From pastime to passionLike any kid, John Tomlinson rode a bike for fun, regularly cycling the 10 miles between his home in Brooklyn and Hunter High School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The school had a little cycling club and participated in an annual event called the Pepsi 24-Hour Challenge: riding around Central Park for 24 hours straight. Ten students would do it, stopping every couple of hours for peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Tomlinson rode 250 miles in 24 hours—“not bad for a teenager in cutoffs and a T-shirt,” as he says—and he was hooked. “It wasn’t just the challenge, or the chance to stay out all night. It was my first time encountering high-level cyclists.”
Those cyclists suggested that he join the local cycling club, the Century Road Club Association, which holds races almost every Saturday in Central Park. So in spring 1983 Tomlinson signed up, got his blue-and-gold jersey, and started racing at the lower levels. He has been racing in 30 to 70 events a year ever since, except for right after college, when he taught English in Guangzhou, China, for two years. He’s now on the board of directors of the Century Road Club Association and is a Category 2 racer in the 40-plus age group.
What are all those categories?“In foot racing, the best strategy—and I’m simplifying—is to run as fast as you can and leave the weaker runner behind. Bike racing is different,” Tomlinson explains. Weaker competitors can often keep up with stronger ones by drafting: riding just behind the lead cyclist, who tires himself out battling the wind. Even when cyclists’ abilities vary considerably, a hundred racers will arrive at the finish line within seconds.
To reduce the risk of crashes, race organizers limit the number of participants and divide them into skill categories. (Local organizations may establish other categories, like age groups.) Anyone can start as a beginner (Category 5) and work his or her way up to Category 1, the top amateur level, by finishing in first to sixth place in a certain number of events. Category 1 and 2 racers are relatively few, and the pros often race alongside them. “At smaller local races, people can win just by being better. But as you get higher and ability levels get very close, team tactics make a big difference. You can beat people who are much stronger,” says Tomlinson.
Focus, focus, focusAs a high school senior, Tomlinson remembers looking up at Category 1 and 2 racers and presuming that their level of ability was unattainable. His two years away from the sport gave him some valuable perspective. “A lot of people race for the excitement, but what really matters is where you are at the finish line,” he points out. “When I came back from China, I placed in a lot of races and moved up to Category 2 because I was very focused.”
Tomlinson recently joined the Deno’s Wonder Wheel cycling team, which is sponsored by the Ferris wheel in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, and credits team tactics for two of his best personal results. One was in the Coupe des Amériques race in Québec in 1998, when he and a teammate attacked in the middle of race. Tomlinson zoomed into the lead, and the pack of 60 riders chased after him. When they caught up, his teammate leapfrogged into the lead for five miles, and when the pack caught up again, Tomlinson broke away with one other guy and ended up second place. “Without us taking turns and making everyone else use their energy, we wouldn’t have been able to get away like that,” he explains. Team members talk before and during a race, collaborating to raise the pace and close a gap between the pack and the lead cyclist, or taking 30-second turns at breaking the wind.
Riding for charity, tooIn college Tomlinson rode from Boston to Los Angeles in 59 days, stopping each night to talk about overcoming hunger in the world. “It was really interesting,” he recalls. “When you’re on a bike, as opposed to in a car, you see so many more things.” That charity ride led to a lifelong interest in international development. Tomlinson now works for the Synergos Institute, a nonprofit organization that fights poverty in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—important work that he balances with his love of cycling.
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Name: John Forrest Tomlinson
Born: New York City, 1965
Where I go to watch IMAX films: American Museum of Natural History in New York City
Job: Associate director of public affairs, Synergos Institute
Education: B.A., Harvard College; master’s degree in international relations, Yale University
Book/s I'd want if I were stranded on a desert island: Inside USA, by John Gunther
Favorite place to visit: Vermont
Favorite food: It varies with the time of the year. Right now, a salad made with really ripe Jersey tomatoes.
Favorite artist/kind of music: I listen to a lot of stuff. Right now, my favorite artist is Underworld.