An avid bicycle tourist, Rick Abbott didn’t start competing on a bike until he turned 56. Now, in his 70’s, he’s a Masters World Cyclocross Champ with a Rainbow Jersey as proof. We were lucky enough to catch up with Rick to talk about his victory, how he handles training, life on and off the bike and more.
NINER: How long have you been racing bikes?
RICK: I started when I was 56 years old. I was a long time bicycle tourist. My wife and I would take our bikes and see the world by bicycle. I had a knee reconstruction at about 50 and my orthopedist told me I should start biking. So I bought a lightweight bike and started going with them. And then, one day I was out for a ride by myself on a weekend and I saw a bike race. I stopped by and there was a guy there that I knew, so I took my saddle bag off and took the mirror off my helmet and I bought a one day race license. I jumped in the race and got dropped in the first 100 yards. Later, part of the group drifted back to me and I pulled them for the last half of the race. And then, in the last 25 yards, they all sprinted around me and I thought, “Well, that’s unpleasant.”
At that point, I was thoroughly hooked and I started racing. About four years later a friend of mine said, “Now that road racing is done for the season, you ought to come out and do a cyclocross race.” And once I did that, I realized that it was more fun than road racing. The following year, when I started winning some races, Dave Towle, the guy who organizes the races around here, made fun of me even though I was at the front of all the older guys. I still got back on the bike by placing my left foot on my pedal and like I was a 5 year old kid. I’d hear him say, “Okay fans, here come Abbott. This is going to be a really ugly remount. Watch him!” It was another year before I learned how to do a proper cyclocross remount. (Curious about the proper cyclocross mount/dismount? Troy Wells from Team Clif Bar offers these TIPS.)
So I’m relatively new to the sport, as an old man.
NINER: Was this your first Worlds?
RICK: Over the last ten years or so, I went to Nationals a number of times and then I went to Worlds the two times they were down in Louisville, Kentucky. My training pattern looked like this. I’d go for a run with the dogs. I’d go for a bike ride with my wife. And every now and then, if I felt like it, once or twice a week I’d ride hard for a little while and do some intervals. And I never actually did any reasonable training and I’d end up taking 2nd – 5th in Nationals as well as Worlds.
A bit more than a year ago, I thought, maybe I’ll take a year, hire a coach and really concentrate on training and see if I can actually win one of those. So I hooked up with a coach through Training Peaks, Allen Bean, and he laid out a training program for me. The biggest thing he did was so that when I did intervals, instead of doing an interval and fully recovering, he had me start my next interval before I was fully recovered. In the past year, my peak 5-second and 30-second and 60-second and 5-minute and 10-minute my best average power has maintained itself. So, my power used to drop a lot by the last interval and I might be lucky to generate 100 watts on the last one. Now, at the last one, I’m at about the same level, if not better, than the power I was generating on the first interval. I think that’s the single biggest thing he did for me.
But, it also ruined my life. The dogs look at me and I say to them, “No, no, I’m doing tabatas today.” And my wife says, “Hey, let’s go for a ride and have lunch and then ride back.” And I say, “I can’t. I’ve got to go train and do something hard.” And then I look up at the mountains and my skis hanging in the garage and I think, “No, I gotta go out and ride around in the mud and do 40 trips up the stairs at Valmont Bike Park.” I’ve realized how hard and disruptive this training thing is to the rest of your life. I even quit my job and retired back in September so I could train full time. And all I’m gonna do is win a jersey…”
So, it was quite an eye opening experience. And for the last month, I kept telling myself, “Okay, on January 11th, you can take the dogs for a walk and get your skis out.”
NINER: Where was Worlds this year?
RICK: That was in Mol, Belgium. After I got back from Belgium, the whole family was sick and coughing and hacking and wheezing. So about a week and a half after I got home they passed it on to me. I got sick which didn’t help me at Nationals. I was so sick at Nationals, I almost didn’t start. It’s funny, I was using my asthma inhaler to try to settle things down and I thought, “Oh great, it’s just like Chris Froome.” I went ahead and started anyway and was surprised I could ride the whole race. It was disappointing because it was one of the worst races I had this year and if I hadn’t gotten sick, I would’ve competed for first. In the end, I took third. I had really wanted to see how I could do against those guys, but stuff happens.
NINER: What did it feel like to win Worlds this year after all of your hard work?
RICK: Well, for the first 5 minutes, the only feeling was exhaustion – the race itself was so hard. Then, for a longer time, the feeling was a different kind of exhaustion – a year and a half of training specifically for this one race with everything else in my life pushed into a secondary status. Training harder than I thought possible on the bike, running in the sand, practicing for the chaotic Euro start, training on the course for places to pass slower younger riders even when passing wasn’t really a good idea.
Then, later, the I transitioned to feeling like that was really cool! I did it! For half an hour, one day, I was the fastest old man in the world riding a bike in the mud! I get to wear a really cool jersey, and people will say (and have said), “Really? You? You’re the champ? Can I touch the jersey? Tell me about how you did it!”
Yeah, I admit it, I’m proud that I was able to dig deep and do it!
NINER: What’s next?
RICK: Umm, I don’t really know. I just need a break. This was just above and beyond anything I had ever done before. Hopefully it will continue snowing up in the mountains and I’ll get some skiing in. And then next summer, my wife and I are going to ride across northern Europe. I’m extraordinarily fortunate. My wife enjoys riding and seeing the world. We’ve ridden from Paris to Istanbul, across the United States and several other incredible places. An d so those are always good base miles for me. We’ll do that in northern Europe in June and July starting in Dublin, Ireland. We’ll finish in Denmark. There’s a lot of pubs in there and there seem to be a lot of people who want to ride from pub to pub to pub.
I expect what I’ll do is return to the previous plan. Ride for pleasure and then throw in the occasional interval training once or twice a week. Next year Nationals are in Louisville and that’s a nice venue so I’ll go to that, but Worlds next year are in Mol and it’s just not a great venue for World Champs. There’s no real climbing and way too much running for me. I sat down and calculated that I spent 37% of my time off the bike running in the sand. Us old guys just aren’t strong enough to ride that much sand. In training, I could ride it and it would be 20 seconds at 470 watts just to keep the bike rolling. I can’t do that and recover and do it over and over again. So a lot of it was just running in the sand and I really don’t want to go to Belgium just to run in the sand carrying a bicycle.
Anyway, I’ll wait until they bring Worlds back to the United States and I’ll try to win it as an 80 year-old.