When Larsen tore through the field ‘like a rocket’
In 2000, Steve Larsen was devastated to miss the US men’s Olympic mountain biking team. The two-time NORBA national champion (including the Olympic year 2000 – showing that Larsen was arguably the top US mountain biker) and former Motorola road cycling teammate of Lance Armstrong teammate was a fierce, proud competitor and the ultimate professional, so he did not take the verdict lightly.
But with Larsen’s talent and drive, the old phrase “When one door closes, another opens” isn’t just an empty bromide. In 2001, he took up triathlon with a ferocity that no other pure biker has ever done and changed the paradigms of the sport.
He opened 2001 by smashing the Wildflower bike course record of Jurgen Zack with a 2:14:06 mark that lasted until 2008 when Chris Lieto shaded it by a mere six seconds. Even more impressive, Larsen took fourth overall, not far behind record setting performances by Chris McCormack and Craig Walton. Next, Larsen blasted to an overall win over a tough field that included Chris Legh, Cam Widoff and Mike Pigg with a course record 3:55:57 at the Half Vineman. Of course he scored a course record 2:07:31 bike, but what was scary given his ever so brief run training was his hang tough 1:14:42 split for the half marathon. Next, in order to qualify for Kona, he smashed the bike course record of Thomas Hellriegel with a 4:33:23 at the tough, hilly Ironman lake Placid – outpacing Ryan Bolton by 25 minutes -- and closed his 8:33:11 race with a 2:56:53 marathon that marked him as a threat for the podium at Ironman Hawaii.
Before the race, with talk of sensational Ironman Hawaii rookie Steve Larsen capable of riding 4:15, German star Normann Stadler stated at the pre-race press conference: “IF he gets by us….” Fellow German überbiker Jürgen Zäck scoffed at predictions that Larsen could overcome a 10 minute deficit after the swim by the turnaround at Hawi. “There is a lot of talking in the media, but it’s wishful thinking,” said Zäck. “They want an American to be the dominator on the bike and get a 10 minute lead. It’s not gonna happen.”
Cut to the day of truth. “I had a very bad moment,” said Stadler. “I thought I had no legs. I was riding at 35 kilometers per hour into those winds and he passed me like a rocket.” Did anyone put up a fight? “No,’ said Larsen.
Consoling Larsen after his decline to 9th on the run, six-time champion Mark Allen said “You finished on a day when there were dead bodies left and right – the most top names that have dropped out here -- ever.” The hall of shame included Peter Reid, Luc Van Lierde, Spencer Smith, Zäck, Tony DeBoom and more. Chris McCormack, on a scouting mission for 2002, said: “Steve Larsen had a lot to do with it – the pressure he applied to everyone’s pre-race game plan.”
Larsen wanted to shake up the old paradigm that strong runners sat in on the bike and waited. Mission accomplished. By Mile 95, he slashed past the final tri-veteran. Tellingly, the gap was five minutes just 17 miles later at T2. His 4:33:32 bike split on the worst day of winds in Kona history was 11:47 faster than next-best Stadler.
Larsen started out at 6:30-per-mile for the first six miles, putting a minute on Stadler and Reid, but dropping three minutes to DeBoom. Larsen finally faded in the heat with unforeseen nutrition problems. . “I’ve never had trouble with heat before this,” said Larsen as he took a post-race dip off Kailua pier. “But my stomach shut down on Palani Road. After that, I was proud just to finish.” Larsen surrendered to DeBoom at Mile 11, then closed with a 3:19:09. “I think I affected the outcome of the race and I’m proud I laid it all down on the bike,” said Larsen. “Those guys that passed me on the run earned it.”
Like Michael Jordan at full effort, Larsen rides here with his tongue out on his way to a 2:14:06 record bike split at Wildflower that lasted seven years.
In his triathlon coming out party, Steve Larsen smashed the Wildflower bike record and held on for a fourth overall finish. Here he stands quietly alone at the awards ceremony.
Larsen shows the effort at the end of a rugged triathletic baptism at Wildflower.
Next time out, Larsen sliced through a top notch Half Vineman bike field. Here he leaves Chris Legh, Cam Widoff and Mike Pigg in his dust halfway through a 2:07:31 split.
Steve Larsen rides flat out at Half Vineman 2001.
Even more impressive than his well-known mad bike skills was Larsen's ability to suffer a race-winning pace in a very new discipline - the run.
Larsen never looked back at the world class runners chasing him at Half Vineman.
Check the beautiful stride that led Larsen to victory with an impressive 1:14:42 run.
Two champions enjoy a post race moment at Half Vineman 2001. Chris Legh congratulates Larsen on his big first win.
On a brutally tough windy day at Kona, Larsen's 4:33:32 bike split topped Normann Stadler by 12 minutes.
Larsen overcame an 8:45 deficit after the swim by Mile 95 on the bike, then led the field by 5 minutes at T2.
After six miles at 6:30 per mile pace, Larsen started to fade with nutrition problems.
Still, Larsen held off eventual winner Tim DeBoom until Mile 11, whereupon he faded to a 3:19:09 marathon.
After his 9th place 8:56:28 finish, Larsen cooled off in Kailua Bay. Had be duplicated his Lake Placid run, he would have been in a duel to the finish with DeBoom. Had he simply run 3:06, he would have finished second.
Mark Allen, with son Mats nearby, consoled Larsen: "You finished on a day when there were dead bodies left and right - the most top names who have dropped out here, ever."
After knee injuries and a IT band issue precluded a Kona rematch in 2002, Larsen was in top form in 2003 but technical problems forced a DNF. When sponsors hit economic woes, Larsen retired as a full time pro later that year.
While his competitive fires burned bright, Larsen reserved his greatest warmth for his wife Carrie and their five children.
Taking up triathlon again for fun, Larsen scored an overall win at the 2008 World's Toughest Triathlon in Auburn California before he ran into difficulties at Kona.
Seemingly puzzled at his off day, Larsen finished 70th in 9:19 at Ironman Hawaii.
Universally admired, loved by virtually everyone who knew him, Steve Larsen collapsed and died during a track workout at home in Bend Oregon on May 19.