Chuck claims he is overweight and out of shape. He's not. There was no mistaking the sprinter's body beneath the hiking shorts and '89 Sylvania Bud Light Triathlon t-shirt on that August evening. Just imagine a shorter Gregg Alspach, around five-nine or ten, and (sorry Gregg) even bigger calves. A bachelor unti his mid-40's, Chuck has always been something of an competition adventure-seeker. He was a wrestler in high school, has competed at the national level in archery and fencing, bicycled from Toledo to his home state of Oklahoma, has been in a few rodeos, went sky diving once for kicks, holds a pilot's license, fools around with experimental ultra-light aircraft (once built and then crashed a roto-chopper), and once rode 335 miles in a twenty-four hour bicycle marathon.
In spite of a sports resume that George Plimpton would envy, Chuck maintains that competitive cycling is his favorite sport. As Chuck put it: "I was addicted to Federation races. It was a real obsession - even though the twenty year-olds would beat me to death-kept at it, waiting for that Veteran break when I turned forty."' That "break" came twenty-two years ago in Chillicothe, where a forty-year-old Chuck Conner won his first Federation Veteran race. It's a great story; and, since Barnes made the tape, what follows is, for the most part, Chuck's account of the 1973 Veteran race in Chillicothe, and, as an added bonus, his defense of that title the following year.
Author and MVW Veteran Chuck Conner
"Since I wasn't known to the Veterans, I took a old bike to the Chillicothe race that was really a fine bike that just looked beat to heck; and I wore beat clothes - I had white sox on - but, I looked kinda scuzzy. I acted like a yoyo so that no one would expect me to jump or anything. I wandered sheepishly over to the start and said, "Is this where we sign up for the bike race?"
I knew there was at least one strong rider in the field, a guy who had won the race last year and pretty much dominated the Veteran field last season. Soon after the race started, the "champ" took off. Well, I wanted to chase him down. I argued and fought with the others to get a small clique together and go after him, but nobody wanted to chase because they all knew he was too powerful. So the champ just kept getting farther out, until he built a comfortable lead. Now, the champ was sharp: he was looking back over his shoulder all the way around to make sure nobody threatened his lead. But I knew he had to watch the road when he went through this snaky, tree-lined section of th course. That's exactly where I jumped. He never saw me until we came out of the trees and h could see my shadow in sunlight behind him. Then it was the two of us working together until we got near the end of the race.
We started working each other over pretty good near the end. Then it happened. On the last lap a spectator wandered out on the course. I cut to the inside; he was forced outside and went into the grass. I, of course, had to do it - I sprinted. Bad sportsmanship? Maybe, but I did it. He didn't chase me right away, he waited for the group to help chase. Well, that group - I'd already tried to get something together with them. In th meantime the crowd at the finish sees me coming in ahead o the champ, who by now was into his sprint and off the front.
Oh, the crowd! From that point on, particularly when I returned a year later, the crowd that followed all the races thought I was superman. There was a kind of bidding war to entertain me the night before the next year's race, and everyone wanted to have me over to their Chalet in the mountains as the last-year's winner of the Veteran group. They had a picture of the finish at the local bike shop that showed me as far in front of the champ as he was off the front of the main pack.
That next year at the Chillicothe race I had the added pressure that went with being the defending champ. I remember it was such a windy day that no one could get away. And, just like I was the new kid last year, there was a new kid in th Veteran field this year, a sprinter from Detroit. Now, sprinting was my bag, but this guy was tough, and with the wind blowing like it was, it was starting to look like the race would be decided in a field sprint.
The home stretch was into the wind, so on the last lap everyone was fighting for position, but nobody wanted to be first. We were all lined up single-file, everyone tight on the wheel in front of him, when the leader slows down and tries to pull off. Well, the next rider sticks like glue to the leader's wheel and won't let him pull off ... and so it went on down the line: everyone slowed way down and did this follow-the-leader snake dance, zigzagging all over the road. We were on top of this ridge, getting close to this lefthand turn down a steep down the bottom of the downhill was a right-hand turn back into the wind, and from there it was about 300 meters to the finish line. I was just like everybody else: thinking about that finish into that awful wind. I didn't want to lead it out, but I was 10 men back and figured I'd better do something about my position. So I jumped.
When I jumped, the sprinter from Detroit was setting in perfect position, 3rd place, and he sees me jump, but he was looped on the wrong side of the wheel in front of him. So he has to slow down even more and back out before he can start to chase. Well, I knew there was no turning back, so I put it into my 110" gear, flew down the hill, touched my rear brake ever so slightly at the bottom, turned into the wind, downshifted, and sprinted for all I was worth. I remember the crowd (who thought I was superman be cause of last year when the champ almost went down) yelling, "Come on, Chuck! Come on, Chuck!" They got me so pumped up with adrenaline that I held on and won the race by 20 feet.
Two wins in one city! I'll remember that five minutes or so of the final lap of that race for the rest of my life."
I told you it was a great story. And I find it fascinating, because it shows that no matter how many times somebody gets up on soapbox to preach about how things were in the old days (who, me?), the really neat stuff in this sport-the tactics, the thrill of competition, the memories - haven't changed at all.