When Fred Schmid shows up for coffee in downtown Telluride, Colorado, he has all the trappings of a pro cyclist: the silver belt buckle he received for finishing the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race in under 12 hours, a Carmichael Training Systems sponsor cap, and distinct stripes on the neckline of his jersey, which denote his world champion status. Telluride is no stranger to hosting world-class athletes. But Schmid is a special case. This world-class athlete is 83 years old.
Schmid, a wiry man who speaks in a gentle North Carolina accent, is in southwestern Colorado to attempt what is arguably its toughest endurance event: The Telluride 100.
The grueling 100-mile mountain bike race takes riders on two mega-loops of rocky climbs, dizzying descents, mountain passes, highway miles, and more climbs. With roughly 15,000 feet of ascending, climbs up Black Bear Pass and Last Dollar Road and a high point of 12,895 feet, it’s the kind of suffer fest only certain types of die-hards would put themselves through.
Schmid got a taste of it on Tuesday, when he rode the second loop to prepare for the race.
“I couldn’t believe how much climbing there was,” he said.
Schmid came to the Telluride 100 at the behest of Tobin Behling, the race’s founder and organizer. Behling and his wife, Jennifer, promote, organize, and officiate cycling races in Texas, where Schmid is a local hero.
“We’ve been twisting Fred’s arm to come do this race since year No. 1,” Behling said. “We’re super excited that he’s here.”
Watching Schmid race, Behling said, “is very inspirational.”
Schmid’s story of becoming a pro rider is like many others, with one notable exception: It happened to him about 30 years later.
When he was 61, his wife Suzanne noticed him peering longingly into the window of the local bike shop in Waco, Texas, much like a little boy at a candy store. Knowing he was getting worried of losing his fitness with age, she bought him a Cannondale full-suspension mountain bike for Christmas. It was 1994.
At first, Schmid thought people would dismiss him as a crazy old man.
“If it wasn’t a gift, I would have returned it,” he said.
But then he started riding the local singletrack system in a park near his house (in jeans because he didn’t think he should wear Lycra at his age). And zipping through the dirt trails of the park brought back memories of his childhood in Tanzania, where he would ride his bike on footpaths around the coffee plantation where he grew up.
He got the bug. Pretty soon he befriended other riders–“They used to take me on trails that would throw me over the handlebars, and sometimes they were successful”–and started going on group rides, night rides, all kinds of rides, nearly every day.
It wasn’t long before one of his new buddies encouraged him to try a race. He entered an event in Laredo in the beginner category and got second place. It felt good, so he kept at it, earning ever-better finishes over time.
Next thing he knew, he was the state champion in his class in the expert category. Then, at the age of 67, he won the master’s XC World Championship in the 60-plus category. He won it again at the age of 70 in 2003–in a dead-heat sprint.
He’s completed the Leadville Trail 100 five times, is the current cyclocross national champion in his age group, and has won major competitions in road racing and marathon riding as well. These days, he’s a disciplined and diligent trainer who eats healthy, doesn’t drink, and has a coach and several sponsors. He and Suzanne, who is a crucial part of what he does, travel around the country with a little trailer so she can support him.
Schmid is humble about his achievements, noting that he doesn’t have a lot of competition in his age group. Suzanne Schmid speaks more plainly.
“He wouldn’t say that he has a natural gift for it, but I would,” she said. “He came into it very quickly.”
Fred, she noted, also has a bit of a competitive streak.
“He hates to see anybody go ahead of him,” she said. “He’ll go after anybody.”
Lately, Schmid has been training as hard as he can train. Even so, he’s tempered his expectations for the Telluride 100. With its merciless route and high elevations, it might end up just being a training ride for the Leadville 100 on August 13, he said.
One thing he’s sure of, however, is that regardless of the results, he’ll keep mountain biking.
“Somebody asked me, why do I keep doing it,” he said. “I think, ‘well, what am I going to do if I stop?'”
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