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Pedal to the mettle
Using wife’s advice, local rookie cyclist fights through pain, ‘marked man’ status to make his mark as a championship competitor

Competitive rookie cyclist Tony Christen endures tons of mental and physical anguish, finds himself a “marked man” and hasn’t been able to celebrate on-site after winning two huge events.

But Christen has an in-house coach who seems to have a sixth sense about proper strategy. And she doesn’t even go to the races.

Constant prodding from his wife, Theresa, to “go with your gut” instead of “playing it safe” and “thinking too much” helped this 29-year-old graphic designer with Farragut-based Tucker Publishing to bag the “big one” May 9 in McMinnville.

The “big one” was the general classification championship Christen captured in category 5 (rookie) among a 50-team field at the Highland Rim Cycling Classic, considered the top competitive cycling event annually in Tennessee. It’s a two-day stage race consisting of three main events: 54-mile road race, a 2 1/2 mile time trial mountain climb and a 13-mile criterium, or lap race.

Christen, who had to wait and find out the results one-day after competing, had the best overall score in the three events combined.

“All of this is still sinking in, it’s a lot to bite off,” Christen said about his sudden success. “McMinnville is a very, very hard race because it’s a series of races.”

In the road race Saturday, May 8, in which Christen finished third, “I came from way behind to catch the leaders,” he said. “I closed for twenty miles with about a five-minute gap or more between me and them and literally had to chase them down. When it comes down to it, the road race is exceptionally difficult over in McMinnville because it’s 54 miles and it has lots of rolling hills and a three-mile mountain climb in it. And then once you’re up top, you’re riding along the Plateau and you have wind and heat and everything else.”

For Christen, third-place in this event was sweet due to all the sweat. “I told my wife, even though I finished third, even though I lost, it’s probably the finest ride I’ve ever done in my short career of doing this,” Christen said. “Even though I didn’t get the win like I wanted, I gave every little bit of strength, heart, soul, everything, into making sure of getting the position I got.”

As for the time trials, “it was down to four of us who crossed the line, side-by-side at the finish,” Christen said of his fourth-place finish climbing a mountain following the road race May 8.

But though Christen describes himself as an “excellent climber” on hilly and mountainous paths, the time trials took its toll. “That’s the worst I’ve ever felt climbing,” he said. “It was incredibly hard, the heat was unbelievable.”

Sunday’s criterium event saw the 29-year-old finish sixth and, unknown to Christen at the time, wrap up the general classification title.

Saying he “thrives on competition,” Christen knew he was within range to win the general classification and was fired up heading into Sunday’s criterium, “I don’t think I slept two hours, I was so charged up for the “crit,” Christen said. “I was very determined to win.”


Making victory even sweeter was that in McMinnville, Christen was not only a marked man, but a marked man without teammates who could provide drafting. Though Christen is a member of the YMCA of East Tennessee team — which is also sponsored by Cedar Bluff Cycles — and one of 15 team members, he was the only “cat 5” YMCA cyclist competing in McMinnville.

“In this one I was competing against people that had teammates,” Christen said. “A lot of the time I had to work by myself and mentally figure out, ‘how I am going to out-smart these guys to be able to either close the gap, work with me, or just anything. A lot of this is just team tactics. Drafting is big.’”

As for being a marked man, “It’s because I won somewhere else, and because I’ve been finishing so strong in a lot of races,’” Christen said.

During Sunday’s critical criterium, Christen said he was the primary “marked man” and that a team from Nashville wanted to box him in and limit his success. “I heard them say, ‘keep him back, don’t let him get in position,’” Christen said. “But it’s nothing personal.”


Christen’s other victory, the Erma Siegel Twilight Criterium in Murfreesboro earlier this year, was a two-day, 13-mile “circuit or field-sprint” set of flat-terrain laps where Christen beat out 40 other racers.

It also featured a photo finish that delayed the official announcement of the winner.

“I had to wait to celebrate because my previous victory at Murfreesboro there was a sprint for the line, and it was so close that they had to check the video tape to see who won,” Christen said. “It took them about a half-hour for them to review who had won it. I’ve never really been able to celebrate a victory at the event yet.”


Since becoming a serious cyclist early last year, Christen bikes “about every day of the week, sometimes up to twice a day,” he said. “Sometimes it’s over seventy miles a day.

“Fortunately I got around people that have been racing extensively for years,” Christen added. “They became mentors, telling me ‘this is what you do, this is what you don’t do.’”

Christen credits mentors and high-level cyclists David Hoffman, Vic Rogers, Greg Casteel and David Chaney for much of his success.

“When I found out Monday (May 10) that I had won, I called everybody I knew and thanked them,” Christen said. “Just really thanked a lot of people. People that had helped me along the way that, without ’em, I don’t think I’d be anywhere near where I’m at right now.”

The Tennessee State Road Racing Championships in Crossville last September was Christen’s first-ever USCF “cat 5” race. He finished 10th.

From last November through March 2004, Christen estimates he put in about 4,000 miles of training. “Every day, every condition — cold, rainy — everything, just trying to get ready for this year,” he said.


Christen remembers one particularly miserable day last January: “The first thought in my head when we were changing was ‘no sane human being does this, no sane human being rides when it’s twenty-four degrees outside, when there’s a wind-chill of ten degrees and the wind’s howling at thirty miles-per-hour.’”

But by overcoming such obstacles, Christen has developed a new level of inner strength and increased self-confidence. “I’m a lot more confident than I used to be,” he said. “When you’re out there competing, you’ll push yourself to a limit that you don’t think you have. You will be in physical pain like most people will never know. You get out there, your lungs are burning, your legs are burning, you’re hot, you’re uncomfortable. You’re pushing yourself to the absolute limit that you can go.”

At that point in a race, “you have two choices, you can either dig in and do it and go get ’em and push beyond that limit, or you can quit,” Christen said. “I surprised myself quite a bit.”


Christen credits Theresa. “Actually, it’s due to her,” Christen said of his McMinnville success, stemming from a discussion they had two days before the race.

“I’ve been riding most of the season without taking chances, not being gutsy enough to see what would happen if I did a breakaway, if I risked everything and tried to chase down a getaway group,” he said. “And she finally said, ‘you’ve got to stop doing that, you know how to do it. And throw caution to the wind and got get ’em, take it to ’em. You’re the strongest guy out there, go get them.

“It’s funny, she doesn’t go to the races, but she’s smarter than I am when it comes to this,” Christen added. “It’s amazing. She’s been seeing the pattern. So, in these races, I took more chances.”


Having moved up to category 4 after McMinnville, Christen said his primary goals in this tougher class are “to build more speed, get good results … and have fun.”

About his 2004 success, Christen added, “It’s amazing, if you’d said at the beginning of the season that I’d have two wins, I would have looked at you and said, ‘I don’t think so.’”


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