What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: In Praise of The Rat

I caught you knockin’ / at my cellar door / I love you, baby, / can I have some more / Ooh, ooh, the damage done. – Neil Young

By John Howard

On this Tuesday afternoon, the clouds had vanished. The dark blanket from a rare thunderstorm was gone as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the southern California coast as clear and pristine as I can remember. It was time to ride. Having already missed two days, and like you an exercise junkie, I needed my fix. Once out the door, I hit the bike with a vengeance and took no prisoners. I was on a mission, and the usual leisurely roll turned into a session of regimented intervals.

I was practicing what my friend of 30 years, Ian Jackson, often called “Edge Playing.” If you are lucky enough to have in your possession one of his very rare CDs called “Zooming” or “Serendipity,” you will know what I’m talking about. Zooming was a voice weave that Ian created, spread as smooth as honey, over an original musical score that is as hypnotic as it is energizing.

You get on your trainer, turn out all the lights, and as he put so aptly put it, “throw darts with your toes.” When his music stops, you will swear it had lasted only a few minutes, but your watch will not lie to you. The CD is actually an hour and change. Some of us would call that an out-of-body experience. It is vintage Ian Jackson, one part cult, one part power, and very purely human.

Ian used to rail about athletes who used drugs to improve their sports performances. He called it a short cut to nowhere and believed with all his heart that the only purity that mattered was that which we all keep bottled up in our own free-flowing spirit. To anyone who would listen, he preached his brand of performance enhancement that emanated from the core. The 2-3 breathing patterns that tapped so deeply into the parasympathetic nervous system were out there for the enlightened few who could trust their own imagination and simply let go.

With Ian’s work, even the sky wasn’t a limit. It was his unique signature teachings expressed in his long out-of-print books, Yoga and The Athlete and Breathplay that took him to the first Big Island Ironman Triathon in `81 where we met.

Ian was a ballet dancer, a marathon runner, a big-wave surfer, a swimmer, a cyclist and a self-made hypnotherapist, who lived for the moment and found his highs on the endorphins that defined what it means to play unconditionally. At first I rejected his attempt to coach me through his brand of breathing therapy. After all, I had won the Ironman World Championship and he had been pack fodder. He had his techniques, and I had my ego. He was not deterred.

We met again at Baylor School in Chattanooga where headmaster Herb Barks and I watched him hypnotize an entire class of maybe 50 boys, explaining his ideas about what it took to capture and hold the lead in a race through the simple rhythm of out-breath breathing. This was physical education at its unlikely best.

I went home, cast aside my inhibitions, and casually tried his techniques. Eureka! I was eating highway with a vigor I had not known since I first started cycling as a kid. What happened may have defied reason, but results speak. My tested VO2max was higher in that period than any time before or since with the deeper adaptation of his “switch-side” breathing. I got all the proof I needed.

Just before the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Ian was able to get the attention of Alexi Grewal. Alexi was one of the top US Olympic contenders for the road race along with Davis Phinney and Thurlow Rogers. History will remember the unlikely scenario when Alexi broke away with noted Canadian road sprinter Steve Bauer. Everyone assumed that the very lean Grewal was riding for the silver, since both the US and Canadian teammates were blocking for them, but that’s not the way it ended. Grewal came around Bauer and beat him to the line, taking the Gold and paying homage to Jackson’s techniques.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and certainly Ian had his well-recognized imitators, none of whom could capture his spirit. They used his material without credit, and it bothered him some, but in the end it was all about spreading the word.

Ian also had a darker side. Like other frustrated artists, his work was sporadic, often misunderstood, and largely un-marketed. The man was a great storyteller, and one of his favorite vignettes concerned a period when he lived in a small, subterranean apartment not far from O’ahu’s famed North Shore of Waimea Bay. It was during the Chinese year of the Rat in `72 that he rode the big waves at Pipeline and Sunset, but the waves that brought him up also took him down.

He told a tale from this period to me. While sitting in a tub of hot water, contemplating the razor in his hand and what he felt he had to do next. At that moment, a large rat crawled from its hiding spot and launched itself onto a window sill just above the tub. “In the split of a second just before it bolted through the open window,” he recalled, “the rodent and I locked eyes, and I put the razor down. It was one of those moments you never forget.”

My intervals, that Tuesday, turned into a fast, steady tempo, and I did not give any of the other riders I passed on the PCH a chance to hang on my wheel. Ian was on my mind, guiding my thoughts and breath. He lived in suburban Fort Worth, where rats are neither revered nor capitalized. In fact, they are exterminated before they can impart wisdom, and life goes on until it stops. It stopped for Ian when a self-guided bullet entered his brain on the 16th day of May, and for all of us whom he coached, who loved him for his unique and enthusiastic character, our loss is palpable.

About John:
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.

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