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Velocity Nation Interviews John Loehner

By September 18, 2006October 20th, 2021No Comments

This news article featuring Bob Mionske has been reproduced here for our media archives.

Mon, 09/18/2006 – 8:00pm by Andy

schmalz Let’s get it right out in the open, you’re an ex-pro, correct? Could you describe your career path? What was your path into the pro ranks? Why do you choose to torture the poor NYC racers?

Loehner I started when I was 15. I began racing for the Kissena Cycling Club doing their club races in Prospect Park. After a couple of years I was upgraded to a cat 2 and raced for a sponsored sub team of the club that included George Hincapie, his brother Rich and Charlie Issendorf. It eventually morphed into the Mengoni team racing today although I never raced in those colors. I spent a couple of summers driving from race to race (Midwest and East Coast), sleeping in motel rooms with 6 or 7 other riders and friends plus all the equipment. We were really young and that was the only way most of us could afford to do it. It was lots of fun and the racing was plentiful and fast.

I spent a few months racing/training in Europe one spring when I was 19 and loved it. 1 year later, in the fall, I got to go to South America and race the 2 week Vuelta de Chile, representing the US, finishing in the top 20 overall and winning the final stage. That was when I began to think that maybe I could get pretty good at this racing stuff. My first nationals road race was in 1990 and I came in 12th , seconds down from the lead group sprinting for the win. I guess I had a good enough of a season that year because I found myself at a winter training camp at the OTC in Colorado Springs and then on to a team based out in Seattle for the year. I went over to do Britain’s Milk Race with the national team where we scored a number of top ten stage finishes including a 2nd place on stage 8 for me and a top 10 overall with Darren Baker. It was fantastic racing even though it rained for part of almost every day.

My improvement continued later that year at the 1991 nationals when I was on the winning (and record setting) TTT squad. I managed a 9th in the ITT and suffered to a 16th place in the road race (less than 35 riders finished that year). That earned me a spot on the Pan American TTT and road race squad that year in Cuba. Great experience! (bronze medal in the TTT after a flat and mechanicals.) I was surrounded by great people that year who wanted to see me succeed and eventually put me in touch with the management group putting together the Saturn Team. Saturn was amateur the first year (1992) and we had lots of success, especially at the Nationals/Olympic trials. We managed 2nd in the TTT (a heart break), won the road race with Chann McRea , and I squeezed out a 7th in the ITT, a 6th in the road race and got the KOM prize for the day. The team went pro the following year and I was one of the lucky ones to get a contract. I had the opportunity to race the Ruta Mexico, Du Pont, Corestates, and a host of other international races. I got to race with a bunch of the top riders in the world at the time and I had to pinch myself repeatedly. Ultimately though, I wasn’t good enough to really break through at that level and after a few years pro I figured it was time to move onto career #2.

schmalz What was your introduction to bike racing; did you have a dad or family member involved?

You avoided the whole “bike dude” career after being a pro, what influenced you to choose the career you did?

Loehner I was the first in my family to get involved with organized sport of any kind. (My youngest brother Christopher would take up racing a year or so after me.) My Dad was athletic as a kid but joined the navy when he was 17 and then became a cop for the NYPD and spent 30yrs in the department. My Mom was a full time mother until my high school days and then went back to school for her masters degree and became an elementary school teacher for the NY Board of Ed. There was no prior connection or predisposing factor that led me to cycling. I played baseball like most kids but always did well with running and endurance. I had managed to save some money doing odd jobs (shoveling snow and mowing lawns -yes there are lawns to be mowed in Queens) and decided to get a decent bike. (Decent for me at that time was a 30lb Motobecane with shifters on the down tube!) I loved riding that thing and did so every chance I had. I put one of those big, gear driven, cylindrical speedometers on it so I would know how far I pedaled and always wanted to go farther each week. The shop I got the bike from sold Bicycling magazine and cycling shorts as well. I bought a pair of shorts (maroon!) and an issue of the mag. I thought it was cool and wanted to know more about the sport and how to get involved – I became a bike geek for sure.

One day that August I happened to come across “some older dude” riding a nice bike (in Queens!). He was originally from Italy and was a huge fan of the sport- Francesco Moser in particular. We began talking and riding together occasionally. He gave me some Euro cycling mags and a video of Moser’s preparation for and Mexico City hour record ride. I was totally hooked after that. I knew I HAD to do this. We became fast friends and he was one of my biggest supporters (besides my parents) driving me to races when my parents couldn’t, offering basic tips on training/racing, and always a source of motivation. His name is Angelo Visone and I owed him a lot.

I had a good idea early on of what I wanted to do when I grew up (after cycling). I always liked the sciences and felt connected to those disciplines – if that makes any sense. I came from a blue collar family and had absolutely no pressure to pick one career or another, just as long as I stayed in school and didn’t goof off. It was an interesting conversation when I told my parents I wanted to take spring semesters off from college to go and race my bike. I knew racing had a very finite life span and never considered remaining involved in the business end of the sport. I wanted to be a doctor later on even if it meant being a 35year old student, which it did. After my last year racing full time I spent 5 years doing graduate work in molecular biology and then teaching at a few universities. No racing and not a lot of riding during that time. I finally applied and got into med school fall of ‘99. It took med school and an old friend to bring me back to racing again. The outlet riding provides, the camaraderie/friendships, and the fitness have all kept me back in it through med school and residency.

schmalz How do the Doctor’s hours jive with bike racing? Don’t you guys work for like 18 hours straight?

Is it true you never train; you just sort of rise vampire-like and arrive at the race, ready to punish?

Loehner The hours worked during residency don’t jive too well with training and racing. Lots of overnight hours, most of which is spent on your feet, and little sleep – not the recipe for cycling success. I don’t really follow a “training regimen” because time availability fluctuates a lot month to month- ranging from 40-50 hrs/week to 80-100hrs/wk. I try to take advantage of the time I get when I get it to go for a ride. This year the time constraints have been better so I have had the opportunity to ride AND sleep. Occasionally I do rise from the bowels of the hospital like a vampire and go directly to a race but the only punishment is self inflicted.

schmalz I recently heard a quote from a doctor about endurance athletes where he stated: “Endurance athletes are fit, but they are not well.” Would you agree with this? I mean physically speaking. That we are all unwell mentally to begin with is a given, I think.

Loehner There are certainly lots of opinions, myths, and wive’s tales about athletic training/competition, fitness and overall health (and even more so for mental health.) However, the pile of good scientific data is not huge. There is evidence that the “chronically trained” athlete’s heart does undergo changes in both structure and function that may be lasting. Whether this is beneficial, harmful, or neither is not yet known. There is an increase in oxidative stress during periods of heavy training reflected by decreased levels of vitamin E and other markers but it is not known if this has any long term effects as well.

There is data showing no difference in immune function between trained endurance athletes and sedentary individuals chronically. The only difference is a small decrease in parameters of function within a few hours of intense activity and a few hours afterwards. Again, not clear as to the significance of this because there is no increase in the incidence of colds or flu-like illnesses between athletes and non-athletes. There is some good news though. There is a lasting effect on the ability of endurance athletes’ arteries to widen or dilate in response to normal or natural hormones that they produce. It’s better than people who are sedentary or non-endurance athletes. This may mean that the arteries that feed our hearts and other vital organs may be healthier in the long run. Even after the cessation of training, the amount or concentration of capillary beds in our muscles and various organs, VO2 max, and a variety of enzymatic processes that govern energy production remains higher than in an untrained (or never trained) person albeit lower than during a period of training. There are also effects that are gender specific i.e. eating habits, menstrual cycle abnormalities, musculoskeletal injuries in women and decreased sperm motility in men (had to throw that one in – don’t worry it’s temporary).

Overall I can only say that the highly trained cyclist’s body is very fit but also very stressed. How this stress effects our general and long term health is not clear. Don’t you love it when someone takes a stand on an issue!?

schmalz That’s really well explained, actually. Even though I had to read that paragraph twice.

What surprised you most about the lifestyle after you became a professional bike racer? The traveling? The competition? The suitcases full of cash?

Loehner I was already doing a decent amount of traveling as an amateur but it did pick up a bit as a pro, as expected. Aside from actually riding/racing the lifestyle of a full time cyclist is composed of lots of time spent on planes and in airports. It can be quite nomadic. The racing was always very aggressive. Even breakaways would be “broken” with attacks, especially if there was someone who either was weaker or sitting on. When you are not riding you are always aware of what you are doing and how it will affect your riding. (A major contributor to the craziness factor we all seem to possess.) However, you need to be that way to get to a very high caliber of competition. So no surprises there. I loved the lifestyle despite its fatiguing effect.

Overall, the degree of professionalism was very high. I can’t say anything about doping though because I never witnessed any suspicious behavior or participated in any rumor mill. Whether that was a result of keeping a straight and narrow path or putting my head in the sand I don’t know. With what has come out in the press in the last 10 years I guess I would have to say that the lack of suspected or confirmed doping cases is a surprise (retrospectively of course) even with respect to domestic racing. Competition is competition and the pressures to perform and continue to get a contract are the same. I still prefer to think that there is much less of the funny stuff going on here than in Europe. As a newbie I also didn’t realize how organized and business-like the teams were. It takes a lot of work by a lot of support staff to make a good pro team run well and afford their riders the best opportunities to win races. Everyone works very hard toward a successful season and I was most surprised and impressed by the work done “behind the scenes.” The suitcases full of cash came only once my eyes were closed and I entered REM sleep.

schmalz From all of your time traveling, did you become a packing ninja? Can you whip together a suitcase for a 4 week trip in about 45 seconds?

What was your best day on a bike? Which rider you raced with did you respect the most and why?

Loehner Packing became a sport all its own. How much stuff could I fit into a suitcase and how quickly could I get it in there? Trips were not always to a race and then back home. Sometimes they were for weeks at a time and you had to be prepared for any condition. I had a hard-shell suitcase and a soft canvas bike bag (makes total sense – protect the clothes and screw the bike). I had dense carpet padding that I would wrap the bike up with after removing the seat and putting on spare wheel axles to protect the dropouts. The packed bike bag was real light and took about 15min to pack. Perfect for a cyclist on the go. The suitcase was less of a task most of the time because I rarely ever unpacked when I was home! The clothes went from the case to the laundry back to the case. Lazy or efficient – you make the call. When I actually had to start packing from scratch it didn’t take long because the list of items to pack never really changed. I would frequently pack for a trip less than an hour before leaving for the airport (and I never left for the airport early). You are moving and traveling so much that the last thing you want to do is spend a lot of time packing/unpacking. It got to be rote after a while.

I had the pleasure (and pain) of racing with and against some incredibly talented people. Armstrong (pre-cancer of course), Julich, Grewal, Steve Larson, Darren Baker, Bart Bowen, the McCormack Brothers, and some big name euro pros – all of which deserve respect in their own right and most for more than one reason. Choosing one is difficult and unfair to many. However, if I have to pin down one rider my vote would have to go to Bob Mionske. We were teammates for a year and we were roommates for a number of the trips as well. His racing career speaks for itself regarding his talent and ability to win in pressure situations. He used psychology as well as his legs to win races and riled up a lot of people doing that. However, his sense of self – knowing who he was, weaknesses and strengths, tenacity, willingness to fulfill any role to succeed, and no BS attitude was among the highest I have come across. I could name a bunch of riders I highly respect for qualities both on and off the bike, but I don’t want to be a big sap right now.

The best day I had on a bike? Another difficult choice. It would be easy to choose a day I won a race (or came oh so close) but that’s not the only thing that makes a great day. I have done very well in races were I felt lousy or wanted to do anything except race my bike and I wouldn’t put those days on this short list. I think one of the days that stand out to me was the 1992 National’s road race. It was the first season for Team Saturn and we were still amateur. There was a lot of pressure to do well and send someone to the Olympics. Of course, everyone and their mother thought they had a chance at making the Olympic squad (you gotta dream right?) and the field was huge (well over 200 riders). As for our sponsors, there was a lot riding on that particular week. My fitness was fine but I certainly was not confident that it was at its best. It was hot and humid (Nats were in Altoona, PA that year) and I liked that. Without going through the play-by-play I can say that I had a very good day on the bike and the team dominated the race. The fact that we were all able to step up and respond to the pressure and that many of us had individual success as well as team success was especially memorable – good feelings all around. The rest of Nationals week went well. We won the road race and criterium, second in the TTT and sent someone to Barcelona for the Olympic road race. It was fantastic to be a part of that.

schmalz Not to speak about any specific situation in cycling (but if you want to, feel free), what are the health ramifications of taking the substances banned by the UCI, specifically EPO, testosterone, and human growth hormone?

Loehner This is a big question and I’m certainly no expert. However, it’s important information because athletes and coaches are becoming more sophisticated in training methods both legal and banned. I would guess that of the people who have taken drugs to boost performance, from caffeine to EPO, many don’t know the evidence for or against its use. There is a large amount of information on all of these drugs in the context of illness. The data regarding performance enhancement is not as abundant likely due to the lack of publication or the difficulty in obtaining the info or both.

The use of testosterone, its derivatives, and precursors (like andro and DHT) is alarmingly high across all levels of sport. Uses involving injectable, oral, human, and veterinary preparations have all been reported. It has both virilizing and tissue building properties. Synthetic derivatives claiming to have more tissue building properties and less virilizing properties have been shown to fall short of their claims. They all bind to the same single type of receptor in the body. Data showing clear evidence of their performance enhancement is scarce albeit difficult to obtain in the first place. (Most come from questionnaires and animal studies – not the gold standard.) Steroid hormones can induce muscle hypertrophy and increase the number of muscle fibers per muscle group. This MAY lead to improved strength and enhanced recovery. However, hormones take weeks of dosing if they are to have any effect. (A single or one time dose will not do much of anything to any athlete, especially overnight.)

The data on adverse effects is better but not complete. It’s known that exogenous testosterone can suppress the endogenous production of testosterone and the pituitary hormones that regulate it. It can lead to testicular atrophy and gynecomastia (breast development in males), hirsutism in females, baldness, severe acne, and erectile dysfunction. Most individuals report changes in mood (both aggression and depression) and changes in libido (both increased and decreased). The good news is that these effects are mostly reversible. There’s more: hypertension, cardiac muscle hypertrophy (not the good kind like we get when we ride a lot), ischemia (lack of oxygen) have all been documented with testosterone abuse and this is not necessarily reversible. (Sudden cardiac death has also been reported in association with testosterone use – definitely not reversible) Liver damage and liver cancer have been associated with long term use as well – again, the risks of this happening do not necessarily go away when you stop using the stuff. There is some evidence that physical/psychological dependence – much like that with recreational drugs – can occur as well.

EPO is a protein that is produced by our kidneys that stimulates the production of red blood cells. It has been around for some time now and is used widely in the medical field for the correction of certain types of anemia – in patients with kidney failure, cancers, and patients on some classes of medications. It is one of the only substances widely accepted as having a true beneficial effect for endurance athletes. It has been found to produce a higher rate of blood clots in the legs, the lungs and the brain. There is the possibility of inducing a mild form of hypertension or exacerbating a preexisting hypertension. Some people can develop a “functional anemia” especially if proper iron supplementation is not present. There have been reports of patients developing an immune response to the protein that shuts down the bone marrow’s ability to produce any red cells. Most of these adverse effects are seen when target hemoglobin levels are inappropriately high or the dose of EPO is large.

What does this mean for an athlete? It is very difficult to extrapolate these effects to the “healthy athlete” as all of the data come from studies looking at people who are quite ill and have many comorbidities. (Those are the people who need the drug!) An allergic/immune reaction could potentially be experienced by anyone, sick or healthy. The main concern would be from the blood becoming too thick because there are too many red cells and not enough fluid, resulting in a hyperviscosity syndrome with blood clots and possibly heart failure. This is seen with a rare disease called Polycythemia Vera, which could potentially be mimicked by high doses of EPO and unchecked hematocrit levels. There are no reports of death during competition or training amongst athletes that have used EPO. There have been reports in the lay press of the deaths of some endurance athletes – cyclists and cross country skiers – allegedly connected to EPO during the advent of its use (or abuse) in athletics. These all occurred during sleep or periods of rest.

Growth hormone is a pituitary derived hormone that regulates many metabolic functions including protein synthesis, water and salt retention, and the breakdown of stored fats. It also antagonizes the effects of insulin. It is present during fetal life, peaks during puberty, and then slowly declines as we age. Its production is influenced by many factors both endogenous and exogenous. Its secretion is pulsatile with approximately 10 pulses per day. Peak levels can be seen just after deep sleep, exercise, trauma, and infection. It has anabolic properties, and when administered to patients who have deficiencies, it can improve strength and cardiac performance. It’s been shown to increase cardiac output in rodents as well. However, there has only been one published controlled trial of GH with respect to athletic performance and it was shown to have no effect on protein synthesis or breakdown. An improvement in lean muscle mass was shown due to a decrease in body fat. Giving more GH to elderly men also did not result in an improvement in overall strength. Administering GH to a healthy man or woman has the potential to induce acromegaly- a state of GH excess (usually caused by some pituitary tumors). This can produce heart disease, coarse facial features, overly dense bones, joint disease, skin changes, nerve dysfunction, voice changes and an enlarged tongue which can obstruct breathing. However, there are no reported cases resulting from its use in sports.

There are so many other drugs out there that have been used to gain an edge on the competition. Insulin, insulin-like growth factor, clenbuterol, DHB, amphetamines, etc. What every athlete should know is that for many of these substances, the potential risks are likely to outweigh any potential benefit. Some of these risks are not reversible and even more are not yet known. The desire to win at all costs is most likely to be a losing proposition in the end.

schmalz OK, we’re entering into the realm of accuracy and sincerity, so I feel compelled to mention my rear end. There, order is restored to the NYVC universe!