Chann McRae attempts a quantum leap from pro cycling to long-course triathlon
By Chris Milliman
This story originally appeared in the July, 2003, issue of Inside Triathlon magazine
Chann McRae pulls off his cycling jersey and pauses a minute before putting on his running clothes. There, on McRae’s spare, sinewy arms, shoulders and hips, you can see a veritable oad map of his past. And if you know what you’re looking for you can see the marks of his future.
After 14 years as one of the top bike racers in the U.S., McRae has taken his share of tumbles. Faded scars dot his body, the faint reminders of scrapes with the roads of France, Italy, Spain and most of North America. But what you can’t see any more, and what you’d been able to for the last 14 years, are the tell-tale cyclist’s tan lines on McRae’s arms and legs. Now, his tan has evened out and the lines have faded as he has logged miles of running and thousands of meters of swimming. Chann McRae’s no longer a full-time cyclist, he’s an aspiring triathlete: a rookie at the age of 31.
Tan-wise, “I thought I’d be totally screwed forever,” laughs McRae when I point out his even glow, “but the sun gods brought the bronze back.”
Chann McRae isn’t the first pro cyclist to begin losing his tan lines recently. In fact, premier cyclists have been transferring their skills to the triple-discipline forum as long as the sport of triathlon has been around: three-time Olympic cyclist John Howard won Ironman Hawaii in 1981, and in 2000 Euro pro Udo Bölts raced Hawaii as an age grouper, splitting 4:41:59 on the bike and finishing in 10:02:41, 39th in the 30-34 age group. McRae is joining Steve Larsen, the 2001 Ironman Lake Placid champion, as the second high-profile pro bike racer to join the pro triathlete ranks in recent years. There have even been rumors that Lance Armstrong himself, after he wraps up his fifth or sixth Tour de France victory, might return to the tri-ranks. It’s clear that cyclists are muscling into the small circle of elite long-distance triathletes. And in the process, they might just shake up the sport.
A different kind of hunger
Together with his training buddy Lance Armstrong, McRae lit up the junior triathlon circuit in Texas in the late 1980s. Armstrong convinced McRae to try his first triathlon in 1985, when both were teenagers in Plano. Only 14, McRae had a 16-year-old friend register for him and raced under the friend’s name. McRae finished tenth, but more importantly, he discovered that he loved racing triathlon.
“[Lance and I] were on the Plano Swimmers together, and I was also doing cross-country and track at Plano High School,” says McRae. “It was just natural; there was no reason not to do [triathlon]. From then on, every summer I was doing it.”
But in 1989 cycling came calling when the U.S. junior national team recruited both McRae and Armstrong to race at the junior world championships. From then until last year, neither has looked back.
After working his way up through the pro ranks in the U.S., McRae raced in Europe for the powerful Italian Mapei-Quick Step squad, cycling’s version of the New York Yankees. Based in Italy, McRae lived and trained at the squad’s multi-million dollar facility, rode the biggest races and reaped the rewards – a lucrative contract and the acclaim a pro cyclist receives in Europe. But things started to go sour for McRae when he signed with the American Mercury-Viatel team for 2001. The team ran into money problems early in the season; salaries went unpaid and Mercury riders lost their spots in the major European races. McRae managed to hook up with Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service Team for the late-season Tour of Spain, but he had essentially lost an entire year in a sport in which many athletes’ careers are over by age 30.
That off-season, McRae signed a new contract with Postal. But the disappointments of 2001 still stung, and the seeds of a return to triathlon began to grow.
“At that time I was totally focused on cycling, it didn’t really hit me until February. Someone told me Steve Larsen got ninth in the Ironman [Hawaii, in 2001] and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’ Then I figured, ‘I’m turning 31, and Ironman is such an endurance sport. Your body changes and you grow and get a lot more endurance, but you lose some speed and some jump.’ So I figured I’m on top of my game right now endurance-wise and [Ironman’s] such a great race that if I can get my running back I could be a factor.“
With little preparation, McRae followed the long road-cycling season with his first Ironman Hawaii last year after the World Triathlon Corporation invited him to participate in Kona. Although he recorded the sixth-fastest bike leg, a 4:40:59, he suffered badly on the run and finished over an hour behind winner Tim DeBoom in 9:34:48. But getting his butt kicked all over the lava fields wasn’t enough to dampen McRae’s newfound enthusiasm for the world’s greatest endurance challenge. In the long run it might even have helped him.
“The problem with Ironman is I didn’t get to prepare for it right and I started really hard, really fast and I got injured,” say McRae. “Two weeks before Ironman I couldn’t even run and that totally messed me up. It takes a ton of preparation.”
Now, McRae’s inner drive has shifted from two wheels to three sports.
“I’ve been racing my bike since 1989, and whatever gives me the internal drive to go for the Ironman, I wake up every morning thinking about putting it together for triathlon. I had started not thinking that way in cycling any more. To be successful you have to be super hungry. I’m 100-percent hungry and motivated for triathlon, and in cycling I don’t know if I can say the same.”
The Larsen effect
Steve Larsen knows just how McRae feels. To the cycling world, it seemed as though Larsen fell off the face of the planet midway through 2001. One minute he was there – pitching Mongoose bikes on TV, endorsing his own line of Maxxis mountain bike tires and wearing the mountain bike national champion’s stars-and-stripes jersey – and the next he was gone. But if Larsen left cycling as abruptly as a former Baath party official exiting Baghdad, he hit triathlon like an uncharted meteor. Larsen’s win at the 2001 Ironman USA Lake Placid, and his subsequent top-10 in Hawaii, demonstrated not only that cyclists can make excellent triathletes, but that they can also change the character of a race from the saddle.
Larsen raced on the road in Europe in the mid-‘90s before finding his niche on the professional mountain bike circuit. But after an untimely flat in a qualifying race derailed his bid for the 2000 Olympic team, his enthusiasm for the sport began to wane. Larsen went on to win the national mountain bike series in 2000, but by the following year he was looking for new challenges.
“I still wanted to compete but I wasn’t enjoying myself racing mountain bikes,” recalls Larsen. “Originally I was just going to do Xterras, which made sense. I didn’t have any ulterior motive like I could make a better living, I was just intrigued by the challenge and was at a point in my career where I wanted to be able to compete and not have it be a burden. It turned into a new career.
“I’d always been intrigued by the Ironman, but I had no idea that first year that I’d be racing in Hawaii in October of 2001,” admits Larsen. “It just sort of happened. I didn’t decide to do Lake Placid, which I ultimately won, until two weeks before the race. I’d only been running about six miles a week, and yet that was the fastest [marathon] I’ve ever run. It’s not textbook preparation, but it worked for me.”
Larsen had a thing or two still to learn about being a pro triathlete, and he started learning them the hard way in 2002, his sophomore campaign on the tri circuit. Injuries wrecked what many expected would be Larsen’s coming-out year as a serious Ironman Hawaii contender. As he tried to train more like a triathlete and less like a cyclist, all three disciplines suffered, and he ended up spectating in Kona.
“The injuries were a result of trying to figure out how to be a good triathlete,” admits the 32-year-old Larsen. “I was super-fit and obviously the bike leg was my strongest point, but the fastest I ever ran was in that first year. I was 10 pounds lighter than I am now, the swimming and lifting has bulked me up a bit, and that’s actually made me a slower runner and hurt my bike a little bit too.”
So McRae and Larsen are both great cyclists, and they both face the same challenge: How do they translate their pedal-speed into the balance needed to be great triathletes?
According to tri legend Mark Allen, who’s coaching McRae this year, relying solely on bike speed would be costly.
“The obvious strength is their bike,” says Allen. “They can take advantage of that. But as everybody has seen with Steve Larsen, you’re not going to win Ironman because you have a great bike ride. You can put a ton of time on the bike, but it’s just a closed equation: The harder you go in one part of that race, the more you’re going to suffer in another part.
“These guys are very tough mentally, and that’s something that you don’t gain in a year. They already come into it with a pretty strong mental capacity to race. That’s something that takes years to develop and so that’s a huge advantage. They just know how to deal with pain and long days of training and all the stuff that a lot of guys may never learn.”
For McRae, shifting to triathlon demands a much more structured training program.
“I used to be able to roll out for a ride at like 11 a.m. I can’t do that now because I have to swim or run early in the morning and then ride in the afternoon. When you have to do two or three workouts a day, you need to make time for recovery and everything else.” Everything else includes a wife, Jennifer, and a two-year-old daughter, Henna.
In addition, McRae still has a pro cycling career to consider. With an eye on triathlon, but knowing he still needs to race bikes to make a living, McRae signed a cycling contract for 2003 with the Division III Schroeder Iron Team, a small Southern California-based pro squad with more potential than results. The change from racing on one of the world’s top squads to a smaller budget, domestic team was part of his larger shift in focus, says McRae.
“Obviously with Postal there’s no way [triathlon] would have worked out, it’s a much heavier European-based schedule,” says McRae of his departure from the top squad in the world. “Some cyclists don’t see the big picture the way I see it.”But the Schroeder Iron schedule has its own challenges. As the defending USPRO Champion, McRae is the highest profile member of the team, expected to race at all the major domestic events including a half-dozen multi-day stage races. Not ideal conditions for becoming a better runner and swimmer.
“I maintain my run and I do some stretch-cord stuff to maintain my swimming,” says McRae of his cycling/triathlon training regimen. “The other guys on the team think I’m a complete idiot.”
Larsen will also be back on the roads this year. A year of suffering as an oft-injured triathlete has convinced him that his original methods were best – a belief that flies directly in the face of Mark Allen’s advice to cyclists-turned-triathletes. For 2003 Larsen signed on to race with the upstart Webcor cycling squad, a small, Northern Californian pro road team.
“This year I’m trying to get back to what worked the first year,” says Larsen. “Last year basically I trained as a triathlete and I just got slower and got injured. This year I’m trying to train like a cyclist who does triathlons. Everybody has a different formula. I’ve been riding a bike since I was 13. This year I’m trying to get healthy and get back to what I know, which is building my fitness on the bike. That’s what my body’s used to and what it responds to.”
Turning up the volume
Are these two the leading edge of a coming trend? Will we see more pro cyclists give up road rash for the multisport life?
Unlikely, say McRae and Larsen. The commitment to three disciplines requires an onerous training program, one that will tend to keep the number of cyclists switching to triathlon low. While both Larsen and McRae were used to spending hours on end in the saddle, they have found the transition to two or three training sessions per day psychologically daunting.
“I did a lot of volume as a road cyclist, obviously, and when I was most successful as a mountain biker,” says Larsen. “I found a formula that worked pretty well in which I wasn’t training that many hours a week but the quality was very high. In triathlon, especially Ironman triathlon, the volume becomes the predominant factor in your training, sometimes to the detriment of your training. Just trying to fit in a limited amount of running, cycling and swimming can easily take up 30 hours a week. So late in my career it is a big adjustment to be training how I was when I was 20.”
McRae agrees. “I’m still new to the sport, and if I jump into it too fast and my mileage goes way up in the running and my biking goes down, it’ll be too much of change on my body. I won’t be able to produce the results I want to. By mixing it up, throwing in stage races and hard one-day races and crits, I’ll stay sharp. I won’t get stale and burned out. I have the enthusiasm of a neo-pro, but you have to be careful with that because when you’re training three or four times a day it’s so easy to burn yourself out.”
The risk of burnout, says Allen, is exactly why the training program he writes for a pro cyclist like McRae is not much different from one he’d set up for any other triathlete. “You just basically give him a well-rounded program. You can only adapt so quickly. Maybe he needs extra running, and he’s focusing on the running, but at the same time you can’t give him double miles on running to speed up the process. It just doesn’t happen that way.”
While Larsen qualified early for Hawaii with his sixth-place at Ironman New Zealand – setting a course record on the bike leg – McRae will try to qualify at Lake Placid in July. According to cycling coach Rick Crawford, who has worked with McRae since he was a teenager, with the correct preparation and enough time he can be one of the world’s top triathletes.
“Chann can win, but he needs to figure it out,” says Crawford. “He’s the kind of guy who might need to race Ironman a few times to get a handle on it. But once he does he’ll definitely be a force.”
“For sure [Chann’s] got the training background to be able to do it,” agrees Allen.
“Now it’s just going to be a matter of taking a bit of time and adapting his body and fine tuning what he already has. But he has the right attitude. Steve’s already had pretty good success, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near his potential if he does the right training.”
The cycling world will watch McRae and Larsen closely in 2003. Their success on the triathlon circuit, especially at Ironman, could well pique the interest of other wheelmen looking for a fresh start. It may also usher in an era in which the bike leg becomes the defining segment of an Ironman. Times in the men’s races have slowed since the epic Scott-Allen duels of the late 1980s: Tim DeBoom’s winning time last year was more than 25 minutes off Belgian Luc Van Lierde’s 8:04:08 course record, from 1996. Some have attributed that decline to complacency on the bike. A premier runner like DeBoom can afford to essentially lurk on the bike leg, conserving energy for his dominant marathon. If world-class cyclists like McRae, Larsen and 2002 Ironman Wisconsin champ Chris Lieto can add competent swims and sub-three-hour marathons to their repertoires, they may transform the sport.
Most previous attempts to break Ironman open with balls-out bike legs have come undone somewhere during the run – see Aussie Chris McCormack’s staggering DNF in 2002. But many triathletes could come unglued if they are forced to pedal with riders like McRae and Larsen.
“A lot of it comes down to psychological strength,” says Crawford, himself a former pro triathlete. “Tim DeBoom always sticks to his race plan, and that takes a lot of confidence, but that’s why he wins. Whatever your strengths or weaknesses, you have to stick to your game plan. But the best man always wins, pretty much.”
This year, we’ll start to see if the best man is one of the guys with the funny, but fading, tan lines.
A writer and photographer based in Lyme, New Hampshire, Chris Milliman has been a bike racer for 14 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.