Beyond Limits: A new VeloNews Voices podcast with Allen Lim, PhD
Editor’s note: Beyond Limits is a new VeloNews Voices project featuring Allen Lim, PhD, that includes videos, podcasts, photos and written stories. Beyond Limits is about the exploration of human performance and human possibility. This project is made possible by sponsorship from Skratch Labs and Saris.
From his academic work on power meters beginning in 1997 until today, Allen Lim, PhD, has been obsessed with improving a cyclist’s performance, on and off the bike. The founder of Skratch Labs has coached some of the world’s best cyclists, including most all the American grand tour contenders of the past 15 years.
In Beyond Limits, Lim brings you inside the sport at the highest levels, showing its secrets, its humanity and its significance for everyday riders as we seek to improve.
Here in Episode 1, Lim and co-host Brian Co of VeloWorthy bring you Lim’s genesis story, from racing the likes of Jonathan Vaughters and George Hincapie as a junior to coaching Floyd Landis and George W. Bush to being shunned from the sport and ultimately coming back on his own terms. Come along for the ride.
Here are some excerpts from the podcast with a bit of context where needed.
It’s taken me a long time to tell myself my own story. It’s been hard. I’ve been working in pro cycling for, holy moly, more than 20 years. Most of it really, really good. A lot of it, really dark. But it’s been a crazy ride.
All I have ever wanted to do is build a life around cycling. But we are immigrants… I was an okay bike racer as a junior, and I still had the pressure to go to college and do something more academic.
As a junior my teammates included my brother, Tony Cruz, Freddie Rodriguez. At nationals I raced against people like Jonathan Vaughters and George Hincapie, and I met other athletes like Dede Demet Barry. It was really those childhood friendships that laid the foundation for the career I have today.
At Interbike I met three people who had something called PowerTap. It was not even a working power meter. As we began talking, we realized that I had some physiology background that could help them, and they had the engineering background that could help me. [Lim went on to do his PhD on power meters, with funding first from Celestial Seasonings – as he directed the Celestial Seasonings women’s pro cycling team – and later from Saris, the company that would purchase PowerTap.]
After completing my PhD, I was so burnt out, and I moved back in with my mom. I was doing nothing, just hitting golf balls all day. During this time, I got a call from Floyd Landis as PowerTap was now sponsoring him.
Floyd was keeping a secret journal of his training compared to Lance [Armstrong]’s training over the years. He said to me, “your first job is to take all this data and figure it out.”
I found all these ProTour riders to be totally intimidating. I didn’t think I was capable of being any service to these guys despite my background. But I learned two things. One, I was smarter than I thought I was. School worked. What you take to be common knowledge is not common knowledge. Two, what I realized is that Floyd and these other athletes are just human beings, who happen to be extraordinary athletes.
[The 2005 Tour de France] for me was mired in all that people thought was wrong with cycling but couldn’t say to themselves. I walked into the very belly of the beast with respect to doping, and coercion and fear and isolation and loneliness. It was probably the darkest time of my life. And I think it was really a dark time for Floyd.
He was also really frank with me about the drugs that were being used and what was going on in that world, and effectively gave me the choice to look the other way. And so I did. Because Floyd had become my friend. And because I was too scared to speak out. I was super impressionable at that time. And I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
For me today, I realize that the omertà – if you don’t have a good sense of who you are, it is so easy to get coerced and manipulated into that. And I had. I was well aware of the risks Floyd was taking. But so long as I didn’t have anything to do with it, physically, so long as I wasn’t injecting him with a drug, then that was okay. Later I realized that I was really complicit to it all by withholding. The whole sport was withholding. You could say that I was really part of the problem. In hindsight for me that was really sad.
So when people would congratulate me about the Tour, talk about imposter syndrome. Talk about feeling like a fraud. So I would tell them that the Tour was 99/1. That it was 99% bullshit, 1% pure magic. Because despite this hell that I was going through, this both personal and moral vexation about what was right and what was wrong, there was still this magic about begin about to see the Tour de France for the first time. Seeing the peloton snake up the Alps.
I knew the sport was still worth being part of. I just needed to figure out how.
“IXIXI” – Taylor Phinney came up with it. That became kind of my mantra as I coached other riders. When he crashed, and broke his leg, and didn’t know if he was going to come back, I texted him “IXIXI.” He texted me back that if he ever rode a bike again that we would get that tatted to our skin. A lot of us have gotten this tattoo since then. It’s a reminder that there is a lot of suck, and that you can overcome it.
I ended up talking to Jonathan Vaughters about all the BS that I was experiencing and seeing. And he was the first person to say to me, “hey Al, let’s fix this.” In some ways I owe my career to JV because JV was the first person to not say, “hey, just keep your mouth shut.” He was the first one to say, “let’s figure this out. Let’s fix this, because it is crap. It is bullshit.”
He gave me a job, and sent me off to explore ways that we could create new anti-doping systems. We ended up winning a grant from the World Anti-Doping Agency and started working with the UCLA anti-doping laboratory. Don Catlin and his son, on what now is the Biological Passport.
The idea was to take a new generation of American cyclists. This was the TIAA-CREF cycling team with riders like Ian MacGregor, Brad Huff, Mike Friedman, and we would put them through a whole medley of monthly tests looking at biological markers that might be indicative of drug use. And it’s a program that is now the first standard of the clean sport movement.
This was the fall of 2005. [Vaughters] saved me. He pulled me out of a real tough situation. But I was still friends with Floyd. And I still wanted the best for him. And I still believed that it all could be done clean. That’s the irony of the situation. When I was first exposed to doping in the very early part of my career, what I realized was not, “wow, this stuff makes you fly!” What I realized was, “wow, this could really hurt you, if not potentially kill you.” I realized that it was built on a foundation of power and coercion. And that many of these young athletes didn’t have a say about how they could best take care of their bodies. And if they did have a say, it might be naive to say, but I developed a belief system that they could do better. And ultimately I think if you are going to perform at any level you have to have a belief system, even if it’s just on faith.
In some ways I could have just been hired by Lance to be a beard. I was very cognizant of that. The question I asked Lance was, “why do you want to do this?” And his answer surprised me: “I need something to tell my kids.” At that moment, once again, I realized that he was just another guy. Whether it is the president or the guy capable of winning the Tour de France, they are just human beings, right? I had this epiphany, or maybe this false story in my head, that if I could help him ride his last Tour clean, then I could help the entire peloton ride clean. Because he was the lynchpin. He was the influencer. If everyone was willing to blame doping on Lance Armstrong, then maybe everyone could blame clean sport on Lance Armstrong. That’s a deep friggin’ irony. But I understood on the inside that that was the only way it was going to work. The only way it was going to work was if the best athletes said enough is enough. We all want a level playing field; let’s all put down our needles.
In 2010 when I starting working for Lance, the federal investigation [into doping on U.S. Postal] started. Floyd blew the whistle. Literally when I came home from the Tour de France, waiting for me in Boulder, Colorado, are a cadre of federal investigators. At that point, when I got subpoenaed into that federal investigation, the gig was up. The team benched me. Nobody in pro cycling wanted to work with me. I couldn’t find a job. My old professors at the University of Colorado Boulder were fuming at me. Everyone was calling me out as a liar and as an imposter. And, man, talk about doors slamming in your face hard. My nose was bloody.
When no one else will hire you, then you might as well try to hire yourself. Realizing that I didn’t have to be dependent on pro cycling, I had such a sense of freedom. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t censored. I had my own voice. I knew that my own greed had gotten me into trouble, and was the reason for the bullshit that I was in. So that I made the decision that if I worked in pro cycling again or if I worked with an athlete, I would just do it for free. I would no longer make cycling about money. I would no longer take money to coach an athlete.
We ran a training camp for Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie out of Boulder, Colorado. That was unprecedented. To have guys fly back from Europe to America to train for the Tour de France, and then fly back. And then that led into an Olympic training camp for Taylor Phinney. And then out of the woodwork athletes started showing up, like Tim Johnson, Evelyn Stevens, Peter Stetina, Alex Howes, Craig Lewis. And it was the most fun because all of sudden we tore down the borders between teams and sponsorship. If you were just someone who needed support and a follow car for the day, show up at Skratch at 9am and we’ll be on the road at 10.
I have this fierce sense of independence now that I am super sensitive to. But I am somewhat back in the swing of things. This last year I began coaching Tejay Van Garderen and Taylor Phinney in an official capacity.
This idea of the American dream I think is real. I think that we have the ability to reinvent ourselves, to face really dark challenges and come out the other side. Come out better. For me this is ultimately why I agreed to do this show, and bring Beyond Limits to the cycling community. I’m at a point where I feel like I need to share. This idea of becoming better is still something that pulls me. Better is not about perfection. Better is about progress. So, for me, that is talking about our own limitations, our fears, the challenges, whatever it might be.