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It’s About the Bike:
Intrepid Steve Larsen Rides His Talent Into Triathlon’s Promised Land

By Jill Redding

Germany’s Jurgen Zack had never even heard of Steve Larsen at the Wildflower Half Ironman triathlon in May 2001. But as Zack, one of the top cyclists in the sport of triathlon, was cranking along on the 56-mile course for which he owned the race record, he was soon to meet his acquaintance, albeit briefly, as Larsen zipped by in a blur.

“He looked like a roadie, and I thought that’s what he was, out on a ride, trying to challenge the triathletes for a few miles,” Zack later said. “I couldn’t believe anybody riding like that could actually be in the race.”

Larsen was indeed in the race, and Zack soon discovered that his bike course record of 2:17 had been crushed by almost three minutes. Though Larsen would fade to fourth on the run, triathlon hasn’t been the same since the former professional road cyclist and NORBA mountain bike champion stormed onto the scene.
A competitive cyclist since age 14, Larsen was 29, bored with mountain biking and frustrated by being left off the Olympic team when he was talked into doing an Xterra off-road triathlon in 2000 by series director Dave Nicholas.

At a race in Half Moon Bay, California, Larsen survived the 1.5k swim, caught and put three minutes on mountain bike phenom and two-time Xterra world champ Ned Overend on the 30k ride, and then held on during the 10k trail run for an impressive 44-second victory.

“He wasn’t nearly as bad on the swim as we thought, and he and Ned had a classic battle,” recalls Nicholas. “All the others seemed to be riding in slow motion compared to Ned and Steve.”
But those in triathlon didn’t fully stand up and take notice until Larsen won the 2001 Ironman USA in Lake Placid, New York. You’re not supposed to win your first Ironman — but nobody told that to Larsen.

No Excuses
Larsen, the only American to compete in the world championship events in six different disciplines (road, mountain bike, track, cyclocross, Ironman and Xterra), has never lacked for confidence, which has helped propel him to the forefront of triathlon in a shockingly short time.

That self-assurance has, at times, ruffled the feathers of some in the sport, especially Ironman athletes who have been paying their dues for years. But some see it as a blessing rather than a curse.
“I don’t think he’s cocky,” said six-time Hawaii Ironman champion Dave Scott, an early mentor for Larsen. “He’s just confident in his bike and states what he’s going to do. I like the way he races — he races to win, and you don’t always see that in guys these days.”

To those around him, Larsen is down to earth and very approachable. He and his wife, Carrie, a former NCAA champion volleyball player at Stanford, own and operate Steve Larsen’s Wheelworks in Davis, California, and reach out to age group and recreational athletes through weekly group workouts with their Mad Cows Racing Team.

Larsen is fully aware that outsiders find him a bit brash, but he just isn’t wasting much time worrying about it.

“People’s impressions of me have been off the mark for most of my career,” Larsen says matter-of-factly. “I can’t really control how they talk amongst each other. It’s much more important to me how my sponsors feel about me, that they appreciate my effort and impact on the sport. My tendency is not to make excuses or apologize for anything.”

Some of the angst among his peers probably stems from his relationship with Pearl Izumi. In a time when a lot of athletes are scrapping for sponsorship, Larsen has one of the best deals out there. And though he’s only been in triathlon full-time for less than three years, the company named its triathlon racing shoe, the SLR Road, after him.

Larsen has always been willing to go the extra mile with appearances, product development input and other tasks for his supporters, something he learned during his days as a road cyclist and mountain biker.

“That’s the culmination of hard work over the last two decades, not just my success in the last couple of years in triathlon,” Larsen insists. “Maybe there are guys who feel slighted, guys who have won a lot more races than I have. But a lot of pro athletes don’t realize what else you have to bring to the table.”

It’s About the Bike
Thus far, Larsen’s impact in triathlon has been largely based on his bike performance. He’s shattered course records in almost every triathlon he’s competed in — including Ironman New Zealand and Xterra Keystone this year — drawing from his years as a roadie on the Motorola team in the late 1980s.

A former cycling teammate and rival of Lance Armstrong, Larsen played a key role in some of Armstrong’s wins in the early 1990s. But he never achieved the same level of success on the roads because he wasn’t able to accelerate on breakaways.

“Greg LeMond said (Larsen) was the next Greg LeMond,” says former Motorola team doctor Massimo Testa, who has worked with Larsen on the bike for more than 10 years. “He’s a complete cyclist, but his strengths were mostly time-trialing and climbing. We knew he was not a sprinter. He can sustain a high level of power for a long time.”

While Larsen never became the next LeMond and switched his focus to mountain biking in 1995, he always held on to something LeMond gave him as a young teenager. At 14, Larsen attended a weeklong cycling camp led by Lemond, who stressed bike position as the starting point for successful racing.

Eighteen years later, Larsen’s upright road cycling position hasn’t changed much, even though it’s a bit uncanny compared to many of his road tri peers.

“Of course, I’m not as flexible as I was when I was 14, but it’s generally the same,” he says. “In the Tour de France there are 180 guys who all pretty much look the same on the bike. It’s a proven, more efficient way to sit on your bike. But at the same time, there are some people who’ve had great success in totally bizarre positions on their bike.”

Full Circle
Despite his cycling strength, he strayed away from that focus last year to try to find more of a balance between the three sports. The result was two separate injuries, a stress fracture in his right leg and a knee injury that kept him out of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

So for 2003, Larsen decided to return to what worked for him initially: building up a huge base of cycling over the winter months, racing Ironman New Zealand in March to get a necessary qualifying spot for Hawaii, and then competing in several domestic road and stage cycling races to let his running injuries heal before the triathlon racing season began.

He also returned to his triathlon “roots,” finishing second in the Xterra race in Big Bear, California, and winning in Keystone, Colorado.

Larsen has worked diligently on his swim and relies mostly on a natural talent for running despite minimal mileage in that category — his longest training week before the 2001 Ironman USA was 20 miles.

“His steepest learning curve was in swimming,” said Garth Rosengren, an age-group triathlete in Davis, California, who trains with Larsen’s Mad Cows Racing Team. “He started coming to the masters workouts and took his lumps. He has improved fairly dramatically.”

Rosengren says training with Larsen has been an eye-opener for athletes in the group. Every Sunday, the Mad Cows get together for a five- to six-hour ride with about 7,000 feet of climbing. What starts as a group of up to 20 people eventually whittles down to about four riders tough enough to hang on Steve’s wheel. “The running joke among us is that we train during the week just to get ready for the Sunday ride,” Rosengren says.

Larsen’s business-like approach to training has also made an impact on the Mad Cows.

“He has a real insistence on punctuality,” Rosengren says. “He treats every session like it’s a serious endeavor, and if you’re two minutes late for the ride, you’ll be time-trialing to catch up with the group. For a lot of us, getting out on the weekends is a hobby, but when you train with a pro you realize they’re doing this to put food on the table. It’s the attitude you’ve got to take if you’re going to train and race at a competitive level.”

Though Larsen has shared his knowledge and experience with the Mad Cows, his own experience has been largely trial and error, with some guidance from “The Man” himself, fellow Davis native Dave Scott.

“Dave Scott is certainly a role model of mine,” he says. “He was a huge presence in Davis, and I always admired what he’d done. I always watched the Ironman because he was a focal point of that race. When I made the switch to triathlon he was the first guy I called.”

Scott still acts as a sounding board occasionally, but Larsen is largely self-coached. Aside from the Mad Cows, he mostly trains alone in Davis. But he says he’s looking forward to training with other cyclists in Bend, Oregon, where he is moving his family this fall.

The Big Kahuna
Past victories, bike course records and Xterra success aside, there is one race that really matters to Larsen — Ironman Triathlon World Champ-ionship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

In October 2001, Larsen was the talk of Kona, and much of the pre-race banter focused on his potential impact on the race. Someone predicted Larsen could ride 4:15 for the 112-mile bike, which would have annihilated German Thomas Hellriegel’s bike course record of 4:24:50 set in 1996. But most thought he’d be well behind the leaders in the 2.4-mile ocean swim — maybe 10 minutes.

“Ten minutes is 10 minutes, and we are not waiting for him,” Hellriegel said during the raucous but good-natured press conference.

On race day, Larsen swallowed copious amounts of salt water on the swim, coming out of the water 8:45 behind eventual winner DeBoom. He turned in another strong ride, but it wasn’t until mile 95 of the bike that he caught the leaders.

“He passed me like a rocket,” said Germany’s Normann Stadler, who eventually finished fourth.

While Larsen completed the 112-mile ride 12 minutes faster than anyone else — in 4:33:32 — he learned one of the cardinal rules of Kona: Expect the unexpected. The Big Island’s unforgiving lava landscape (“When you land at the airport, you feel like you’re landing on the moon,” Scott once said), unbearable heat and humidity, and mumuku winds have brought some of the sport’s best literally to their knees. And 2001 would prove to be one of the windiest days in race history, with age-groupers blown sideways on their bikes right off the edge of legendary Queen K Highway.

His lead was short-lived during the marathon. He was caught at mile 10 and had to settle for a 3:19 marathon and ninth place.
“I was so new, and I really didn’t know what it took,” says Larsen, who immediately plunged into Kailua Bay fully dressed in his racing gear after shuffling across the finish line. “As frustrating as it was to just watch last year, it was also good for me because I was able to see the best athletes in the world going through bad patches and persevering. The main thing I learned is that it’s definitely a race I can win.”

Eyes on the Prize(s)
Larsen will enter the 25th anniversary of the race on October 18 much better prepared than in 2001. He’s a better swimmer than two years ago, and has worked on basic skills like sighting, which is necessary to swim the shortest line on the course. “I’m less inclined to have my mouth wide open and swallow all that water like I did the first time,” he says.

Just eight days after Ironman, Larsen will venture to Maui for another big race — the Xterra World Championship in Wailea. If it weren’t for Ironman, Larsen would be one of the favorites to dethrone two-time defending champion Conrad Stoltz. And although Larsen readily credits Nicholas and the Xterra series for giving him his start in triathlon, Maui will be playing second fiddle to Kona for Larsen this year. “Hopefully I’ll have enough left in the tank to go to Maui and compete well,” he says.

Whatever happens, Larsen is proud for even trying, for taking a chance, for stepping outside of his comfort zone.

“That’s what makes it fun,” he says. “That’s what brings success. A lot of age groupers and pros alike are so narrow-minded or focused on just one discipline. I’ve tried to do all of them. When I do Xterras it makes me a better Ironman athlete. When I do Ironman it makes me a better road cyclist. You never know where it’s going to lead you. I feel lucky to have discovered triathlon. You never know what you might be best at.” n

Jill Redding is the former managing editor of Inside Triathlon and has edited several books about triathlon.

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