Chris Lieto has always been known for his strength and skill on two wheels. However, he underlined his reputation with a stunning 4:25:10 bike leg at the Ironman World Championships, a ride that so-nearly took him on to the top step of the podium. So what makes Chris Lieto so good? Mark Deterline – who rides with Lieto – discusses the man and his talent.
By Mark Deterline
Chris Lieto has long been a popular professional triathlete. He is well-liked for his friendly and approachable manner, his unassuming personality, his sincere desire to share and give back, and his dedication to family. In the San Francisco Bay Area where Lieto lives, almost everyone knows him, claims to know him or his next of kin personally and even expresses fondness for him. He’s the local boy who has done good, and the pretty boy who makes cougars swoon. In an area where road bike racing has a longer, more illustrious tradition than triathlon (as well as the typical infamy of being a closed, snooty subculture), Lieto has not only won over roadies by excelling at their sport as he has at tri, but he has also unceasingly made friends in both camps. Which brings us to our first consideration of how this man got to be such a successful saddle jockey.
Lieto is one of triathlon’s uberbikers because he is, as much as any man who shaves his legs and uses chamois cream, a cyclist.
Riding with Lieto is a treat because he’s so laid back. After moving to the San Francisco East Bay a couple of years ago, I had been on several group rides before recognizing who he was. You don’t necessarily know that one of the fastest multisport cyclists in the world is on the ride until someone finds out you’re new and asks, “You know who that is, right?” pointing to what had previously just looked like a young, fit rider. Or until his training calls for an interval, putting him in his aero extensions in front of 20 to 60 riders for several minutes while only the strongest riders survive in his slipstream as he pulls them out toward some of Livermore Valley’s historic wineries.
Lieto likes group rides, making our Saturday morning HOP (House of Pain) ride and the Wednesday morning Bakery Ride staples of his training program. “I like group rides largely for social reasons, and for motivation,” he says.
“They get me out on the bike for a few hours without me having to think about the effort like I do when I ride or run alone, or when I’m swimming, all of which still account for much of my training time. When I don’t want to go hard, I just sit in the pack. If I need to do intervals, I try to plan them around sections of the ride where everyone tends to go hard or try to drop one another anyway. If I need to go really hard, I just ride off the front; sometimes the stronger or more competitive riders jump on my wheel or get into a rotation with me, or I’ll just go off on my own and then circle back. Some of it depends on the terrain the group will cover. It needs to be a suitable ride.”
Leading us to consideration number two:
The bike is a strong discipline for Lieto because he enjoys the social and motivational aspects of riding with other cyclists and in groups, without allowing pack or testosterone dynamics to adversely affect his training plan.
Hopefully you won’t be disappointed to learn that two fundamental points I’ve taken away from my discussions with Lieto are his emphasis on rest and his use of recovery as a key ingredient to optimal performance. Of course you’ve heard these virtues preached a million times. But what impresses me about Lieto’s perspective is how emphatically he underlines the need to contextualize training sessions. “Each workout and its effectiveness,” he explains, “depend on what came before the workout and what will come after it.” In other words, Lieto understands that no workout exists in a vacuum.
Of course, it’s always exciting and impressive to read about some athlete’s massive training volume leading up to an event. Mark Allen’s trip to New Zealand with Scott Molina in 1989, which included huge weeks of training on the bike, is a memorable example. An even more dramatic case is Greg LeMond’s six-hour training ride the day before the ’89 world championships, which he won.
But times and training philosophies have changed to a large extent, and athletes like Lieto use smaller training volume and more rest and recovery to their advantage. “I know of recreational or accomplished age-groupers who train as much as I do,” he continues, “but they have busy lives. This is what I do for a living, so it’s easier for me to get the necessary training in, but still have enough time to recover properly.”
This point also leads us to our next consideration:
Lieto understands—and preaches—the importance of good coaching. “You need to get good training in, and a good coach,” he says. “One who really knows what they’re doing, can help you be efficient with your time and workouts, and someone who can help you avoid the tendency to overtrain.”
In a similar vein, the master of the bike and all things aerodynamic, biomechanical and wind tunnel-tested explains that you cannot overemphasize the importance of proper bike fit, especially as it pertains to TT bikes and proper aerodynamic positioning.
“I see athletes all the time who say they’ve been fit by a professional, but you can immediately tell that their position is off,” he explains. “I’m not talking about aerodynamics, but about their saddle height and fore-aft adjustments, as well as how their upper body is carrying stresses due to how the front end of their bike has been configured. Lieto understands that, as with finding a coach, “a rider needs to be very picky about who fits and positions them on a bike. It should be a sophisticated fitter who has access to the latest cycling-specific analysis tools and technology.”
Lieto is also a good example of someone who has invented himself as a personality in his sport as well as built a brand around his appealing aura and flair for design, presumably acquired while working as a fashion model in his younger days. But he has also continually reinvented himself as an athlete.
On Oct. 10, 2009, Chris Lieto himself made history at the Hawaii Ironman. Not because he rode away from some of triathlon’s strongest cyclists for the umpteenth time; and not because he finally fulfilled his Kona podium destiny that many had so long predicted. But instead because in 2009 some had already begun to doubt. What made this world championship memorable for all who witnessed it was Lieto’s show of force in all three disciplines, especially the way he held off Crowie for so long on the run, then stayed with him for almost two miles before the Aussie finally opened up a gap. Lieto caused a sensation. He became one of those Kona heroes whose second-place performance was perhaps even more memorable than the victor’s win. And while you will never ride as well as Lieto, you can follow his example at your own level in the following regard:
Lieto excels by setting the stage for a win or good finish during the bike segment.
Instead of accepting what many thought was his fate—to finish top-10, several minutes off the winning time—Lieto took control on his bike. He wasn’t chasing a dream that day; he was making it happen. And by so doing, he made the race, taking the collective audience’s breath away in the process. Craig Alexander won because he raced a perfect race; anything less and the crown was Lieto’s. But what has that to do with the rest of us, detained in cubicles and limited by the time and financial resources that remain after mortgages, college funds and relationship needs are satisfied? As we know, a champion’s role is to inspire. If we are tempted to feel discouraged by the seemingly superhuman abilities of someone like Lieto, there is something more human to consider in all of this:
Lieto excels because he’s very human.
Just when you’re tempted to think, “For heaven’s sake, he’s perfect,” (a teammate of mine referred to Lieto as Too-Too after first meeting him—too pretty, too nice, too strong, etc.), Lieto reveals a very occasional tendency to stutter. Or he pulls off his helmet and you see that the hair on his pretty face and head is thinning. “Oh, thank God. He’s actually human.” It’s not that his imperfections take anything away from who he is or make you feel somehow better about yourself; they simply inspire authentic respect, true and lasting admiration, and that’s what actually makes other athletes feel encouraged and empowered. Perhaps it’s those vulnerabilities, along with his wife being sharp as a tack, that keep him humble. Whatever his gifts and challenges, he has proven time and time again that no amount of skepticism will keep him from proving that he has what it takes. What all that does for us, his friends and fans, is put things back into a context we can identify with, that motivates us to excel within our own personal paradigms. Ergo our final consideration of what makes this champion and hero successful, on and off the bike:
Lieto excels because nothing and no one is going to discourage him or stand in his way.
Ask yourself what Chris Lieto would do and then there’s only one thing to do: make it happen—by becoming a good cyclist, finding good riding companions, being smart about how a workout fits into your life and training schedule (by making rest and recovery an art form), working with a truly knowledgeable coach, finding an expert bike fitter, using the bike segment as a strategic part of each race, achieving good balance in life, being yourself and never ever allowing others to determine your destiny. Ideally, we would all follow his example by taking our sport seriously while not taking ourselves too seriously.