Friday, June 22, 2007

A chat with Chris Lieto at Mt. Hood Cycling Classic

Neal Rogers, Senior Writer, VeloNews

A look at the top of the results from last year's Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah revealed a name familiar to endurance athletes, but perhaps not to cyclists. Riding for the Bay Area-based California Giant Strawberries amateur squad, professional triathlete Chris Lieto made it into the breakaway on the final stage and finished fourth on the climb into Snowbird Resort, just nine seconds behind Navigators Insurance star Phil Zajicek. Lieto, 35, finished the race 11th overall, 5:32 behind overall winner Scott Moninger. Eight weeks later, Lieto went on to place ninth at October's Hawaii Ironman, the top American finisher. More recently Lieto was at it again at the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic, held in early June in Hood River, Oregon, where he twice tried to bridge across from the field to breakaways. Though his attempts were unsuccessful, Lieto put in a strong performance, finishing fifth on the pivotal 18.5-mile time trial, ahead of two-time national time-trial champion Chris Baldwin (Toyota-United). Lieto then placed 14th on stage 5, a grueling 90-mile day with nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain, to finish 7th overall, 3:08 behind overall winner Nathan O'Neill. We caught up with Lieto after the final stage at Mt. Hood, a criterium, to ask him about moonlighting as a bike racer

Neal Rogers: How long have you been racing with California Giant Strawberries-Specialized?

Chris Lieto: I started riding with them in 2005. I did the Cascade Cycling Classic. I thought I was going to go solo, but they needed a rider so I joined them. Last year they asked me if I wanted to ride with them again, so I did Cascade and the Tour of Utah. I did all right that last day; I ended up being in the break. I'm just doing it for training, and to break up the monotony of Ironman training, and going by yourself all the time. Coming out to Hood River, riding with some people and getting in a solid week of training was good.

NR: So your connection to the team was from living in the Bay Area?

CL: Yeah, I know some of the guys from my hometown in Danville, in the East Bay.

NR: This interview isn't holding you up, is it? You're not about to go for a run are you?

CL: No, no, I only did that a couple of times this week. My legs hurt too much after the time trial, but I ran after the first stage [prologue] and after the circuit race, and after the stage 5 climbing day. That was freaking killer. When I finished the run I thought, ‘that was stupid.' I was a little loopy because of the heat. It's been hard with the 90-degree weather every day.

NR: How many other triathletes jump into weeklong pro/1/2 stage races? I know Steve Larsen used to do some bike racing while training for triathlon, and Chann McRae would as well.

CL: I don't think anyone does. Larsen was the last guy, and he came from cycling. I enjoy it, it's fun. My first objective, my first goal, is to come out and train, but then I'm very competitive so I'm always trying to do the best I can. I'm not focused on cycling, but I still give it everything I've got. It's fun, it's a good group of guys and it's just a good way to kill myself.

NR: You were giving it all at the time trial. I heard you let out a scream as you crossed the line.

CL: I was hurting so bad. I was sitting out in the wind thinking, ‘Oh man, this better be worth it.

NR: Talk about the difference between racing on the road and racing triathlon. Road racing has repeated surges, while triathlon is more a steady-state effort. What do you feel like after a day of hard road racing versus after an Ironman?

CL: Yeah, it's a different animal. In road racing it's more painful in ways because you just dig really deep and your legs really hurt and you feel like you're going to pass out. That pain is short but extremely painful. Whereas in Ironman you find a pain that you can withstand for a long period of time and you just sit there. I'm good at just going steady for a long way, which is why I do some stupid stuff, like everyday I've been trying to go in a break, or bridge across, just trying do something. For me, it's easier to sit in at a hard tempo and go versus sitting in and going easy and waiting for somebody to jump. On stage 5, it was the jumps that broke me, it wasn't the pace. That's why I tried to bridge across. As soon as we hit the hill, those little jumps, I'd get gapped by three seconds and I couldn't bring it back, or I'd slowly bring it back after a half mile. It's just the pain of changing the pace, popping up to 600 watts or higher every so often and then dropping back down. I'm used to just holding it in around 300 watts.

NR: Is there any detriment to your triathlon racing that comes from those repeated surges?

CL: I don't know. We'll find out. It's worked to improve my cycling. The way I'm looking at it is I'm hoping it will increase my threshold and bring all my levels up. My tempo will move up. Like the stage 3 circuit race - at home I can't do five by 30-minute climbs at 350-400 watts. You can't do that by yourself at home. I'm hoping those efforts will improve my pace. We'll see.

NR: After a weeklong stage race, do you counterbalance your training and just focus on the swim and run for a while?

CL: Yeah, I'll take a little break from the riding. I'll take a little break from the run as well, just an overall break after an effort like this. This was a hard week. I'll swim a lot, but I'll really just float around more or less. I'll do a little riding too, but a lot of easy stuff for a couple of weeks.

NR: What's your next big race? You had to schedule this race in terms of what comes next, right?

CL: My main focus this year is Ironman Hawaii. I'm going to a half Ironman in a few weeks; I am not sure which one yet. I've got a couple of options, depending on how I come off this race and how my running is coming. I was planning on doing Ironman Japan, but I had to switch a few things around. Earlier in the year I hurt my hip, just overuse, so I had to lay off my running for a little bit. So I just postponed that, and I wanted a test, to see how a week like this would do for a lead-up to an Ironman. Instead I'll just do a half Ironman in a few weeks and see how that plays out and how I'll approach Hawaii this year.

NR: We all know the roadies tend to give the tri guys a bit of a hard time out on the road. How have you been received in the pro/1/2 peloton?

CL: Every year it's a little better, which is nice. The guys are pretty cool, and I try not to just sit in, I try to be active. I hope I am aware of what's going on around me, and that I'm not doing stupid things. I think they notice that, and that I'm not going to cause issues or get dropped, and make someone lose a spot. This whole week has been really good, the guys have allowed me to be up towards the front, and they're not fighting me much for wheels. So now I know more guys, and I'm getting more respect. Everyone has been really cool; I haven't caught any flak from anyone.

NR: Do you race with California Giant Strawberries locally as well, or just stage races?

CL: I've done some one-day races as well; it just depends on how it fits into my schedule. This year this is the only one I'm doing. I'm thinking about doing the Tour of Missouri as well, if it happens.

NR: While you're racing, are you thinking about stage races, or overall, or do you have any results objectives?

CL: I'm just going as hard as I can, trying to do what I can do. It hurts me sometimes, because then I'm like, ‘Well, if I didn't do that yesterday, or if I didn't try something earlier today and had conserved energy, maybe I would have done better.' But I just go out every day and do the best I can and try to have some fun.

NR: So stage racing is a very different beast than the Ironman triathlon?

CL: So much of it, you get home at night, and you think about all the tactics involved. I got dropped on stage 5 to eighth overall by three seconds from sixth overall. I'm thinking, ‘Three seconds!' That was like the guy just sitting right there. If I had just done one little thing differently tactically, I could have moved up. Part of it is luck, part is strategy, part is experience, there's so much to play into it, the games that you play, versus in triathlon you go your pace, and you're strong, and the strongman usually does better. In cycling it's different, there's so much more to it, which makes it exciting.

NR: I would imagine racing in the pro/1/2 field day after day improves your bike-handling skills.

CL: Yeah, I'm not as scared anymore as far as riding, I feel really secure on my bike.

NR: So is Hawaii the only Ironman you'll do this year?

CL: This year, yep.

NR: So you're pinning a lot on that one race.

CL: For the most part, yeah, we'll see how it goes. Last year I was ninth, top American, so I'm slowly moving up.

NR: And what about the ITU races?

CL: I did one this year, and I actually won. It was a small race down in Honduras. It was my first time doing one, and I won.

NR: Will you be doing more ITU races this year?

CL: Yeah, I'd like to. I may do more later this year.

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