In the five months since 1984 Olympic road champion Alexi Grewal announced he was making a comeback to racing at age 50, he has been hard at work. “There’s all the things you’ve got to do if you’re a privateer bike rider,” Grewal told VeloNews ahead of his comeback race this week. “I’ve been busy. Good busy.”
For Grewal, who hasn’t raced for almost two decades and whose only “cycling” equipment comprised a mountain bike, flat pedals, heavy boots and a construction worker’s hard hat, his “busy” included putting together all the modern paraphernalia that goes with bike racing today.
He has received great support from his community in Loveland, Colorado, including a dentist who’s been fixing his teeth, and from several benefactors in the bike industry. So when he lines up for this Thursday’s opening stage of the Callville Bay Classic in Nevada, he’ll be astride a carbon-fiber Leopard road bike, wearing Pearl Izumi and Curve clothing, and D2 custom shoes.
Besides putting together his equipment and getting entered into races, Grewal has been riding, riding, riding on an old Trek 2100, sometimes with a trailer for his timber framing tools in tow, through the cold, Rocky Mountain winter.
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He went to California in late December to get in some group rides in warmer weather and even did a training race to get the feel for pack riding again.
“It was an hour-long race, a four-corner 2km crit,” he said. “I went right to the front like you’re supposed to. I didn’t have the punch to follow the real critical moves but it was the first real race that I’d done, and I’d just come out of the (Colorado) deep freeze; I think I’d had (only) 10 hours on the bike that week outside.
“I was riding my training bike that probably weighs 27 pounds … or something like that … with 36-spoke wheels, Maillard freewheel … but it was pretty clear that I could follow the pace, stay in a 1-2 field no problem. And that’s been thousands of mile ago. I’m a lot better now.
“I’m just laying base right now, but every now and then you pick someone up on the road for a few minutes and I punch it. The other day, I guy passed me on a TT bike, going fast. I’d been out for 180 kilometers already that day and had about 20K to go. And I’d done 200K the day before. And I punched it and went right by him … and that’s on my training bike.”
This past weekend, Grewal finally put together his racing bike from California builder Leopard with Hermes-Sport wheels and Shimano parts.”
. “It’s like 16 pounds,” he said. “These new bikes are so light. I don’t know what it’s gonna be like to ride.”
He found out on Sunday when he decided at the last minute to do the 100-mile CSU Oval group ride in Fort Collins — and had the first crash of his comeback. His bike was more damaged than his body, but Grewal said he is thrilled to be getting back in the peloton.
“I’ll get a better view of where I’m at in Calleville,” he said. “The (first) race is 47 miles — I can ride 47 miles before I wake up. Typically, now the weather’s turned a little bit better, I’m rolling the miles in. I do five hours on my easy days.”
So how does he feel to be getting back into racing, and perhaps beating the pros during the three years that he’s mapped out for his comeback project, knowing he’s twice the age of most of the competition?
“If this I what it’s like to be 50, yeah, as far as my physical capabilities are concerned, I feel pretty good,” he said. “It’s encouraging, and I’m just building my base, doing it incrementally, not pushing it. I am doing a lot of volume, a lot of kilometers.”
After his comeback race this week at Callville, which features two road races, a hill climb and a criterium, Grewal has his 2011 season partially mapped out. He’s already been accepted into California’s Redlands Classic and New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila, and he’s planning on competing at The Iron Horse Classic in Durango, Colorado, the Mount Evans Hill Climb, and the Cascade Classic and Mount Hood stage races later in the summer.
At the end of the interview, asked if he had any recent photos, Grewal said he had two taken last week. In the first, on his training bike, he still has the whiskers he grew through the winter; the second shows a clean-shaven ex-Olympic champ ready to race.
“When I had my inch-long beard, and it’s all gray, I looked 60, but when I shaved it off I look 30,” he observed.
This weekend in Nevada, the fearless 50-year-old Coloradan will discover if his long, lean legs are fit enough for him to stay with all the 20- and 30-somethings. Or whether this comeback is going to be even tougher than he expected.
Watch for more about Grewal’s comeback in the May issue of VeloNews magazine.