Northern Michigan Biking: Larry Warbasse

Northern Michigan: Unlike most other serious cyclists on the Old Mission Peninsula one July night, Larry Warbasse waves to every single person he sees on a bike, regardless of whether their Pearl Izumi padded Lycra shorts straddle carbon fiber frames, or their cutoff jeans strafe legs scissoring over beat-up beach cruisers.

Most serious riders out there are too focused on their cadence—cycling lingo for pedaling RPMs—or maintaining a 20- or 24-mile-per-hour pace, and they can’t take time away from what they are doing to wave at others out on the road. Serious riders are pushing their bodies to the limit. They are trying to ignore the pain that comes well into a 30- or 40- or 50-mile ride sitting on a razor-shaped seat and hunched over handlebars for hours on end.

Not Larry. He’s a friendly guy. And he waves. And he’s hammering it harder than anybody.

Like many of the other serious riders, Larry is also in training for a race. Though if you know anything about bike racing, when you see him ride his custom carbon frame BMC TeamMachine SLR01, you can tell that even among serious cyclists, he stands apart.

Climbing a hill on Gray Road on the Old Mission Peninsula, his sinewy frame rises over his bike, and as the road goes up, his bike does not slow down. Gears shift. Crank arms spin faster. The bicycle and the rider burst away. Don’t bother trying to keep up. Coming down the hill, he builds up to a blurring speed that would hold up no car along the curving descent.

Larry Warbasse rides this way because if he wants to reach his goal, he has to, and his goal is to race in the most prestigious cycling competition on the planet, the Tour de France. For Larry, this is a realistic goal.

Most people know that the Tour de France is a big deal, given publicity from Americans Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong winning a combined 10 of the past 26 Tours. But to understand just how elite the tour is, consider that just 200 riders compete in the Tour de France. Riders from all over the world devote their lives to making the cut. In Europe, fans treat Tour racers like rock stars. By contrast, there are 1,996 players in the National Football League, nearly all of whom come from the United States.

Larry didn’t start out looking to become a professional bike rider. That’s just not something that happens to a kid from Northern Michigan, not a dream that seems plausible enough to even entertain. In fact, his start atop a bike was inauspicious. One of his earliest memories involves a crash, which is fitting, because crashes are kind of a theme in Larry’s young career.

In that very early memory, Larry recalls a bike too big for his body. He could barely reach the pedals. He was around 5 or 6 years old. “I tried riding down the road, and I don’t know if I couldn’t reach the pedals or what was wrong,” Larry says. “I ended up just riding straight into the curb and falling off my bike. That’s probably the first bike memory I have.”

What is it they say about falling off a horse, well, same is true for a bicycle. Larry soon got back on and pedaled.

He used to live downstate, and his family vacationed in Northport. He wanted to spend time with his dad, and one way to do that was to go on bike rides with him. “The more fond memories I have from when I was younger, probably around 7 years old, were when my dad and I used to ride our bikes a lot. We would come up to Northport all the time when we were younger, and my dad and I would go ride around like up to Peterson Park up there and then go back,” Warbasse says. “I did like riding my bike with him and I guess that started it.”

It was when his family moved North and Larry got into skiing at 11 or 12 that the seeds of cycling germinated. He became a member of the Grand Traverse Ski Club, and the summer training involved mountain bike camps. He did those. And he liked them. But at first, he was better at crashing into trees and losing races than he was at riding fast. He laughs about those rides now. He says they crushed him.

At age 12 he entered his first bicycle race—the Iceman Cometh Challenge mountain bike classic. He entered the kid’s division. “I really liked it,” Larry says.

From there, he started doing other races. A couple of years later, he got into road cycling, and when he got into that, he didn’t just start to ride, he immersed himself in the sport.

Larry was always a good student. He comes from a family where academics are emphasized—both his parents are physicians. So when Larry got into cycling, he studied the world of cycling. He read articles online at websites like USA Cycling. He read about races and other riders and, perhaps most important, he read about where cycling could take him.

The biggest thing he learned was this: If he rode his bike fast enough, cycling could take him to Europe. As a teenager. Expenses paid.

Larry found a cycling camp in Wisconsin. He learned that if he did well there he could qualify for a national camp. If things went well at the second camp, he could get to Europe, where cycling is more than a pastime. It’s a cultural obsession. For evidence, watch a clip of the Tour de France taken during one of the mountain stages. Study the faces of maniac fans screaming. Notice the flailing arms as spectators run alongside the riders huffing up the incline. Larry set his sights on getting there.

That first camp, though, didn’t work out. He got sick at the camp that might have led to another camp. But he didn’t give up the goal. For some, that might have been it. Enough frustration to give up a dream and shift focus to something else. Larry, though, got back on his bike.

From then on, he had a focus.

Even at this point, as a strong high school racer, however, he didn’t think he wanted to be a pro cyclist. He thought cycling was just something fun to do. He thought he would be a businessman. He studied and kept up good grades. He planned to go to college. He wanted an MBA. But what he really, really craved was to get to Europe with his bike. And then he did it; he won his ticket to Europe with a strong finish at the Tour de L’Abitibi in Quebec at age 17.

On the plane across the ocean, he sat next to another American headed to Europe for the same race. They talked about bike riding. They shared their excitement about what was ahead. And they talked about their lives. Larry remembers asking the other cyclist an odd question, given the circumstances. He asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up.

Of course the other guy knew he’d already found what he was supposed to do with his life—he would ride his bike. He wanted to ride as a professional. Larry still wasn’t sure.

“He thought that was just so funny,” Larry says. Larry, at this point, didn’t yet feel the gravity of what he was accomplishing. “Why would I be going over to Europe and doing all of this if I didn’t want to be a bike racer? But I just thought it was something cool to do at the time.”

Larry graduated from Traverse City West High School in 2008, and he was accepted to the University of Michigan. In his freshman year, his primary goal was to get into to the U of M business school for undergraduates. He and his classmates slaved in front of books to make that happen. Larry got into the program.

He describes his life at that time as “work, work, work,” and says he barely saw his roommate that first year. Every minute of the day was scheduled. His life was classes, studying, extracurricular activities, and riding his bike.

“I had to balance all that with cycling, so it was really hard, and I would never see my roommate until like the weekend, because I would just wake up before he woke up in the morning, and I’d come in and would go to sleep,” Larry says.

Larry discovered early on in school that the grind of the gears on the bike were nothing like the grind he put himself through at a competitive university. When he was in school and working so hard to compete with his classmates and make sure he earned good grades and got the business done that would lead to success, Larry says his favorite time of the day was the end of the day, when he could lay his head down on a pillow and get away from the world. When he slept, there was no stress or worry.

But when he was on break and just training on his bike, the opposite happened. “It was just like, Oh, I’m finally not having to be super stressed out, and every day we were riding, we were racing, and just living for cycling, and I realized, after a week or so of that—and this is going to sound really like cliché and corny and stuff—but I realized my favorite part was literally waking up. I looked forward to waking up every morning, and just riding my bike and doing this.”

It was an epiphany. And that feeling must have seeped from his mind to the muscles in his legs, because that season after his freshman year, Larry raced really well. He nearly won a bike race in Belgium. He finished fourth but less than a second behind the winner, an extraordinary finish for an American rider. Suddenly, what had been something to do during summer break became something he might be able to do all of the time.

The road to the upper echelons of bike racing is filled with crashes, and by now Larry has seen his share. If you spend your days traveling 20 or 30 miles per hour on a bicycle, crashes are bound to happen.

There was a race in the Dominican Republic called the Vuelta Independencia Nacionale, and Larry recalls riding the wheel of the cyclist in front of him—meaning barely an inch separated Larry’s front tire and the rear tire of the other rider. They were traveling at around 30 miles per hour, and suddenly a rider further ahead in the pack jumped. Larry knew something was wrong. Then a teammate yelled. Larry says he was tired and not entirely alert, so when the riders cleared and a pothole suddenly gaped in front of him, he had no time to react.

Larry went over the handlebars. He cut his face badly. He hurt all over.

A race attendant on a motorcycle sped to his aid. The man was screaming in Spanish. Larry suspects he looked so gruesome he excited the man a little bit. But the man was yelling at him in Spanish, telling Larry he needed to clean him up. But the language barrier became a problem when the man grabbed Larry’s water bottle to wash off his face and didn’t know that it wasn’t water in the bottle, it was Gatorade, which burns in cuts.

“I’m just like, ‘No! No! No! It’s Gatorade!’ you know, and he doesn’t understand, he just thinks I’m saying no because it hurts, and so he’s just spraying it more, and I’m just like, Oh, my gosh.”

Larry was told by people who saw the crash they thought he was going to have to be airlifted to a hospital. Larry surprised them when he got back on his bike and finished. The crash happened on the second day of an eight-day race, and despite the injuries, Larry pedaled on to finish every stage.

That was February 2010.

That first crash was painful. The next one was heartbreaking. A few months later, in April, during the season’s first trip to Europe, he was in an Under 23 race in Italy, the GP Palio del Recioto. Tens of thousands of fans lined the road. Larry had raced seven of the previous eight days, so he was tired, but he was also pumped up.

Larry was pedaling in a breakaway—a small group of riders who speed away from the main pack to take the lead. Larry was surprised to still find himself in the lead during the final climb. He had the race in hand, an extraordinary moment for an American rider. 4

“It was an eight-kilometer climb, so it was expected we were going to get caught for sure, but somehow, I just rode, like out of my mind, and at the top we had 50 seconds on the pack,” Larry recalls.

From there he had 10 kilometers downhill to the finish line. The young rider with him was exhausted by this point, and he made Larry an offer—take him to the finish and he would let Larry win. In other words, he wanted Larry to let him ride his wheel—which saves about 30 percent of a cyclist’s energy—all the way home, and the racer said he wouldn’t challenge Larry at the end of the race. Larry agreed.

Then rain began to fall. All Larry had to do was stay on his bike and keep his speed up, but the shower had greased the road. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, Oh, my God, I’m going to win like the biggest race I’ve ever won in my life,’ so excited, and then, just a little inside 5K to go, we’re going around this switchback, and it’s totally slick, and I’m going and all of a sudden, just, swoosh, like both wheels out from under me, and I’m just on the ground.”

He got back up but his chain was jammed. He had to wait for a mechanic. Before he could get back into the race other riders had sped by. That racer who made the deal with Larry wound up winning the race. Larry came in eighth.

For his mother, Jamie Warbasse, worrying about the crashes and praying her son is okay has become part of her life. She’s happy for Larry; she just has a lot more to worry about now. Being in regular touch with Larry through Skype helps, being able to see his face when he is overseas and know he is all right. But the fretting is still difficult sometimes.

“One time when he had a crash, before he would Skype with me he called to say, ‘I have to tell you something,” Jamie says. “I want him to be happy. Obviously this is his passion.”

Now Larry, who is 22 years old, rides full time as an Under 23 rider for BMC, a professional team based in South Carolina. There he rides with legendary pro George Hincapie.

As far as active American riders go, Hincapie is perhaps second only to Lance Armstrong.

Hincapie is a 15-time Tour de France rider and the American with the best-ever finish in the famed Paris-Roubaix race, placing second in 2005. He rode the Tour de France with Lance Armstrong, and he’s the only supporting rider to be on a winning Tour de France team eight times.

Hincapie says Larry is a good athlete and a good guy. He’s bright, and he’s strong on a bike. And that’s not just talk. Hincapie is putting his faith in the young rider. “My team is investing a lot in his future and really wants to see him progress,” Hincapie says.

Larry credits Hincapie for giving his career a boost and says he didn’t think the last year would have gone as well if he wouldn’t have been able to train with him. “He literally let me train with him every single day for a month and a half when I was down there, and it was just him and I every day,” Larry says. “He really put the hurt on me sometimes but that’s what made me stronger, you know?”

Riding so much with someone who has been to the Tour de France so many times has had an effect on Larry. He hopes to be there himself in a couple of years, perhaps in 2014. Larry’s made the Tour one of his goals, and he has a habit of achieving those. “If I can continue on the same trajectory that I have been, I think I have a pretty good chance.”

Meanwhile, though Larry doesn’t make it home to Traverse City often, when he does get home, he still loves to ride on the hills of the Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau County. “I would live here to train year-round if there wasn’t the winter and if we could maybe make the hills a little bigger.”

Check out three of Larry Warbasse’s favorite rides Up North.

Northern Michigan Biking: Larry Warbasse, RIDE #1: Leelanau County 25-miler

This lovely route serves up a beautiful mix of farmland, small town glimpses and a marvelous view of Lake Leelanau at Bel Lago winery. Park in downtown Cedar in the lot north of the river. At the yellow blinker just to the north (by corner of lot), turn right onto Schomberg Rd. After about 4 miles, turn right on Bodus Rd. Take Bodus 1 mile to T at French Rd., turn north (left). Stay on French nearly 6 miles to M-204. Right on M-204 into the village of Lake Leelanau. Stop to shop, grab coffee. In the village, turn south (right) on C-643 (S. Lake Shore Dr.). Follow about 12 miles to T at Schomberg. Left 1/2 mile back to car.

Northern Michigan Biking: Larry Warbasse, RIDE #2:

Benzie County 18-miler

Benzie is not shy about serving up hills for cyclists wanting to feel the anaerobic burn. This ride has just one big hill near the start. If the 18 miles aren’t enough for you and you crave more hill action, get a map and follow interior roads farther south to Arcadia and swing back to Frankfort on M-22.

Park in Frankfort. Pedal south on M-22 to Herring Rd. Turn east (left) to Gorivan Rd. (C-685). Turn north (left) on Gorivan. Follow to C-604, turn left. Follow to T at M-22. Turn right (north) back to Frankfort.

Northern Michigan Biking: Larry Warbasse, RIDE #3: Emmet County 30-miler

This route leads you through the famed M-119 Tunnel of Trees and then swings inland for those broad hills and valleys of Emmet.

Park in Harbor Springs and head north on M-119 about 13 miles to Robinson Rd. Turn east (right) and follow Robinson nearly 5 miles to State Rd. Turn south (right) on State, follow about 10 miles back to Harbor Springs. Ride early to minimize traffic on M-119.

Cherry Roubaix

Traverse City’s Cherry Roubaix instantly became a beloved part of Michigan’s road-bike racing scene after its launch in 2008. Give credit to beautiful summer weekends, an electrifying in-town race and an enchanting road-race through the Leelanau Countryside.

The 2012 event runs August 10 thru 12 and kicks off Friday evening with time trials on the hilly, water-rimmed and vineyard-laced Old Mission Peninsula. Saturday serves up a charity ride—fundraiser for Munson Women’s Cancer Fund, and the Old Town Crit. Crit is short for criterium, an in-town road race that delivers steady action as racers blast round and round a course laid out over a couple of city blocks. Sunday wraps up with the Michigan State Championship Road Race. Pack a picnic and stake out a sweet place (we suggest near the top of one of the big hills on Schomberg Road) amid that amazing Leelanau County landscape and watch the cyclists work the pedals.

Complete info at cherry-roubaix.com.

This article was originally featured in the July 2012 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Order your copy online at MyNorth.com!

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