Measured Redemption: The Life & Times Of Cyclist Jonathan Boyer
(This article originally appeared in the Monterey County Herald on June 11, 2006 the day before the solo divisions of the 2006 Race Across America began.)
Next month will mark 25 years since Jonathan Swift Boyer became the first American to compete in the Tour de France. Four years later, with a national television network audience watching, the Carmel resident won the Race Across America (RAAM), the niche ultra-distance cycling event that takes riders coast-to-coast.
These two varied accomplishments mark definitive moments of Boyer’s long and varied first cycling career that included nearly 125 career amateur and professional victories.
Beginning today, the 50-year-old Boyer, who runs a high-end bike shop in Marina, will challenge RAAM again. But this time, he’ll do so with additional baggage.
It’s been about four years since he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of child molestation. Boyer served nine months of a one-year sentence in Monterey County Jail in Salinas and is still completing a five-year probation.
“I’ve made mistakes in my life,” said Boyer, who’s divorced and lives with his aging mother. “And now I have two choices. I can hide or I can live my life the best way I know how and that’s on a bike.”
For nearly as long as he can remember, Boyer has enjoyed pedaling a bicycle. As a teenager growing up on the Monterey Peninsula, his advancing skills on two wheels catapulted him through amateur racing and provided great credence for his middle name.
As a young adult in 1977, Boyer took his cycling pedigree to Europe, the sport’s global hub. Often called “Jock,” a derivative of “Jacques,” he rode among the greats — Bernard Hinault to Greg LeMond — and completed the Tour de France five times.
Boyer retired — for the first time — in 1987. But after a 17-year, hiatus he returned to competitive cycling in 2004, a few months after getting out of jail.
Since his return to competition, Boyer has won several age-group mountain bike and road races — most notably at the Sea Otter Classic — while purposely competing against riders half his age.
Many of his competitors don’t know the Boyer name; Other riders remember his legacy, know of his legal situation and have expressed their concerns.
Alison Dunlap, the now-retired world mountain champion and a several-time Sea Otter Classic titlist, didn’t condemn Boyer. But in 2004 when she was interviewed by The Herald during the race, said: “In general, child molesters should be put away forever. The should never get out.”
Last December, Boyer petitioned for an early probation release. The request was denied. “You’ve done exceptionally well on probation, but that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Judge Robert Moody said at the Salinas court hearing
Moody also told Boyer he was lucky not to go to prison and that five years of probation is generous. “If you’re having a tough time dealing with the consequences, it’s the consequence of what you did,” Moody added.
Race organizers, however — the Sea Otter Classic to RAAM — have welcomed Boyer into their events.
“(Jonathan) Boyer is an American cycling legend; he is a hero,” said Paul Skilbeck, a RAAM spokesperson. “Like the heroes of the classics, Boyer is flawed. Interestingly, at the time of the trial he was seen by the judge as posing very little danger to others. Furthermore, it is clear that he has since reformed himself. We believe in redemption — don’t you?”
Boyer knows he has detractors, but opts to focus on what he knows best about his life — cycling.
“I just love cycling,” he said. “It’s part of my whole make-up. It’s not good for me if I don’t ride. It’s an expression of who I am. I enjoy riding. I like being out there. The more I ride and the more fit I get, the more I am able to go farther and faster.”
Despite his more than 35-year passion for the sport, Boyer had no intention of competing in RAAM again. But last summer, through his 20-year friendship Dr. Eric Heiden and Dr. Max Testa, Boyer became the crew chief for the physicians and their involvement with Team Donate Life in Sacramento.
Sponsored by the organ donation charity, the group raised money while completing RAAM as a eight-rider team. Heide
In, the 1980 five-time Olympic speed skating gold medalist, was Boyer’s teammate and roommate in the mid-1980s. They rode for 7-Eleven, the first U.S. team to compete in the Tour de France. Testa, a sports medicine specialist, was the team’s physician.
Heiden, who occasionally still rides with Boyer, encouraged his former teammate. Testa, who provides Boyer’s physiological testing, was amazed at the rider’s fitness. In some instances, Boyer’s current results are nearly the same as they were 20 years ago. His current V02 max, for example, is 77; It was 81 when he was 25 and his physicians say he has the physical attributes of an endurance athlete in his late 20s.
Both physicians, of course, also know Boyer’s life circumstance. Heiden and Testa both have young children and both invite Boyer to stay in their respective homes during his regular visits to Sacramento.
“It’s a hard subject to address,” said Heiden. “Here’s a guy who I consider one of my best friends. He has been found guilty of something I find revolting. Sexual misconduct with a young kid, that effects people forever. It’s even hard to accept when someone has done their time that they’ve paid their dues. But like I’ve known Jock for a long time and when I think about it, I still kind of shutter.
“But I tell you, Jock has been to my house since all of this has happened and I feel comfortable with him being around my kids, so for me it’s a very unusual position to be in. You’ve got someone who’s a very good friend and someone who you trust and yet he stepped over the line for doing things I don’t find acceptable. But he’s a very good friend and I wrestle with this all the time.”
Testa, who came to the United States in 2001 to help establish the UC-Davis Sports Performance Program, concurred.
“We have spent a lot time bike riding together and spent a lot of time together socially,” Testa said. “When I first heard the story, I thought it was impossible. This could not be the Jonathan I knew for 20 years. In my mind’s eye, I still see him the same way as before. I was upset, but the guy is is still the same.
“Well, Jonathan is a little more reserved now; he’s more serious about things. So there are some changes. But I don’t see any changes in him when he’s around my family. I say if you are going to judge him, look at him as a cyclist and as a person and what he’s doing now for Team Donate Life.”
Skilbeck agreed. “From what we have learned, the most significant and enduring actions in Jock Boyer’s life have been his cycling achievements. We welcome Jock back to the Race Across America as a great cyclist, one with the potential to put the Race Across America crown back on an American head.”
Beginning last January, Testa, whose clients also include Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa, Calif., a top contender in this year’s Tour de France, established a training program for Boyer.
In addition to following an organic diet, Boyer has averaged no fewer than 350-400 miles per week and ridden as much as 600-mile weeks. He’s competed in local events and participated in high altitude and hot climate races in New Mexico and Arizona.
The solo divisions of the 25th anniversary RAAM will begin at 9 a.m. in Oceanside and progress 3,043 miles to Atlantic City, N.J.
The riders will pass through 57 checkpoints, ascend more than 108,000 feet and traverse 15 states. They will also encounter elevations from 170 feet below sea level in Mecca, Calif., to 10,550 feet above sea level in Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado.
Boyer will compete with an expected dozen others in the new Enduro Division. The division requires entrants to not ride their bikes for an average of four hours per day. The traditional solo division that doesn’t have the same rest restriction will also feature about a dozen contestants.
The new division was created, according to the race’s Web site, “to focus the contest more on cycling speed and less on the ability to survive on minimal sleep.”
Two riders, one in 2003 and the other last year, have been killed in vehicular accidents during RAAM.
Boyer, who recalls sleeping about 27 hours during his RAAM victory, will be supported by a multi-person crew and two team support vehicles.
Depending on a rider’s finish and bonuses for course records, a cyclist could earn as much as $25,000 for winning RAAM as a solo rider. If Boyer were to win that amount, it would approximately equal his team’s expenses. Boyer plans to donate any winnings to the charity.
“In my life, from a couple of years ago and from now on, I really want to impact people positively,” said Boyer. “I will go out of my way to do positive things for people. I’m very conscious of what I’m doing and how I impact people.
“I’m not perfect. I certainly can’t erase the past. But I will go forward in a positive and good way, to the best of my ability.”