World Champion Track Cyclist Curtis Tolson Talks Championship Mentality & Passion For Coaching
Writer: Cameron Aubernon
Photographers: Mike Gladu & Patricia Longmire
What is the toughest sport on earth? Horse racing? It’s tough on the horses, for sure, as is proven every weekend at Churchill Downs from late April through July (and especially on the first Saturday of May). NASCAR? You’re getting warmer, as the high banks of Daytona, Talladega, and Kentucky Speedway do take a toll on the driver over the hundreds of laps driven, though the car goes through much worse.
What about cycling? Now there’s a sport that’s tough, one where it’s just you, the bike you’re pedaling, the competition and the environment. Whether it’s jumping dirt mounds in BMX or pushing up the Alpe d’Huez during the Tour de France, cycling is not a sport for those whose only experience on a bike is a Sunday ride through the park. The training, the competition, it’s a tough sport to make your mark upon.
And it’s harder when the nearest place to practice your craft is north of Indianapolis. But that’s what world champion track cyclist Curtis Tolson does to be a world champion in the first place.
Back in October of 2018, Tolson became the No. 1 track cyclist in the world while going up against the toughest riders in his age group during the 2018 edition of the Masters Track Cycling World Championships in Los Angeles. He also helped a four-man team to a top podium finish in team pursuit, a track cycling event where two teams of up to four riders start on opposite sides of the velodrome.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Long before Tolson took up track cycling, he was a young boy growing up in Jeffersontown.
“I grew up in J-Town,” Tolson says. “I went to Jeffersontown High School and graduated from there. I lived in Middletown for a long time, as well. The big thing that I remember, when I started going to J-Town High School as a 7th grader — it was 7th through 12th back then — was the beginning of bussing and all the crazy stuff going on around bussing. It was a pretty rough spot to be in.”
His other memory at the time? Going to the skating rink to work on his speed skating skills. The rink no longer exists, having been replaced by the headquarters of the Jeffersontown Police Department, but his time with the speed skating team would pave the path towards his ultimate athletic calling.
“What drew me to cycling in general was I used it as a means of cross training for the speed skating at first,” Tolson says. “I started that in 1981. In 1982, the city of Indianapolis built a velodrome called the Major Taylor Velodrome. That’s only two hours up the road, so I went up there and tried it and liked it.”
Tolson liked track cycling at the velodrome named for the legendary African-American track cyclist (whom you might have learned about through those Crown Royal ads during televised sporting events), that he moved to the nearby suburb of Carmel immediately north of Indianapolis “for a couple years just to be close to the track.” Those two years paid off for Tolson, though, having gained enough daily track time to build a foundation for his competitive career to come.
Unlike most bicycles, a track bicycle has no gears to shift, nor brakes to stop. The bikes weigh about 185 pounds, with an average rider, and roll upon wheels 22 millimeters wide. Riders like Tolson can reach speeds of up to 40 mph on the high-banked track of a given velodrome, a potential recipe for a few scary moments. Nothing Tolson can’t handle, though.
“I don’t really think of [track cycling] as scary,” he says. “But I’ve had a few bad crashes. It doesn’t feel scary. In fact, I would argue that it’s probably safer than road racing. The bikes don’t have gears, they don’t have brakes, and the track is banked, but the good news is since [the track is] banked, [if riders fall], they slide out of the way. They don’t just kinda stop in front of you. It’s kind of a self-cleaning surface, so to speak.”
Tolson is the founder of Texas Roadhouse’s track cycling team, having begun the team in the late 90s before cycling fan and then-CEO GJ Hart threw his lot into sponsoring the team in 2002. Texas Roadhouse would then become the title sponsor in 2003. Tolson notes it’s a rarity for a sponsor not usually associated with cycling of any kind to spend nearly two decades with a team like his and is appreciative of all the restaurant chain has done for the team.
Though he lives in Prospect now, for a time, Tolson once called Middletown home, having moved to the Douglas Hills area while attending the University of Kentucky in the late 80s. There he stayed until around a decade ago.
“I liked [living in Middletown],” Tolson says. “My dad had [an] insurance agency there on Shelbyville Road and Evergreen Road. I worked there. My kids grew up there through the younger parts of their lives.”
Tolson adds that he liked the size of both towns, their distance from all the attractions and activities in Louisville and beyond, the people and the ability to “get out into the country” to ride his bike when not training at Major Taylor, coaching future track cyclists, or selling insurance, his main profession.
“My primary profession has always been insurance,” he says. “It started off as life and health, but it morphed into property and casualty. I had been coaching a few select people on the side. [Lance Armstrong’s former coach] Chris Carmichael approached me about working for him.”
At the same time, however, his father was set to retire. Tolson found himself at a fork in the road — continue the family business or go into coaching. Opting for the latter, his business relationship with Carmichael lasted for around a year. He then set off on his own, founding Curtis Tolson Coaching Services.
However, he is now “transitioning back into insurance,” working with a colleague who took up where Tolson’s father left off. For Tolson, insurance is as much a part of his life as track cycling, having grown up around it since the age of five, when his father left the military to start selling insurance. He says it’s “a good, honest living,” one that allows him to help others the same way his coaching helps future track cyclists be their best.
Speaking of the future, Tolson is shifting more towards his main profession, citing his age and changing priorities compared to his younger days, when track cycling was on the top of his mind.
“I’m 55 years old now,” he says. “When I was younger, I was pretty much moving everything around that I needed to move to accommodate racing. Now, it’s not like that anymore. It’s more 50-50 between coaching and insurance.”
As mentioned earlier, Tolson is in his mid-50s. Most athletes usually hang it up long before then, moving on to things like car dealerships and sports broadcasting. And yet, Tolson is still riding and winning. How much longer, though?
“As long as my health allows,” Tolson says. “I’ve got a few health issues I’ve been fighting. Nothing I don’t think is terminal. I’ve got [atrial fibrillation] from too much exercise in my life. Occasionally, I have heart rhythm issues. I just have to manage all that. It’s been pretty frustrating, to be honest. This year was not a very good year battling some of that stuff, but somehow, it all came together when it needed to. I don’t really know [how long I’ll continue to ride], but in the not too distant future, I’ll stop.”
Even when that day comes, though, Tolson will still have a part to play in track cycling, helping the younger riders take up where he will one day leave off. He says the main priority of his coaching is to take the young team to the Olympics, “helping them finish checking off the boxes they need to get there.”
And for those who want to ride as hard as Tolson has, he has some advice for you.
“It’s a little tough because there’s not a track everywhere,” he says. “If we had a track in Louisville, I think we’d have a lot of people that would utilize it. If you happen to live near a track, then what I would tell you is go do an intro class. [The track also has] daily and weekly workouts that you can go attend. There’s a pathway from there that will get you into it.”