When sponsors name a race after a cyclist and then start calling that rider a “legend,” the clear implication is that he or she is past their expiration date — and expected only to gimp out to the starting line and make a few hoary remarks before the young guns let loose. Legends are not supposed to vie for first place. But that is exactly what 58-year-old former Olympic mountain biker David “Tinker” Juarez did at last year's Tinker Classic, a 100-kilometer grinder through the steep hills and the 90-degree heat of the Mojave Desert.
"Four hours and 50 miles in,” says Samuel Brehm, a 22-year-old professional cyclist, “it was just me and Tinker out front. Then, right in the middle of this ghost town, he stood up, out of the saddle."
If Vegas had been placing odds on the 12-mile kick to the finish, the favorite surely would have been Brehm who, a few weeks earlier, won the cross-country race at the California mountain bike championships. “He put a 200-foot gap on me,” says Brehm. The younger rider whaled on his pedals; he closed. Then, Brehm says, “Tinker was gone. He just floated ahead of me. He won by two minutes. He is so strong."
Indeed. In 23 starts last season — in mountain bike and gravel races between 19 and 140 miles long and in locales ranging from Vermont to Argentina — Juarez finished first overall 14 times.
Selene Yeager, a pro mountain biker who writes the Fit Chick column for Bicycling magazine, marvels at how Juarez has “stayed at the pointy end of the game for so long. At 58, he's still out there crushing it. He's unique there,” Yeager says, before adding that longer races are congenial to older athletes. “They require the ‘miles in the legs’ that only experience can provide,” she says, “and Tinker has never stopped racing and training."
Don't ask Juarez to talk about how great he is, though. Out on a race course the man may look fierce, with long black dreads and a cragged mien so stony that's he's nicknamed “The Mayan Warrior,” but in conversation, he's exceedingly humble. “I can't say there's any special medicine,” he said recently, relaxing, post-ride, in his home just east of Los Angeles. “I just know that if I have 300 miles at the end of the week, I'm alright. And I need to live without stress.”
Single, and the half-time caretaker to his 12-year-old son, Juarez is a full-time professional rider, a Cannondale Bicycles brand ambassador who leads an almost monkish existence. Many days, he leaves the house just once, to ride in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. He avoids group rides — they can become stressful quasi-races — and he sticks to familiar routes. ("Knowing the roads gives me confidence,” he says.) While he's happy to race all over the world, he says he'll never move away from his native L.A.
A decade ago, he relocated briefly to rural Florida, settling in a region where, he says, “there was almost no other people who looked like me, no brown people. There were no shoulders on the road, and I felt very uncomfortable riding. It was only a matter of time before something happened.” He returned to L.A. and now, he says, “I feel good when I'm out on my bike.”
But Juarez has always known how to find bliss on two wheels. Growing up in L.A.'s hardscrabble eastern suburbs, he honed a love, early on, for BMX racing and in 1976, at 15, he became a California state champ. Over the ensuing dozen years, his three-minute BMX races were explosive sprints but, Juarez says, “I never thought of hitting the gym to bulk up. I just wanted to ride my bike and enjoy it.” He drifted for a while into freestyle BMX and got himself crowned “King of the Skateparks” on account of his twisting, sky-high aerials. He managed somehow to never break a bone in BMX — and to transform himself, in the 1990s, into one of the world's most dominant mountain bikers. After two disappointing Olympics, in 1996 and 2000, he tried his hand at ultra-road racing. In 2006, he finished third in the 3,000-mile Ride Across America.
At last year's La Ruta, a three-day 135-mile mountain bike race in Mexico, Juarez placed fifth. Looking ahead, he's plagued by the same kind of doubts that tug at many athletes over 50. He says, “The countdown to 60 is really happening. I just don't have the same legs I used to.”
But almost surely Juarez will find a way to quiet his mind. At whatever races lie ahead, he'll settle into a focus that goes deeper than all the chatter and swagger that swirls about less-experienced racers. And then cyclists 30 and even 40 years younger than him will get an excellent view of his back.