PEZ Talk: A True Pioneer – John Howard
John Howard is a legend; a decent journalist shouldn’t be prone to scattering superlatives, but in his case, ‘legend’ is wholly appropriate – US road racing pioneer, competitor in three Olympics, Pan Am Games champion, Iron Man Triathlon winner, Race Across America podium finisher – not forgetting world speed record holder on a bicycle at 152 mph. We caught up with John recently to talk about his amazing career.
PEZ: How did it all start, John?
John Howard: It started for me back in the 60’s – the governing body then was the Amateur Bicycle League of America, which dated back to the 1880’s and there was no such thing as a ‘pro.’
I was bummed out with team ball games and was into running; but then I saw this film about the Tour de France called, ‘The Big Loop.’
That was the start of it, my dad didn’t approve of the cycling but I was kinda rebellious . . .
PEZ: Three participations in the Olympic road race; weren’t they tough off a diet of US racing?
JH: The three ‘M’s’ – Mexico, Munich and Montreal.
American cyclists weren’t really expected to do anything at the Games – and another factor was that many riders were in their best condition at the start of the season to gain selection and by the time the Games came along they weren’t at the same level.
Whilst I rode strongly I all three races, in Mexico I was young and struggling to understand what bicycle racing was all about.
In Montreal however, I was potentially a threat but crashed in the heavy rain which dogged the event, if you look at pictures of me that day taken before I crashed, you’ll see the eventual winner, Bernt Johansson of Sweden glued to my wheel.
There weren’t a lot of opportunities to ride big races in the US back then, the biggest race in the country was the Red Zinger four day – I won that in ’75 and ’76.
In ’76 it was a quality field because the guys who rode the Olympics competed – looking back, ’75 and ’76 were my peak years.
PEZ: You won the Pan Am Games road race in ’71.
JH: Historically that was an important race for US cycling; my win and Jack Simes silver in the World Kilometre Championships in Uruguay in 1968 showed the US Olympic Committee that we had potential and brought money into the sport.
I’m still the only US rider to have won the Pan Am Games road race – it’s hard to win because all the South American countries see it as a big opportunity to go out and beat ‘The Yankees!’
PEZ: I remember you riding the Milk Race in England in the 70’s.
JH: Phil Liggett (MBE) was the organiser back then and gave the US team an invite on the strength of how we’d performed in the Tour of Ireland.
Riding that brought a little more acclaim to US cycling – our US Raleigh team was the first to race in Europe; the sport in the US had suffered a long decline after the death of the six day scene.
PEZ: But you never became a ‘Euro Dog?’
JH: I look back with some regret at that, I had opportunities in ’74 and ’75 but didn’t take them.
The Century Road Club of America is America’s oldest continually active bike club; Raleigh sponsored the club and sent us to Europe.
Karl Barton (formerly a strong British track sprinter) who was the head of Raleigh in the US said to me that he could set it up for me to ride for the TI-Raleigh pro team – which was the top team in the world at the time.
I considered it, but perhaps I was intimidated by the prospect and decided to go back to college.
In retrospect, it was a mistake – but in those days there was no support system around you to help you with decisions like that.
PEZ: Tell us about the Ironman.
JH: The National Coach booted me off the National Cycling Team after 11 years, ‘to make way for youth.’
There were riders like Andy Hampsten and Greg Lemond on the way up and whilst I was bitter at the time with hindsight, maybe it was for the best – that was the spur that got me into triathlon.
I swam a bit a college and had a track and field background there, too – but the biggest problem I experienced was that my shoulders had frozen up and I had to re-learn the swimming technique.
To start with I had a lot of injuries and had to work hard at my flexibility.
After I won the Iron Man I didn’t compete in another one for nine years then came back and was second in the US long course Nationals.
PEZ: How about that 152 mph ride?
JH: One of the things that got me into cycling was the history of the sport, I’d read about how Charlie (Mile a Minute) Murphy did 60 mph on boards set between the sleepers behind the Long Island Express.
There was a dusty little Scwinn shop down in Springfield Missouri and in one of the Schwinn magazines there was a piece about Alf Le Tournier – the called him the ‘Red Devil’ on the six day circuit – breaking the world speed record for a bicycle at 109 mph on an unopened section of freeway near Bakersfield riding a Schwinn Paramount.
And then there was Jose Meiffret who broke that record with 109 mph in Belgium in the early 60’s.
By the time I decided to go for it the record it stood at 140 mph.
It was a big undertaking, funding came from Pepsi Cola, we put together a great pace car but it took us three years to get the record, we had so much trouble getting the right conditions.
We tried down in Mexico on a highway course but finally got the result on the salt flats at Bonneville in July 1985 – I worked out that I covered the measured mile in 23 seconds!
PEZ: Tell us about the bike.
JH: It was designed by Doug Malewicki who was an aerospace engineer and designer and built by a frame builder in Austin called Skip Hujsak – the bike did what we expected of it.
Doug actually designed Evel Knievel’s ‘Skycycle’ to jump the Snake River on – and it would have done the job if Evil hadn’t popped the chutes!
The record gear was the equivalent of 406 inches – that was impossible to wind up from a dead start so I was towed up to 85/100 mph.
To get the record I had to rev at 125/minute; above that the rear of the bike started to ‘dance’ so we had to keep raising the gear to keep to those revs.
PEZ: Wasn’t a kilometre rider’s effort in leathers and a full face helmet pretty heavy duty?
JH: It was a ‘kick’ – thrilling, exhilarating and terrifying all in the same breath.
Physically, I was on the edge, anaerobic effort at 185 heart beat which was very high for me – it was a strange feeling, in the vortex behind the car, it eased you back and forward, you’d bump off the back of the car but couldn’t let yourself go too far back because if you came out of the vortex you’d be knocked off by the wind.
PEZ: And you have a 24 hour record, too?
JH: There’s an organisation called the Ultra marathon Cycling Association and they have 24 hour paced and unpaced records.
My attempt was supposed to be paced, but we never really had enough pacers so I rode stretches on my own.
Without the help that I had I wouldn’t have done the 539 miles which I recorded, maybe 500 – but if I’d had pacers for the duration then I’d have done more, although I can’t say how much more.
I rode on the Sunshine Speedway in Florida, a quarter mile car racing oval, in June 1987 – it was a hard effort and strange to be out on the track on your own at 03:00 am.
PEZ: But not as hard as the Race Across America?
JH: The RAAM makes the Tour de France seem like sitting beside the swimming pool, sipping lemonades!
It was pure brutality! I never want to do it again.
I was second to Lon Haldeman who was really well prepared for the effort – much better than me.
You learn a lot about yourself riding a bike across the US from Santa Monica to the Empire State Building in 10 days 10 hours and 59 minutes – and in those days there was no ‘aero’ anything!
John Howard rides ahead of eventual winner Bernt Johansson of Sweden in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Howard said Johansson spent most of the race on his wheel until Howard went down in the rain. The two had raced together in Sweden the year before.
PEZ: How long did it take you to recover from it?
JH: I’m still recovering from it! I was in a mess, I rode it in August and I still couldn’t train in October – I had nerve damage and simply no enthusiasm.
I still have nerve issues in my hand and require therapy for my lower back as a result of that race.
Since then I’ve coached four winners of the race, though.
PEZ: And you even have US National cyclo-cross medals?
JH: I was into ‘cross early, it suited my running background – I was second in my first attempt at the Nationals.
I left it for a few years but went back to it and won medals in Masters events.
I’ve always admired versatility in an athlete.
PEZ: Your finest hour?
JH: In terms of athletic achievement, the Ironman victory in 1981; I proved that I could go from pro bike rider to Iron Man winner.
But now that I’m coaching athletes to get the best out of themselves, I find that very satisfying.
PEZ: When you were younger you didn’t fuss too much about diet, did you?
JH: That might have been true when I was younger but I have to watch what I eat these days or I’d gain weight.
Diet is a very individual thing; I think I get away with eating more ‘bad’ food than most – but for some folks it’s super important to watch what they eat.
My mother was lean and I think I’m lucky that I inherited her genes – I’m 6’2” and 160 pounds and have pretty much stuck at that.
PEZ: Your thoughts please on: Greg Lemond.
JH: What can you say? He kick started the sport and I think that I helped motivate him when he was a youngster.
In 1975 the big battle was between me and George Mount but then Greg came on the scene.
I still have a ceramic trophy which I won when I beat Greg in a stage race at San Joaquin; he was 17 and I was in my early 30’s – I beat him but remember saying on the podium that he’d be world champion within three years.
He’s a pillar of the sport and it’s just such a pity he was involved in that hunting accident or he would have won so much more.
JH: He took it another level; Greg started the process and Lance finished it.
I applaud him, definitely one of my heroes.
JH: The year he won the Tour his palmares were fabulous – but all tainted now, of course because of what he did.
But I still consider him a friend and I enjoy riding with him – I just hope he can survive.
For every success there’s a tragedy but I applaud the fact that he still wants to get out in the fresh air, under the blue sky and ride his bike.
PEZ: Bikes – you’ve been around them for 40 years.
JH: In a way I kinda lovingly look back at the old bikes of the 60’s and 70’s.
My background is in art and those machines were hand handcrafted kinetic art – but that was all before aerodynamics became the big issue.
Moser’s hour record bike changed everything – the discs, the inverted bars, it cause a revolution.
And carbon of course – everything has to be carbon, now.
I rode light weight steel Raleighs in ’72 – ‘74 but I was one of the first to ride carbon.
Exxon Graftek were the world’s first production carbon fibre bikes – they were introduced at the New York International Bike Show in 1975; my Cool Gear-Exxon Graftek teammates and I won 11 national road and track championships on them in 11 years.
PEZ: If you could give a budding champion just one piece of advice?
JH: Maintain your enthusiasm – don’t fret about power meters, don’t let your love of the sport be diminished by incorrect priorities.
The real reason we ride a bike is because we enjoy it; and whilst it’s a sport which requires acute effort, it’s also great therapy to ride your bike, look for the Zen in it; enjoy what your bike can do.
John Howard now draws satisfaction from coaching cyclists. Here he is during a bike-fitting session with Olympic speedskating legend Bonnie Blair.
PEZ: Tell us about John Howard Sports, please.
JH: Along with my associates I coach a lot of athletes, not big teams but individuals and in particular Masters.
We’ve coached around 170 national champions and several world champions – we’re very proud of our results.
We approach it from the angle of the minutiae of their athleticism – there are so many things which can affect power and many, many things we can do to help.
We look at the body as a power source and look at things like ‘muscle entrapment’ which can be a big problem – how do you eliminate that?
We hone in on all these little things and in a single session of two-and-a-half hours it’s not unusual to see a jump in wattage of 10% and that’s often accompanied by a drop in heart rate.
We figure out what’s best for the particular needs of each individual.
PEZ: You’re not a man for regrets, I can tell – but anything you wish you’d done differently?
JH: I should have followed my first instincts and joined the TI-Raleigh team, it was a mistake; I should have seen the bigger picture.
If I’d joined that team I could have ridden the Tour . . .
With thanks to John for a fascinating interview – the only trouble is that you come away from speaking to the man feeling totally inadequate.
John also writes for the PEZ ToolBox column – so look for his words on Tuesdays.
• See his website: JohnHowardSports.com