ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Cedar Crest’s 60-year-old Tony Byatt, an Albuquerquere Academy and UNM grad, knows what it’s like to be a state champion cyclist on the road and on high-banked oval tracks.
He has won a combination of 17 age-group titles in Florida, where he lived for 20-plus years, five in South Carolina and three in New Mexico.
Among his achievements in Albuquerque was winning the New Mexico Criterium in 2012.
But that’s not all.
He’s also been a national champion four times and in November raced on the track in the 55-59 age classification against the top riders of the Western Hemisphere while competing in the Pan Am Games in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
“There were probably 30 to 40 in my age group, all of whom were their country’s champion (at one time or another),” Byatt said in a recent interview at his mountain home he shares with wife Leslie.
“I raced in five events and took two golds, two silvers and a bronze. At 59, I was the oldest guy in the age group.”
The golds were in the 500 meters and the team sprint. He also earned the award for best all-around rider.
A few years earlier, Byatt could even boast of holding the world age-group record in the 200 meters.
“In 2012 I went up to the track in Colorado Springs — the Olympic Velodrome — and in 200-meter qualifying I set a new (55-59) world record,” he said. “It lasted for five minutes.”
After Byatt’s time of 11.39 seconds beat the record of 11.5, Rich Voss of Littleton, Colo, who is now Byatt’s coach, shattered that with a 10.99. That mark still stands.
These days, Byatt is gung-ho to win a title in the men’s 60-64 group at the World Masters Track Cycling Championships in Manchester, England, to be held Oct. 1-8.
“I’ve been to the worlds four times before, but the best I’ve ever done is a third,” Byatt said.
If he should win a world crown, nothing in racing would thrill him more than to have the honor of wearing the rainbow jersey stripes of a world champ when Los Angeles plays host to the worlds next year.
After that, he said, he’d like to take a stab at coaching.
For now, though, he’s focusing on October’s championships while concentrating his efforts on the scratch race that goes roughly 48 to 60 laps around the 250-meter track with banking of about 42 degrees in the corners.
All this preparation is going on while he’s also working full time for Meridian Contracting, his primary sponsor. Among other things, Meridian provides him with a truck for travel to U.S. venues and pays his wages while he’s out competing. Another sponsor, Robson Forensic of Hilton Head, S.C., pays for his airfare to international events.
About the race
“I happen to be a good sprinter, but I’m built more like an endurance rider, so I decided I would do the scratch race, which has roughly two dozen people on the track at a time,” he said. “I’m having to learn how to do it, which is why I’ve hired a coach for the last three years.
“It’s real fast all the time with a sprint at the end.”
Byatt already envisions how the race will play out:
“There’s this one guy in the United States who’s been dominant in the scratch race in my age group for years (Larry Nolan). I can outsprint him every single time, no problem. So if I could figure how to sit on his wheel for the 12 or 15 kilometers, I could pass him on the last lap.
“It would irritate the hell out of him, but I’d be the world champion. That’s my plan.”
But plans can go awry if there’s a mad scramble to the end among a cluster of riders.
“When you get 15 guys going for the finish line and the No. 2 guy crashes, that’s called a ‘yard sale,'” he said. “Parts will fly all over the track.”
After all, it’s hard for riders to stop when their bikes don’t have brakes.
A unique rider
Byatt’s mentor said he thinks Byatt has got a good shot at getting world gold.
Said Voss: “I tend to coach riders who are endurance-based or sprint-based. Tony’s good at both, which is very unique. He’s got that athleticism and is tenacious. He’s got the mental qualities and the physical qualities.”
Voss, who also will be racing at the worlds, but not in the scratch event, said their 60-64 age group will pack a strong field.
“Masters riding has reached a very high level,” Voss said. “When the (world governing body) started the masters track worlds in 1985, they thought it would be nice to have for these old guys to get together and drink beer.
“But over the years, the quality of the racing has gotten to be phenomenal. It’s called the world championships for a reason.”
Although track racing today doesn’t have the same cachet as road racing’s Tour de France, almost a century ago this sport was one of the most popular spectator events in the country. That’s according to cycling historian Peter Nye, author of the biography “The Fast Times of Albert Champion”, who was a charismatic, record-setting cyclist of that era.
Especially riveting were six-day marathons at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“Crowds back in the 1920s going to watch the Garden Sixes dressed in their Sunday finest — suits and fedoras for men, dresses and cloche hats and gloves for women,” Nye said in an email to the Journal. “People went to see and to be seen in the Circus Maximus.”
The jockeying by riders for the lead led to intense interest.
“Top sprinters can rewrite a race in just a few yards,” he said. “Ten yards during a match race can see the lead change back and forth.”
Byatt’s early days
Byatt’s affinity for cycling was something he acquired in earnest during his eighth-grade year in school.
“At the time, I lived on the West Mesa and I rode my bicycle on the very first Earth Day (April 22, 1970) to the Academy — 22 miles one way — in the snow,” he said. “I got hooked and have been riding since.”
Perhaps the main reason he was attracted to riding was because of his small frame.
“Cycling was something a little guy could do, and I was a 98-pounder as a wrestler my senior year,” said Byatt, who’s now 5-foot-11, 170.
Byatt was good enough on the mat to earn a scholarship to the University of New Mexico, but a neck injury his sophomore year ended that facet of his sports career. Not that he was headed for stardom.
“I was an absolutely mediocre college wrestler,” he said. “I weighed 126 if I ate a big meal and I got my ass handed to me regularly.”
A few years later, he started riding competitively, and after moving to the East Coast while pursuing a career in architecture, helped start a pro cycling team. For six years, beginning in 1988, he was a pro rider.
“That means getting paid,” he said, scoffing at the idea he made a living at it.
“But racing on the track has always been my first love. I went back to riding almost exclusively on the track in ’95, ’96.”
But he still puts his neck on the line by hitting the road for regular training runs on such arteries as Highway 14 and Route 66.
“It doesn’t matter where I ride here, people (in vehicles) aim for me,” he said without chuckling. “But you know what? I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I love doing this, and if some jackass runs me over, I’m well-insured.
“This is why I like the track because there are no cars allowed. You never see one.”
Byatt said on his toughest weekday of training he’ll wake up at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and do light weightlifting in his garage. After working his 8-hour shift with Meridian, he will come home for a “hard, hard ride” of 2 to 2½ hours, and then some stretching.
His only day off is Monday, when he said he just loafs. He added that a recovery day is absolutely critical at his age.
Depending on the weather and instructions from Voss, Byatt also will ride indoors on a stationary bike: “Some nights it’s just to see how miserable you can make yourself,” he said.
Analyzing computer data plays a big role in his training.
“Modern bicycles have very special computers mounted on them that tell you exactly how many watts I put out, how long I ride,” he said. “Rich and I email this information back and forth so he’s got first-hand information daily on what I did on my rides specifically. He understands how to develop a training plan based on wattage and length.”
Byatt said his next event will be a “Sprintorama” in Colorado Springs on Feb. 20 against many of the top riders in the Rocky Mountain region. After that comes three races on the indoor track in Carson, Calif., in March, April and May, in addition to two back in Colorado Springs’ velodrome.
“From April on, I’ll probably be up in Colorado Springs (to train) every other weekend, leaving right after work,” he said.
That leads into the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in August.
“That’s the beginning of my mini-peak,” Byatt said. “And from there I will focus 100 percent getting ready for the world championships.”
All this travel isn’t cheap, either.
“It probably costs a nonsponsored amateur international-level rider $15,000 to $20,000 a year to race, and that’s if you don’t have to buy any equipment,” Byatt said. “Just the license to race this year is $200. Thank God for my sponsors.”