Retro PEZ Talk: Craig Schommer
Retro Interview: Craig Schommer was a name that cropped up on US national teams from the junior ranks up to Olympic and pro level. Ed Hood tracked Schommer down to hear how he started from adventurous teenage rides to taking on the East Europeans and the professionals in the top events of the 80s.
Roy Knickman, Andy Paulin and now Craig Schommer – those 80’s cult rider interviews just keep coming here on PEZ. A very talented and versatile rider – two Worlds junior medals, a stage in the Coors and an Olympic ride, here’s his tale.
PEZ: How did you get into cycling, Craig – you were a track rider initially.
Craig Schommer: I grew up at the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Being adventurous teenagers, a neighborhood friend and I pulled out a map one day and began plotting cycling routes to explore. After several failed attempts to reach the summit we looked for a less challenging trip. That’s when we noticed the Hellyer velodrome on our map. We showed up, watched some races and I was hooked. Funny thing, my friend’s youngest brother, Chris Sheehan, and his friend next door, Paul Willlerton, turned into professional cyclists as well – three pros all growing up within 200 meters of each other!
The San Jose Bicycle Club had a coach (Don Peterson) who was a former track star. He learned the craft back in the 1940s when San Jose was the biggest track racing hot spot west of Chicago. The city had several wooden velodromes and thousands showed up to watch. He was running Saturday morning training sessions and began a Friday Night racing series. He taught us all the old school training tricks like riding fixed gears in the early season (sometimes for 60 miles in the mountains!). They loaned me a nice chrome track bike and I began racing against the senior men when I was 14 years old. It took all my will power and attention to stay in their draft, but I loved the speed more than I hated the pain. I was lucky to have him and the racing series as my introduction to bike racing. Racing miss n’ outs, points races and Madisons against men like Freddy Markham (1980 Olympic Team) was akin to five years of experience in a single season.
PEZ: Second in the Worlds junior team pursuit in ’83 – what do you remember about that one?
That year we raced in November, which means most of us had to leave high school in order to train. The Senior National Team bikes were not being used, so we were allowed to train and race on these cutting edge aerodynamic, 21″ wheeled prototypes with “cow horn bars”. With such a short wheelbase you could almost reach out and touch the guy in front of you. Needless to say, a great draft.
The Russian military had shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 just before we arrived in New Zealand. On the first day of training people showed up at the velodrome in this small, quiet New Zealand town to protest the against the Russian delegation.
A fun memory was that Eddy B brought aero helmets with radios glued inside. The helmets had zero padding back then, plenty of room for the electronics. The Russians protested when they noticed him talking to us through a radio. No worries, for the semi-finals and finals he went up into the stands and blended in with the crowd. Stopwatch in hand he took splits and gave us instructions through our ear pieces; “guys, down two tenths, peeck up, peeck up”. We much preferred his whispering in our ears to yelling from the track apron. I think we qualified with the fastest time, but lost in the final to a good Danish team. We ended up hanging out with them that evening.
Fun trivia – our kilometer rider that year, Kit Kyle, snapped his forks at the steer tube right at the start and had a spectacular crash. Video of this snafu became part of a NZ candy commercial montage. Something like “at times like these you need a Minties”. I think he ended up a respectable fourth after that terrible start.
We had a really good crop of juniors – Dave Farmer, Tony Palmer, Tim Hinz and Roy Knickman were third in the TTT. Roy took bronze in the individual pursuit. Kit, Tim, Roy and I took silver in the team pursuit. Roy was poised to win the road race until spokes in his rear wheel started loosening up. The tire started rubbing his frame.
Kit was in our pursuit team and fourth in the kilo. Even Tom Harberts, our super climber, raced well in the warm up track races. We came home with a lot of medals that year – of course Roy was a level above us. Nine months later he took bronze in the Olympic TTT.
PEZ: Then second in the junior kilo Worlds in ’84 – a big change from endurance to sprint – and it took a big name to beat you.
True, I had to switch between road and track a lot back then, although I was always pretty good at the kilo. I had won the Junior Kilometer National Championship (15-18 yr olds) when I was 15. Still, I had been mostly racing on the road. Fortunately by 1984 we had a world class velodrome in Colorado Springs.
Our junior coaches, Eddy B and Craig Campbell did a great job getting us ready with intervals and motor pacing on the track and road. There were a lot of little distractions leading up to that ‘84 result. I broke a shoelace while getting ready to go to the line.
After starting, my chain snapped between turn one and two. Thankfully, they let me restart. On the second try the back tip of my aero helmet touched my back and pushed forward over my eyes. I didn’t dare take my hands off the bars to push it back, so I completed the ride with only a five feet view in front of me.
In the kilo you never know if you had a good or bad ride based on how you felt. I felt great and only hit “the wall” with around 50 meters to go and thought I didn’t go hard enough. Turns out it was a good ride after all. I’m convinced that all those distractions didn’t have an effect on me because I had spent the week visualizing riding two-and-a-half laps on that track over and over. I was on auto-pilot.
As you said the, Jens Glucklich East German also won the senior kilo the following year; pretty impressive. I hope they gave him a nice apartment and a car for that win. And state funded, bi-monthly scans for malignant tumors. (Glucklich’s Senior Worlds Kilometer palmarès read: ’85 champion; ’86 3rd; ’87 2nd; ’89 champion; ’90 3rd; ’91 2nd; ’93 3rd. ed.)
PEZ: Why not pursue a track career?
Track racing did not have much support back then and I enjoyed traveling the country with my road team. On the road we could race every weekend. The team tactics, different courses and making money at every race was too much to give up. I saw the dedication of track guys like the Australian pursuiter Dean Woods who would ride for two hours on a trainer even when it was 80ºF and sunny. I knew I couldn’t handle that kind of monotony in order to race the track a few times per year. If it had been a different era I would have loved to race track. Imagine hanging out with Major Taylor and traveling Europe by train, racing in front of huge crowds every week.
PEZ: I’ve heard you were on the ’86 Peace race team which came home before the race because of Chernobyl?
Thankfully, I wasn’t at that race. Andy Paulin, Kent Bostick and Glen Sanders were there and told us of their panic listening to it unfold on the radio. They scrambled to get out of there on a train heading south to Czechoslovakia. Eddy B found out their plan and took them instead to Warzaw, at one point passing by Chernobyl by only 250 miles. After landing in Amsterdam a crew in radiation suits and Geiger counters scoured the plane’s exterior.
Tour of Belgium, 1988. They laughed. They called us names. They joked about “McDonalds”. But we said “F*ck ’em”, and snatched their coveted jerseys and left the likes of Ekimov and Tonkov wondering “Who are those guys?” James Urbonas and Gary Mulder with Craig Schommer in the background.
PEZ: A stage in the Coors and an Olympic ride in ’88 – tell us about those, please.
I had spent a few weeks with the National Team racing in Belgium, including the Tour of Belgium, about a month before the Olympic Trials. I was never great at training on my own. I needed racing to push myself and get stronger. Well, all that Belgian racing, which I loved, did the trick. I didn’t fully realize it back then, but looking back it after returning home and resting it was like I had twice my normal power; as if I was a motor scooter.
I jumped into a break in the Oakland Circuit Race in the Coors and worked with a good group of guys. I was racing for the U.S. national team; however a few of my teammates were in there, so they kept the pace up near the end to prevent any surprise attacks. Tom Browsnowski, who was a good sprinter, had been sitting on our break the entire race and he got a jump on us about 300 meters from the line. He had around a six bike length advantage, but I managed to ramp up enough speed to pass him about 10 meters before the line. You can’t let the guy who sat on the break win, right?
Netting a stage in the Coors Classic is a big deal for an American rider. The best domestic teams are invited along with some European teams and there is good Media coverage. On top of that it Oakland was the city of my birth, so that made it a bit sweeter. In the Santa Rosa to Sacramento stage I took third place. Roy Knickman won that one on a nice long solo. That was a good feeling getting on the podium twice.
I have good memories of the Olympics or at least training in the countryside outside of Seoul with Scott McKinley and Bob Mionski. The organizers wanted all road cyclists to train on a four mile ‘L’ shaped circuit for safety reasons. After a few laps we knew we’d lose our minds training there, so we just started exploring. Miles out of town we would see scenes like farm women drying chili peppers and rice on the road. Once we were at least 20 miles outside of town surrounded by farmland and there was a large hot air balloon with the Olympic mascot flying a banner. We think it said something like “The world is watching”.
In the Olympic Village there were security guards in all black clothing with automatic weapons that would appear out of nowhere then ride up the elevator in one of the athlete apartment buildings. They were probably all over the place in stealth mode in case the North Koreans tried something. The day of the road race we warmed up on the course and noticed a lack of spectators. Except for a few hundred meters around the finish line, there was nothing lining the route except South Korean soldiers. They stood stoically with their machine guns, facing away from the race toward the forest looking for North Korean snipers.
Unfortunately, I came down with stomach flu the morning of our race and just tried to keep contact and finish. At one point in the race I was sitting at the back and noticed the eventual first and second place riders (Olaf Ludwig East Germany from Bernd Groene West Germany) chatting and laughing with each other. I guess they knew something we didn’t?
My race was uneventful, but I feel for Bob Mionski. He was a rider who always sprinted in a huge gear. Jumping out of a criterium corner with 150 meters to the line? Bob would use a 53×12 for that and still win. So in the Olympic road race he is getting ready for a straight line, slightly downhill sprint for 3rd and doesn’t realize he was in a 53×13. He missed out by only a few inches to Abdoujaparov.
PEZ: But would you describe yourself as more of a ‘criterium specialist’?
Criteriums were good for me, but I really enjoyed hilly circuit races and anything with an uphill finish. I could recover freakishly fast from high efforts and sprint uphill better than on the flats against the big-boned flatland type sprinters. Probably because I could recover quickly team time trialling was ok for me. I was on the junior national TTT championship winning team in 1983 with Tony Palmer, James Urbonas and Dave Farmer and the alternate for our junior Worlds TTT team. The only problem was that being the weakest rider in a TTT is a special kind of hell on earth, so thank god I didn’t have to ride many more after that.
I couldn’t solo time trial my way out of a wet paper bag. In my second year in the senior ranks I finished top five overall in the Mammoth Stage Race, one of the most hilly races in the U.S. So, I could sprint and climb, but not always at the same time!
PEZ: Alexi Grewal as a team mate at Crest – that must have been interesting?
I loved racing with Alexi. I was only a junior and his teammate on Len Pettyjohn’s Dia-Comp/Gita Sports team when he won the Olympic Road Race. His win made us feel like anything was possible. I always felt calm and focused whenever he was in the pack. We had several young guys on the team and when we did well he was like a proud papa. One of my best memories was pre-riding the A to Z prologue with him. It was a one mile rectangle in a small Ohio college town with a slight downhill, a flat straight and a kicker 15% finishing hill.
He told me where to push it, where to float. I wound up winning it for my first big win as a senior. I wouldn’t have won without his advice. A few years later during the Tour de Trump I beat Vanderaerden and Phinney for an uphill bonus sprint he rode up and heckled them; “How does it feel getting beat by an amateur!” I think this was after his season in Europe riding for Panasonic (with Vanderaerden) and was looking for a chance to get a dig in.
And there was that time at training camp when he shaved only one side of his beard and the other side of his mustache. Not a good look, don’t try it.
PEZ: Second in a stage of the Trump Tour to Ludwig – bitter or sweet memory?
Being bested by East Germans? Let’s just say it feels hollow. You could congratulate yourself on a podium place, but the whole thing feels like a farce. I was feeling pretty good that day and had even paced up our team leader Scott Moninger back to the peloton after he flatted. It was an uphill sprint, my favorite type of finish. I try not to think about that stage or the ‘84 Junior Worlds too much.
PEZ: ’95 with Montgomery – some interesting names there – Gerlach, Hamilton, Zanoli – what are your memories of those times?
Chad was a great to have around, very entertaining. Hamilton kept to himself and we didn’t travel to many races together, so I never got to know him. I recall having some good road trips and races with Darren Baker, Radisa Cubric, Clark Sheehan, Dave McCook, Eddy Gragus, and Nate Reiss. I had taken a year off before and it was brutal regaining form. I struggled for most of the season until finally finding good shape at the tail end. It felt good knowing I put in more physical and mental effort into training and racing than any previous year. That was my last season, I stopped racing at 28. Too bad the Marco Polo Team wouldn’t come along for a few more years. Would have been amazing to travel and race in Africa and Asia.
PEZ: Did you make an acceptable living on the US pro circuit back then?
The money was always enough that I didn’t have to get a second job. I was fortunate to be on teams that took a fair share of the prize money and had enough budget for travel. In the U.S. we were flying thousands of miles each month. With travel expenses covered, a modest salary and cash primes and prizes we always had money in our pockets.
PEZ: Did you ever consider trying your hand in Europe?
In 1990 I left Team Crest (my domestic team) and rode with Team Bonnat, a small team south of Paris. I didn’t have much luck with the French style of racing and there wasn’t enough of it. I would have fared better in Belgium.
PEZ: What do you now?
I work at an ad agency in Portland, Oregon.
PEZ: Are you still involved in the sport?
We have several training race series in town. One is on a flat auto track, the other a hilly circuit. I’ll do a few of those each year for that feeling of flying along in a large pack. I’m hoping that when my kids are grown I will have time to mentor the novices and juniors that show up there eager to try out the sport.
PEZ: Looking back, what would you do differently?
Great question… I would have tried harder at holding onto the good habits and training techniques learned through experience. I would have sought out more training advice and worked on the sports psychology aspect. At times I had trouble dealing with the pressure that comes with the expectation that I could/should win a race. I would have stayed on Len Pettyjohn’s team instead of trying to turn pro in Europe. He created such a professional environment and supported me for so many years; through ups and downs. He was great at everything: hiring amazing staff, logistics, sponsor relationships, team tactics, etc. It wasn’t until my last season I had figured most if it all out. With the help of my coach Jerry Davis I learned to use heart rate zones, lift weights and train with a periodization plan. I’d tell myself you can train harder and recover faster than you think. For some reason I was always worried about burning out, yet I had a great ability to recover and didn’t need to worry about it. I didn’t realize that until after I retired! I would look for ways to combat the monotony of training year after year. Above all I would try to enjoy the process of training and racing; not take it too seriously.
# With thanks to Craig for a great wander down Memory Lane, it all seemed like more fun back then. . . #
The origin of the photos is unknown, thanks to whom so ever took them.
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 1,200 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.