through his hometown to visit family, he noted, “I’ve already started doing six-and-a-half hour rides in 40-degree weather. You have to do it. It’s all about preparation.”
In preparaing for the rigors of the season, when he travels from event to event, competing in races ranging over a few days to a few weeks and covering anywhere from 100 to 155 miles over widely varying terrain, altitudes and weather conditions, Herriott goes to extremes. In December, he put in a grueling 30-hour week up and down the 11-mile El Diablo Climb outside San Francisco. As he often does, he wore a power meter that gave “a real time wattage output of how much power” he generated, one of many measures he uses in gauging his finely calibrated fitness. Besides giving him a steep vertical challenge to hone his climbing skills on, the El Diablo offers a chance to work on the equally vital art of descent.
“Descending is a serious technique. Going down a mountain and taking turns at mach 10, if you don’t practice that…CRASH.”
An edge. Every competitor seeks one. It can be a steely attitude or a superior bike or a high pain tolerance. Some resort to performance enhancing drugs. Herriott, who says he doesn’t “take anything funny,” feels his advantage resides in something basic. “Yeah, I’m always looking for an edge and I think my big edge this year is stretching a lot more. I hate stretching. It’s painful. But I still sit down and do it for 45 minutes to an hour a day because I know it’s going to help my recovery.” He’s also careful to rest and eat right. Seemingly little things separate winning from losing. Aside from physical aspects, a competition turns on wills and tactics. “Yeah, there’s a lot of races within the race,” he says, referring to the jostling and sizing-up that go on. It’s all about knowing your and your opponents’ capabilities and, when opportunity arises, seizing the moment. “When it’s on, it’s on,” he adds.
“If you’re being lazy sitting on the back during a breakaway move, people are going to think you’re useless. Well, that’s great because that’s what you want ‘em to think. It doesn’t matter how strong or hard you ride in the first 105 miles of a 110-mile road race. What matters is that last kilometer or last 500 meters,” he explains. “Will you be able to respond to the attacks that will certainly come? If you’re not a sprinter and you know there’s three sprinters in this group of 10 guys…you’ve got to jump off now and play your card. If you don’t play your card, you’ll never know. If you wait for the sprint, and you’re not a sprinter, you’re going to lose.”
From aching muscles to burning lungs, a cyclist’s physical threshold gets tested. “When you’re hurting, it’s safe to assume everybody’s hurting,” he says. “Some people can suffer more than other people. Period. That can be the difference.” The real race begins once the field’s trimmed. “The race is now a different race altogether,” he explains. “Your odds have already greatly improved. Your chances of crashing have decreased. So, you have to take some inventory. ‘Who’s fresh? Who’s not.? Over here’s a guy who won two weeks ago. He’s got good form. I don’t know this other guy in from Argentina. He’s supposed to be a good sprinter, but he looks like he’s suffering. Is he gonna be worth a crap after a couple of attacks?’”
In service of his team’s star racer, he often plays the rabbit by strategically drawing out the competition to “get my guy to the finish line. If I hear in my radio ear piece a teammate is coming up, I might attack off the front like a lunatic, and get a couple guys to come with me. And maybe when I take off, I am the strongest guy, and I’m gone. For any major race there’s probably 10 guys who could possibly win. And I’ll have days where I might be one of those 10 guys.”
Whatever comes of his cycling career, Herriott feels it’s steeled him for the future. “If I can do this, there isn’t anything I can’t do,” he says. For now, he’s “full on” for this cycling season, having completed his first Redlands Classic in Redlands, Calif. and earlier this year and now gearing up for the Wachovia USPRO Championship on June 6 in Philadelphia. The Phillie event is the longest running and richest single day cycling race in the U.S. A 35-year old champion?
“Who knows? Stranger things have happened in my life.”
- Cycling blogs I read, or Happy Links-giving! (rollthetriangle.wordpress.com)
- Tour of California bike race provides a wild and crazy ride (denverpost.com)
- How a bike crash set paralysed cyclist on the road to a miraculous recovery (independent.co.uk)