Smile Politely

Get to know ‘em!: Tom Carlson

A couple of weeks ago, I was riding home from work. As I passed behind the Champaign Meijer, I spotted a bike in the distance, moving slowly, and before long, I had pulled even with the rider, who I was surprised to find was Tom Carlson. “I shouldn’t be catching Tom Carlson,” I thought aloud, and I think Tom agreed. Full disclosure: he was riding a co-worker’s damaged Huffy home to repair it, and he had just completed a 12-hour, 230-mile marathon ride the previous day. But hey, one day I can tell my kids that I caught up with the Tom Carlson. Probably best if I leave out the details.

Tom grew up in the storied suburbs of Chicago, where his father’s interest in cycling rubbed off on him early on. “One of my first large rides was the Apple Cider Century in Michigan, and I did 50 miles when I was only five years old — on a single-speed bike with a coaster brake and whatnot,” he recalled. “It took us nearly all day, but we made it through. I got a patch and a certificate and all that.”

After an adolescence spent terrorizing his neighborhood from the saddle, Tom matriculated at the University of Illinois. “When I got to U of I, there was the collegiate bike team and I thought that was something I should try,” he said. “I didn’t get involved with that until my sophomore year, and I joined them for the first bike race that I had ever done, for real.

“I joined them for a category C race, and I didn’t finish because I got lapped. A couple of races down the road, I improved and actually got my first win in a race at Rantoul up at the Air Force base.”

He got tied up in academic pursuits his last two years in college and fell out of competitive cycling, but since Tom graduated a couple of years ago, he’s become involved in WildCard Cycling, a local racing team. After starting out at Category 5 last year and having good success, he moved up to Category 4. “Hopefully, I’ll be moving up from that pretty soon,” he noted.

Tom’s made this quick progress despite a pretty significant setback last year. “There was a mishap on a training ride, up the line of guys and it caused a domino effect,” he recalled. “I got a broken collarbone, and another guy had a broken hand, and maybe another had some broken ribs. I pretty much sat off the bike for three weeks, and I went into the doctor and he said, ‘Well, you’re [recovered].’ So, the next day, I went on a 70-mile ride, hitting it strong.” Since then, it’s been business as usual.

Tom gave the following primer on different racing categories, for those of us who are unfamiliar with the culture:

Road racing has a lot of different disciplines. A road race is usually a longer course, sometimes a couple of laps of a longer course, like 20 miles or so a lap, and you’ll do this once or twice for the beginner categories, up to four or five times for the top categories or the pros. There’s lots of team strategy as far as protecting one of the riders, and going and doing attacks and breakaways. Then there’s criteriums, which are a mile or less, a square course sometimes, and you just ride that around and around for a pre-determined period of time, say, 45 minutes or 60 minutes, and then you’ll have prem prime laps, where it’s a sprint for a prize or something. That’s just to shake things up for the race, but then when it comes down to the last lap, whoever’s on the current lap goes for it, and it’s usually a very fast finish. What else is there? There’s time-trialing, which is more of an individual event. There’s a time trial series held in Seymour, just west of Champaign where we practice on every other week. Usually, there’s pretty good competition, just challenging each other.

Since his car finally broke down in January, Tom’s been commuting daily to his job at CERL in northwest Champaign. Despite having to ride some pretty busy roads on his way to work and back, it doesn’t bother him. “I’m not too worried about traffic or whatever; I just take the lane when I have to,” he said matter-of-factly.

In addition to his commuting and racing bikes, Tom has several other bikes that serve specific purposes.

  • “My touring bike, which used to be my road bike. I added a few racks and things to that. It’s a real comfortable, steel Univega from a few decades ago.”
  • “I built up a cyclocross bike last fall, and I only did one cyclocross race, but it worked fine. It’s a Specialized Crossroads, or something like that.”
  • “I do have a fixed gear, a CCM frame…
  • “… and a single speed as well. That one’s a Beacon, I got it at the co-op; someone had stripped it and thrown it in the scrap pile. I really liked it, just the color and the lugs – it’s got some chrome lugs, and I accumulated enough parts and put it together. It’s really nice, one of my roommates likes to ride that one. I can’t ride them all, so they get to share in my toys.”

He has several other types of bikes that he’d like to add to his collection, but he’s currently landlord-limited.

Tom also had some kind words for The Bike Project, where he volunteers when time permits. He explained, “It’s always good to help new people see that biking is not hard, and maintaining a bike is an important part of that. There’s definitely good people at the co-op to get to know, and work with and gain knowledge from, and you can always get good deals on cheap parts.”

Tom Carlson is a dedicated, serious cyclist who gets the most out of his (considerable) talents. It’s great to see him continue to have well-rounded interests as he meets with racing success.


If you enjoyed this article, Smile Politely also recommends:

+ Get to Know ‘Em: Michael Burns
+ Get to Know ‘Em: Greg Busch and Lisa Hall keep things interesting
+ Get to Know ‘Em: Sue Jones
+ Meet a real, live bicycle rider

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