James Kleba said his luck changed when he moved here from Milwaukee some three years ago.
For one thing, the 25-year old cycler says, he stopped “crashing in about every other race.”
Now, Kleba is not only finishing races, he’s often among the leaders.
Just two weeks ago, Kleba placed third in the San Diego-to-Yuma road race behind nationally ranked pros Robby Templin and Ken Sousa.
A couple weeks before that, Kleba cycled up to Mission Viejo from his University City townhouse, took part in a criterion (a race of many laps) around a building there, crossed the finish line first, then cycled home.
That’s about 120 miles.
All in a day’s work, right? Well, there’s actually method to Kleba’s madness.
He has been training for Saturday’s second annual Carmel-Del Mar Circuit Race and Sunday’s 17th annual Willows Road Race, one of the oldest and most prestigious cycling events in the nation. The event starts at 9 a.m. on Willow Road near Alpine.
If Kleba manages to win either race he’ll move up from the United States Cycling Federation’s Category II to “Cat I.”
He isn’t the favorite. Kleba, after all, is more of a criterion racer who wins not only with stamina but with guile. And guile isn’t a big factor on hills, which dominate both the Carmel-Del Mar and Willows courses.
In these races, climbers--who tend to be tall, lean cyclers who have less weight to pull up hills--usually pedal to the fore. Kleba, at 5-feet-6 and 160 pounds, does not fit the mold.
“There’s a lot of climbing in these races,” Kleba noted. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t be with the leaders.”
There are those who agree, such as other members of the San Diego Bicycle Club who recently voted Kleba rider of the year.
Kleba credits the club for his rapid ascension.
As with many of the 600 people who move here each day, Kleba came for the climate. He had no friends here, no job lined up, no aspirations of becoming a top cycler.
Then he joined the SDBC.
“When you join a club like the San Diego Bicycle Club, it’s like an instant family,” Kleba said. “We (Kleba and fiancee Danette Hoffer) came here mainly for the weather. But since then, my cycling has sort of snowballed, and I’m addicted.”
Ralph Elliot, the SDBC’s race promoter, doesn’t hesitate to mention Kleba’s name along with the nation’s top professionals.
Elliott was recently asked to assess the list of entries in this weekend’s races.
He rattled off names such as John Turnack, current national criterion and mountain bike champion; Kent Bostick, national time trials champion; Steve Hegg, the ’84 Olympic gold-medalist in pursuit, and Greg McNeil, defending champ and first person to win both the Carmel-Del Mar and the Willows.
Elliott then adds, matter-of-factly, “and James Kleba from the San Diego Bicycle Club should be among the leaders.”
While Kleba might not have the resume to match these riders, he is nevertheless continually rewriting it.
He has taken first in three races this year. Last year, he won the Del Mar Grand Prix and finished second in a couple of Grand Prix events.
And though Kleba may not be indigenous to hills, he still carries one advantage into the weekend. He’s the hometown favorite.
“I’ve made so many friends in San Diego because of the club,” Kleba said. “So there’s more people cheering for me than there are for other racers. It gives you a mental edge.”
And, as with any endurance sport, such an edge can play a big part.
“I personally believe that 50% of being a good cyclist is mental,” Kleba said. “Another 30% is physical, and the other 20% is eating habits. But if you can’t believe you’re going to win, it’s not going to happen.”
Kleba only recently reached a level of confidence that allows him to visualize himself winning the races he enters.
“Like anything else, you have to invest a lot of time,” Kleba said. “And it comes slowly.”
It could be argued that Kleba has risen to the top rather quickly. He started cycling less than four years ago at age 22. Most top cyclers start competing in their mid-teens. At that age, Kleba was more interested in his computer programming classes, although he did swim the breaststroke leg of the medley relay for Brookfield Central High in the Wisconsin State finals.
“I wasn’t actually that good of a swimmer,” he said. “And that was pretty much the only sport I was involved in, other than skateboarding.”
Kleba’s computer classes have paid off; he’s a programmer at a Sorrento Valley bank. But now he’s contemplating a second career in cycling. Toward that end, he has talked with the Los Angeles Wings and San Diego Zooms of the proposed National Cycling League but has not yet received any offers.
Latching on with the league wouldn’t mean a radical change in lifestyle. Kleba already trains a couple hours a day and spends many weekends away from home.
“To me,” he said, “right now cycling is the equivalent of a part-time job. But it’s healthy, and it’s social. I could go to bars and go dancing and spend the same amount of time doing that.”