Department

The Long Ride

Can the man who once was one of America's most accomplished cyclists become great again-or is it enough that he's back on his bike?

By
August 2011

Last September 11, as riders gathered for the start of the inaugural Crooked Roubaix bicycle race in Winter Park, an unusual competitor joined the starting-line pack. The 90-mile challenge—two-thirds of it run on graded dirt trails and the rest on paved roads—had attracted about 150 athletes, all decked out in their colorful, tight-fitting cycling finery.

All except one. Although he was whip-thin like most of the others and sported a pair of padded cycling shorts, the rest of the 50-year-old’s getup was more panhandler than elite athlete. He’d rolled up on a 17-year-old mountain bike that, according to observers, had to weigh “at least 35 pounds.” And in his flannel shirt and hiking boots, with a nearly toothless grin peeking out from under his construction-style hard hat, the participants could have been forgiven for thinking he was just another Rocky Mountain oddball. “Not a lot of people knew who I was,” the rider remembers, laughing. “And almost no one who knew who I was said anything to me. So that was kind of good. I rode the only bike I had. I just pumped up my tires real good and went for it.”

By the time the race ended, everyone knew who he was. Because Alexi Grewal—the Colorado-bred cyclist and onetime Olympic gold medalist, who a few decades ago had ridden off not only into the sunset, but into oblivion—had just finished fourth. “The whole idea was to show those guys that I could ride with them,” Grewal says. “I trained seriously for about four weeks and went up there just to see what I could do.”

Alexi Grewal has always aggressively flouted convention and rebelled against other people’s notions of how or what he should be; whether that attitude has helped or hindered him is debatable. The son of a Sikh father who had emigrated from India (Grewal’s mother is American), Grewal grew up in the lily-white hills of Aspen, where his parents owned a bike shop. He began racing as a 12-year-old but didn’t discover his gift for speed until his late teens.

Once he started competing, Grewal developed a reputation for power, endurance, and aggressiveness in races across Colorado’s grueling terrain, and by the early ’80s he had become one of the state’s top riders. The competitions back then were unpolished, renegade contests that emphasized toughness over finesse. “We’d control races just through the force of our personalities, because you knew everybody in the field,” Grewal says. “You’d just do it so you didn’t fall behind and get embarrassed.”

This antagonistic style launched Grewal into the elite ranks just in time for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Despite failing a drug test just before the games—the positive result was later found to be caused by his approved asthma medication—he made the U.S. team. There, he reached what some would call the pinnacle of his career, a dramatic sprint in the last 50 meters that overtook the race’s leader and gave Grewal the gold medal, the first in U.S. men’s road cycling history.

The victory propelled him to the international pro racing circuit. American cycling back then still was small time—this was more than a decade before Lance Armstrong turned the sport into a hip, glamorous pursuit—and to make any real money, riders had to go to Europe. Grewal competed in the Tour de France and other top-level races, soaking up the press attention and perks. But in a theme that’s echoed throughout his life, Grewal’s iconoclasm overshadowed his triumphs. “I never really accomplished what I wanted to as a racer,” he says. “Even though I was well known and won one or two big races, my career was a disappointment, athletically and financially.”

The rigorous training schedule pro cycling demands began to frazzle Grewal, who eventually became known more for his bristly personality than for his skills. “Alexi was one of those guys who you could hand something to on a silver platter and he wouldn’t know what to do with it,” says Ron Kiefel, who raced with Grewal in the 1980s and now owns Wheat Ridge Cyclery. “But take it away and he’d fight like crazy to get it back.”

After several years racing the European circuit, Grewal grew restless and ambivalent. “I wanted to win the Tour de France and be a legitimate pro at that level,” he says. “But once I knew that wasn’t going to happen, the real fun and joyful part of racing got squeezed out.”

Naturally, the idea of exiting gracefully was foreign to him. During the 1986 Tour de France, Grewal spat on a cameraman while racing for the elite American 7-11 team, which then dropped him. He raced for various other teams over the next seven years but never again reached his Olympian heights, and he retired from cycling in 1993. “By the end of it I never imagined putting my leg over a bike and trying to go fast ever again,” he says. “I didn’t want to. I had been racing since I was 12 years old and I was over it. There wasn’t anything else for me in it.”

The end of Grewal’s professional career also meant the end of the paychecks. He bounced between uninspiring jobs and his duties as a stay-at-home dad to his two infant children while his wife supported their family, and he quit riding altogether. “The first few months after you stop being a racer are the worst,” Grewal says. “As each day passes you wonder ‘What am I going to do next?’ and you keep descending into this big black hole that just gets deeper and deeper. I did have my kids and I was married, so there was a certain amount of fulfillment there, but professionally I was just lost.”

By 1998, Grewal was divorced, and “income issues” kept him from seeing his children as much as he would’ve liked. (Grewal also was quoted in 2004 as saying he’d battled drug and alcohol addictions but now denies this was true.) Regardless, he knew he had to change something. “After I was done riding there was a huge void in my life,” he says. “But from there you find your way back into life however you can.”

Although it took the better part of a decade, Grewal finally found his way back in. He started a new career in timber framing in Loveland and volunteered at a homeless shelter. However, despite getting inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2004, Grewal still shied away from the bike. He rode only for convenience, around town or commuting to work, and gave little thought to competing again.

His estrangement from cycling didn’t stop Grewal from weighing in on its rampant doping controversy. He penned a rambling and strangely poetic essay for VeloNews in 2008 in which he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs as far back as 1978. “As I progressed up the scale, stimulants like caffeine were just a by-word,” he wrote. “Rocket fuel was tea with one Vivarin, double rocket fuel was tea with two… When in Rome do as the Romans do!... Whether it be the blood of bulls or goats, I would have drunk from that cup in a heartbeat for any measure of that glory.”

This conscience cleansing spurred more changes. Grewal once again grew closer to his kids, and he even ran for mayor of Loveland in 2009. (He finished a distant fourth campaigning on an anti-commercial development platform, but he hasn’t ruled out running again someday.) Slowly, he returned to cycling, paying more attention this time to how he could give to the sport rather than take from it. Pro cycling’s doping controversies are as prevalent as ever—within the past several months Lance Armstrong has faced new allegations about past drug use—and Grewal, who knows something about reclamation projects, sees the revelations as a chance for cycling to set itself back on a righteous path. “It’s no secret that doping has been woven into the sport from the very beginning,” he says. “But it’s to our advantage to have all these issues come up because we as a sport are really having to face it out in the open.”

Getting reacquainted with the concept of “we” may be the final piece in Alexi Grewal’s comeback. Encouraged by his 13-year-old son, Grewal has climbed back onto his bike, riding seriously for the first time in nearly two decades. He knows his 50-year-old body has put his original goal of competing with a pro team out of reach, but he has spent the past year training and racing in high-level amateur events across North America. “It’s been good for me,” he says, “a discipline-builder, if nothing else.” Grewal’s longtime colleagues marvel at his irrepressible energy and disregard for other people’s opinions. “He still has that gumption,” says Wheat Ridge Cyclery’s Keifel, recalling Grewal’s lumberjack outfit at the Crooked Roubaix race. “There aren’t many guys who would go out and do that sort of thing.”

Even though he doesn’t expect to race professionally again, Grewal is open to wherever his personal turnaround leads. “I’m realistic. I knew [going pro again] would pretty much be impossible, but I also knew that it would be a lot of fun,” he says. “Maybe I’ll just end up using the fitness that I get out of this to better myself—and that’s fine too.”

Timothy Sprinkle is a Denver-based writer. Email him at [email protected].