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Retro PEZ Talk: Chrono Legend John Frey Part 1!

Retro Interview: 1988 US National time trial champion John Frey was a specialist in the art of solo riding against the clock. Ed Hood caught up with the man from New Mexico to talk of the World hour record, US records, solo and team time trials in this exclusive two part retro interview.

It was last year when big Tom Zirbel bade farewell to his pro career with an excellent 53.037 kilometer ride to break the US Hour Record, held by Norm Alvis since 1997 with 51.505. Alvis broke Colby Pearce’s 1995 mark of 50.191 set on a ‘Boardman replica’ Lotus.

Still current 40km national record. 47:35

Pearce’s ride eclipsed that of a man who many still regard as one of the United States finest exponents of ‘alone and unpaced’ riding – John Frey who set a world amateur, altitude record of 49.947 kilometers in Colorado Springs in 1991. And Frey still holds the US 40 kilometer time trial record of 47 minutes 35 seconds, set in 1990.

Tom Zirbel on his Hour ride

We thought he’d be an interesting man to speak to about Zirbel’s new mark and his own jousts with Father Time. It took him a little longer than we thought it would to get back to us but we think you’ll agree that it was worth the wait. . .

PEZ: How did you get into cycling and how did you gravitate towards time trialling, John?
John Frey:
I grew up in Tucumcari, New Mexico and discovered cycling by visiting a small pro shop in Albuquerque, NM while attending the university and using the bike for transportation. I was intrigued by the specialized equipment and fact that bicycles were raced like horses, even the cleats were nailed onto the shoe. Another student from out-of-state, Matt Tuttle, had a top-end Hetchins and sold me a pair of Nuovo Record hubs for $30, I was hooked. My ‘way of the wheel’ was furthered by miles with local aficionado Gary Diggs, who used Cinelli M-71 pedals plus all the Italian gear and Bill Hart, who had some international experience, knew the benefits of altitude (there’s a 10,700ft peak, 35 miles from here) and reasoned I would never be a climber (at 90kg) or a sprinter (later muscle biopsy studies revealed my leg fibers were 90% slow/10% fast twitch – average person being 70/30).

New Mexico has wide open spaces and plenty of wind. With few riders cycling, solo rides were the norm, the wind as your master. NM back then had only a couple races each year, I entered the 1979 state championships road race without a license and was the last of 10 riders to stay with a national team member, Lennard Zinn. I won in a two-up sprint and then obtained a racing license, as half the field of 12 had written ‘applied for’ on the race entry. A veteran racer from Los Alamos, NM, Jim Cost, had a fast 25 mile/40 km TT course surveyed near Albuquerque with hopes of riders ‘breaking the hour’… no small task back in the day. Our TT course has most US records now, is completely straight, lies at 6,000ft altitude and has an elevation change of 80ft total. My first TT there, in 1979, there was a 1:02, the winner that day was a 56’.

World record 49.9km in 1990. Last amateur hour

PEZ: That 47:32 – still the US National 40K record, tell us about that day – the date, the course, the bike – and can you remember who was second?
The ITT was introduced in 1972 to American racing, and changed from 25 mile to 40 km in the early 1980’s.
I first set the national record in 1984 on a Team Miyata, 51:57, nylon T-shirt tucked in – Duegis bolted to the pedal a la Moser. In 1985 lowered the mark to 50:02 on a funny bike, using a 10lb Ambrosio rear disk and a budding relationship with innovative frame builder David Porter. My first year on the U.S. National Team was 1986, I was selected as a ‘coaches choice’ (read Experimental Big Guy for TTT) since I had no results in national events. Eddy B. was curious about New Mexico’s Steve Wood equalling Greg Lemond in junior events, my national record and having my local Albuquerque team finish one second behind his squad (Olympic medallists Roy Knickman & Steve Hegg) at a 50km TTT in Arizona. Using a couple real seasons of racing and a faster bike than ever, I lowered that mark to 49:11 in the Fall of 1988.
No try in 1989, as I did Chambery Worlds TTT where the US placed 4th. Kent Bostick took the record from me that year with a mid 48’…

The current 47:35 set in 1990, has lasted a long time, it’s been called ‘Beamonesque’ referencing the 1968 Long Jump record of Jim Beamon. The time was the usual early September event, although in my early years NM had as many as three events of 40 km TT. Course was the fast southern course, still have the record on a nearby, less flat, northern course at 48 minutes. The bike was a custom Porter with Columbus Air tubing, aerobars, aero helmet, Modolo Cronos front brake, 26″ front with dual disks, Conti comp 19mm tires, 175mm cranks, 52 x 13 fixed gear and a hurt monitor. Weather was almost perfect, except for the temps in the high 50 degree range at 8 am. Ken Bostick was second placed, 14 seconds back, two riders had 49 minute rides that day and many others with personal bests. I was so stoked, we worked until midnight that evening to assemble a fixed gear Porter tandem that I rode the next day with my teammate Waz Warsa to set a national tandem record of 48:46 for men 70+ years combined.

John Frey and Ken Bostick

PEZ: Pan Am TTT champion in ’87 with Kent Bostick, Steve Hegg and Andy Paulin – big hitters. . .
My second year on the National team, it was a small field with Canada, Mexico and Cuba as the only real competition for TTT. The Pan-Am games were well run, I was a last minute replacement for the road race event after Eddy scouted the RR course – a constantly hilly affair proximal to the Ohio River. I was first worker and spent myself chasing the early break, where Canada’s Brian Walton in a break made a go of it. New Mexico’s Todd Gogulski ended up abused in the two-up sprint for 3rd and gold was taken by Mexican great, Rosendo Ramos.

The 100km TTT was set on the Indy oval, 100 degree plus in July, big humidity, per Eddy’s order only one water bottle. These were early days of aero fanaticism and larger bottles were not in vogue. Otherwise, our only fears were unknown competitors and Cuba’s sexy Cinelli Laser TT bikes, supplied by Russia. We started cautiously slow out of respect for the heat, we still suffered like mad dogs, always in the lead, slowing the final hour as all the teams did, Cuba finished second about 10 minutes back, a Chilean rider passed-out during the event and was hospitalized.

That turned out to be an ominous sign for our own problems in the Villach, Austria ’87 World’s TTT weeks later, as our team stumbled to 14th. Remember the Italians winning with the cable attached from stems to hip girdles? We rode with three men the entire race as one member sat on the back, his worst day ever on the bike – No names, amateur omerta!

1988 Nationals hat trick. ITT, TTT & 2-man TT wins

PEZ: You were national TT champion in ’88 – what do you remember of that day?
The Spokane, Washington course was flat and fast. It was the Olympic trials selection and drew the largest ever TT field, 200 riders. My previous TT nationals had yielded three consecutive seventh place finishes. I used a Rossin aero bike with dual disks, Scott bars and little sleep, resulting in a 35 sec victory margin at the price of a scathed scrotum.

An outstanding memory of the day was being interrogated repeatedly by officials and organizers inside a motorhome about doping. This was my baptism about the politics of cycling, this was about the Olympic team and advertising, even amateur sponsors, had to be appeased. In later years I learned the injustice for selection to marquee events in other nations was far worse.

My Ten Speed Drive team, never affluent or influential within our federation, had prepped me with two weeks of west coast racing prior. Later that week, I won the two-man TT with Norm Alvis, the TTT with Ten Speed Drive, then 2nd and 4th in the three Olympic trial road races.

Still using Porter steel! It’s a real century killer, 4 Tour ‘wins’ this year, ha!

# In Part 2 on Sunday; John talks of his hour record ride, tandems and much more. #

Most photos supplied by John, others unknown.

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,500 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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