A couple of weeks ago, while his onetime teammate Lance Armstrong
was basking in the aftermath of a third straight Tour de France
victory, Steve Larsen was at a health club in his hometown of
Davis, Calif., looking very little like either a celebrity or the
professional cyclist he used to be.
Instead, Larsen--a man who'd measured his life in spokes and gears
since he was 12, who'd forgone college to ride professionally in
Europe but who'd remained one step removed from glory for his
entire career--was furiously swimming laps in an outdoor pool
while, 20 feet away, a squadron of waterlogged senior citizens
swiveled their hips to oldies tunes. Oblivious to the mild
commotion, Larsen churned through the water, his arms cresting
and plunging as Kurt Olson, a swim coach at the club, looked on.
"When Steve first came out here, he was pretty much a novice,"
said Olson, a tall, sun-bleached 31-year-old. "As you can see
from his stroke, he's already a lot more fluid, especially
considering he's only really been training the last five or six
It's amazing how much a guy's life can change in half a year.
Provoked and prodded by two decades of almosts and what-ifs,
31-year-old Steve Larsen, pro cyclist, has remade himself into
Steve Larsen, world-class triathlete--and he couldn't have done so
in more dramatic fashion. On July 29, competing in the first
Ironman triathlon of his life, the Ironman USA in Lake Placid,
N.Y., Larsen completed the 2.4-mile swim a good 10 minutes behind
the leaders. Unfazed, he hopped on his bike and blitzed the
event's 112-mile second leg, blowing by the front-runners as if
they were roadside pylons. By the time he dismounted, Larsen not
only had crushed the course biking record but also had gained a
sizable lead heading into the climactic 26.2-mile run.
Even so, most observers expected him to crack in the marathon.
After all, pro cyclists have done notoriously poorly in Ironmans.
(Last year, two prominent names in the championship race in
Hawaii--Tour de France rider Udo Boelts and Olympic cyclist Steve
Hegg--finished 168th and 720th, respectively.) What's more, Larsen
had never run more than 20 miles in one shot.
August 19, 2001
That turned out to be irrelevant. Larsen streaked to a 2:56:53
finish in the marathon and ended up setting an overall course
record of 8:33:11, eclipsing the old mark by more than four
minutes. "I really thought Steve would blow up on the run," said
second-place finisher and 2000 Olympian Ryan Bolton. Meanwhile,
the rest of Larsen's future competitors had this unappetizing
thought to digest: Not only had this crazy biker somehow won a
major Ironman on his first attempt, but he still had plenty of
gas in his tank at the end as well. "I never had to go out of my
comfort zone in the run," Larsen says matter-of-factly. "I knew I
had another gear if I needed it."
Although he still has at least one major bike race remaining this
season (Larsen has been riding on the U.S. National Off-Road
Biking Association circuit this year in addition to his sporadic
triathlon training), he is diligently logging time in the pool in
preparation for what he calls the "Tour de France of triathlons,"
the Ironman World Championship on Oct. 6 in Kona, Hawaii. While
Larsen won't be the favorite, nobody's ruling him out. "He's got
people shaking in their boots right now," says Bob Babbitt, the
editor-in-chief of Competitor magazine and a six-time Ironman
finisher himself. "This kid is a freak of nature. On the bike
he's been going through these guys like a hot knife through
butter. If he can seize the race in Hawaii by the balls and run
maybe a 2:52, he could win the thing!"
The reason that Steve Larsen's performance in Lake Placid wasn't
a fluke is the same reason that he may well win in Kona: If
there's anything the Northern California native has spent a
lifetime perfecting, it's the art of suffering.
Tall and spindly as a child, Larsen didn't have the knack for
football that his older brother, Mike, had or the hoops skills
that had earned his father, Tom, a basketball scholarship to BYU.
(Growing up in Utah, Tom was a track standout in the mile.) "I
remember one day he came home crying after getting beat up in a
football game," says his mother, Connie, with whom Steve stayed
after his parents divorced when he was in the third grade. "He
wanted so badly to be as good as his brother and his dad."
If he couldn't do it with athletic skills, Steve decided, he
would prove himself by plain outlasting everyone else. When he
was 10 years old, he entered a local 20-mile run called the
Clarksburg Classic. Wearing a beat-up pair of tennis shoes, Steve
padded all the way to the finish line without stopping, winning
his age group (he was the only one in it) and earning himself an
adult-sized Nike windbreaker. "I was so proud," he says. "I wore
that thing around for the next three years even though it hung
down past my knees."
A year later, despite never having done much long-distance
cycling, he entered the Davis Double Century, a taxing 200-mile
race. Again, he somehow finished. "I was nearly asleep on my bike
by the end," Larsen recalls. "I wasn't some extreme athlete as a
kid; I mostly rode BMX bikes. I didn't understand at the time
what 200 miles meant."
At first Larsen was merely intrigued by cycling, but he soon
became "absolutely consumed by the sport," using money from his
four paper routes to fund his passion. Determined to test
himself, Larsen showed up one day for the Davis Bike Club's
daily 40-mile training ride. The group of college-age cyclists,
unenthused by the prospect of a prepubescent tagalong, promptly
left Larsen behind five miles into the ride. Undaunted, he
showed up on his 10-speed the next day...and the day after
that...and the day after that. Soon enough, he was outriding
many of the other members.
Sitting in a Mexican restaurant on a recent weekday, a pair of
sunglasses resting on top of his close-cropped brown hair, Larsen
stared down a mammoth chicken burrito and recounted his ensuing
road-racing experience: junior nationals at age 15, training at
the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs by 16,
racing in France by 18 and then four years as an Armstrong
domestique on the Motorola team in the early '90s. "I had a good
pro career," Larsen says, "but I realized that I wasn't going to
win the Tour de France or anything."
In fact, his greatest strength now might have been his weakness
then. "In biking Steve was never fast enough to make the
breakaways, but he was also too fast for the peloton," says Dr.
Massimo Testa, a coach on those Motorola teams who now works at
the sports medicine clinic at UC Davis. "I think Steve's body is
better designed for the triathlon anyway. He is a diesel. He can
just go and go."
Which is what Larsen did upon returning to the U.S. in 1995 when,
disillusioned with road cycling, he switched to pro mountain
biking. After acclimating to the arduous new style--there are no
teams to draft off, and, as Larsen puts it, "I was always biffing
at first"--he became one of the country's top riders, eventually
winning the 1997 NORBA championship. Even so, he was passed over
for the 2000 Olympic team. "I felt like I was totally robbed,"
says Larsen, who appealed the selection and lost. (USA Cycling
director of athletic performance Sean Petty, who oversaw the
appeal committee, says Larsen's low ranking on the more
competitive World Cup circuit hurt him. "Frankly," says Petty,
"Steve didn't have enough success at the highest level.")
Larsen's emphatic reply came in a pivotal NORBA race on July 28,
2000, a week after his appeal had been denied. After arriving at
the Park City, Utah, event with his head shaved--"I didn't do it
to make a statement," Larsen says unconvincingly--he destroyed the
field, winning by almost five minutes. When he hit the finish
line, he jumped off his bike, hoisted it above his head and, with
a macabre beard of dried blood from a mid-race crash framing his
mouth, let out a cathartic roar. He would go on to win the 2000
NORBA championship, but still fuming over the Olympic slight,
he'd already lost his love for mountain biking.
Last fall Larsen started tinkering with the idea of doing a
triathlon. For advice he called an old friend, six-time Ironman
world champion Dave Scott, who put together a training program
for Larsen. "I saw a steady progression with Steve," says Scott,
47, a fellow Davis native who'd stayed in touch with his trainee
via e-mail from his home in Boulder, Colo. "But what really
amazed me was his running times. I think his leg strength carried
over from the bike--that, or he's just a genetically gifted
Emboldened by Scott's coaching, Larsen assembled a support team
that includes Dr. Testa; Olson; Jeff Kubiak, another swim coach;
and Dr. Jan Ellsbach, a triathlete. While continuing his grueling
NORBA bike training and race schedule, Larsen added three to four
hours of swimming and two to three hours of running a week and
even squeezed in a half-Ironman along the way (finishing
fourth in the prestigious Wildflower Half-Ironman in Lake San
Antonio, Calif., in May). Nonetheless, his victory at Lake Placid
seemed to come out of nowhere, especially to the unsuspecting
With his first victory behind him, Larsen is preparing for Hawaii
by putting in six hours a week of morning pool sessions, followed
by afternoon runs (eight hours a week); evenings are spent on his
bike or in his garage on his Cateye Cyclosimulator stationary
bike (15 hours a week), with a nearby boom box blasting U2 and
Pearl Jam. The rest of his time is devoted to Wheelworks, the
bike shop he and his wife, Carrie, bought in Davis in April, and
to playing with their daughter, Amalia, 5, and son, Massimo, 3.
"It's a busy life," he says, "but I'm loving it right now."
That was evident two weeks ago as Larsen drove back from his swim
session, pumped from his workout. "It's amazing that I could
spend the better part of 20 years on a bike and never quite get
to the top," he said as he navigated the streets of Davis in his
wife's red BMW. "Then, after my first triathlon, suddenly I'm at
the world-class level."
He paused to ponder this development, broke into a smile and
continued: "Now, once I figure out this swimming thing, the rest
of those guys are really in trouble."
"When Steve first came here to swim, he was a novice. He's
already a lot more fluid after training for only six months."
"He's got people shaking in their boots," says Babbitt. "This
kid is a freak of nature."