Aspen cycling’s grand master keeps cranking
It’s five minutes before race time and Jacques Houot knows he should be warmed up and ready to go. But he can’t find one of his brake pads. And besides, he’d rather be socializing than warming up.”I like to talk to people. I like to kiss the girls,” Houot shrugs.Houot, known more familiarly as “Frenchy,” is a regular fixture in the Aspen Cycling Club’s Wednesday evening race series, and one of a token few Grand Masters – racers older than 65. Frenchy will turn 70 in October, but he doesn’t like to admit it. “I’m 35 – each leg,” he says. “I have to stick to the young. I cannot get old.”Frenchy’s cackling laugh and thick accent are as much a part of the 20-plus-event, summerlong race series as spandex and wrap-around sunglasses. He has no plans to slow down.”Nobody does as many races in his class,” says Ed Cross, a fellow cyclist. “He’s an inspirational sort of a guy. He can drive you nuts, but he’s very good-hearted.”Houot began racing as a child but gave it up when he was 25. He started to race again when he was 57 – he finished 13th at the Vail World Cup downhill race later that year.Racing bikes lends stability to Frenchy’s chaotic life, and he says it keeps him alive.
If Houot were a cat, he would have been through his nine lives about 20 years ago. Frenchy counts at least 15 “close calls,” including several car crashes, two avalanches, World War II bullets, a heart attack and, most recently, prostate cancer. To each memory, Houot smiles, and in his own hybrid of French and English, says, “No problem!”A child during World War II, Frenchy claims to have found the secret to surviving war: “You go between the bullets.” Houot holds deep gratitude for America’s efforts in the war: “Without you, I would be speaking German.” His personal favorite brush with death came in a 1961 car crash. Houot was driving a beautiful sports car across a bridge on a rainy day when he slid on the wet pavement, broke through the guardrail and dropped into the river below. The car filled with water as Frenchy struggled to escape. He finally found the window crank, crawled through the window, swam across the river and collapsed on the bank. “I tell you what, it was good to breathe,” he laughs. “It still is. I love to breathe.”Frenchy moved to Aspen for the fresh air and blue skies, and he takes advantage of the outdoors as often as he can, usually with his longtime friend and ex-roommate Jerry Begly.
Houot has encountered so many health problems, Begly says, that he could write his own medical journal. “Jacques knows so much about his body that when he goes to the doctor, he tells the doctor what’s wrong and how to fix it,” Begly says.Recently, Houot declined chemotherapy to treat his prostate cancer and opted for proton radiation treatment at the Loma Linda Medical Center in California. Houot underwent two months of intense radiation – and rode 1,200 miles on his bicycle in the process. “I say, no problem, I’m here in training,” Frenchy says. “During treatment, I came every day to the hospital on my bike.”The training paid off, and Frenchy returned to Aspen with a clean bill of health and ready to race again. A ruptured disk set him back briefly, until he rigged his bike to relieve the pressure. (Houot looped a tire around his back and tied the makeshift brace to his handlebars to hold it in place.)Frenchy has no illusions of showing younger racers up. He is comfortable holding up the rear of the race, as long as he finishes. “I race with myself. I finish, I never give up,” he says. “Sometimes I train with the young, but they make me suffer.”
But don’t let Frenchy fool you – he hasn’t lost his competitive spirit. Houot keeps a log of every race he has competed in and his time. He is miffed that he seems to be slowing down. Houot competed in the Bromont World Championships in 2000 and 2001 and set his sights on another appearance. He maintains a philosophy to complete each race at least three times: “Never two without three.”Houot is the current Grand Master title holder in the local series, and he intends to defend his title again in 2005.”The trick is not to win a single race,” Frenchy says. “The trick is to be consistent. I prefer to be on top at the end.”Houot plans to stay on top of his game until the very end – he says he’ll know he’s dead when he stops racing.For his birthday this October, Frenchy intends to celebrate by competing in the infamously grueling 24 Hours of Moab. He doesn’t know yet if he will compete with a team or individually.So the name of Houot’s cycling team – No problem – is also his philosophy of life, it seems. So what does it take to be a member?”No rules,” Frenchy says. “Just smile, be happy and pedal.”
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