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Man of the hour


CORTE MADERA -- Paul Solon was sitting in the caf?on the ground floor of the Bay Club Marin recently, not far from his home, when he had a minor epiphany. Solon was explaining how he always works out on his bike for a little more than an hour because it allows him to break through a mental barrier, when he suddenly paused.

"I just now realized, anything that I do, I'm doing more than an hour," Solon said. "I just realized that. I mean, swimming, weightlifting, stretching, you name it. I always go a little bit more than an hour."

Solon is a cyclist of almost superhuman capacity who has excelled in many different events, but he is now hyper-focused on one goal: breaking the world record for distance ridden in an hour. The rest of his life is organized in support of that prize.

Solon, 59, clearly tends toward obsession, but he came late to cycling. He was 33, working as a lawyer and living in Santa Rosa, when he began to take it seriously. Solon had been a decorated football and basketball player in high school in New Mexico, but it didn't take him long to realize he'd never do either of them professionally. Later he dabbled in triathlons. Again, he was very good — but not good enough to win elite competitions.

Highly competitive by nature, Solon decided to focus on the strongest of his three triathlon legs: cycling. He entered a 552-mile race from Tucson to Flagstaff in Arizona, and won.

"Yes, it surprised me. The first race did," Solon said. "The Race Across America did not. Based almost exclusively on what happened in Arizona. I thought, 'Man, I'm a natural cyclist.' "

In the 1980s, Race Across America (also known as RAAM) might have been this nation's favorite cycling event. It was televised on "Wide World of Sports" and got better ratings than the Tour de France. Solon rode the race several times, and in 1989 he not only won but set a record of eight days, eight hours, 45 minutes that would last for three years — despite an excruciating neck injury that knocked him off the bike for nearly 24 hours.

Since then, Solon's life has been an epic two-wheeled travelogue, especially since he quit his job as assistant U.S. attorney 13 years ago to focus on cycling. "Year by year, I'm slowly going broke," he said.

Solon has set track records for 24 hours, 12 hours and 100 miles. In a three-month stretch in 2010, he established records riding across Europe (North Cape, Norway, to Palermo, Italy: 4,040 miles), the length of Italy (Brennero to Catania: 1,120 miles), around the island of Sicily (620 miles) and the breadth of Italy (Tyrrhenian Sea to Adriatic Sea: 185 miles).

Last fall, Solon rode from Mexico City to Washington, D.C., to Ottawa, Canada, in 18 days. He rested three days and rode back to Mexico City, outlasting a partially torn Achilles' tendon, a torn quadriceps and a case of dysentery.

Solon admits that his dream is to ride UCI-sanctioned stage races like the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Tour of California. Approaching 60, he realizes his chances of making an international team are receding. So he concentrates on extreme distance races and closed-track records.

Solon maps out every day in detail. He swims and lifts weights. He stretches for hours at a time, building on the routine he honed as a ballet dancer in college.

"I stretch probably more than any cyclist, I would think, possibly in the world," Solon said. "But that's only because I have football, basketball and cycling injuries. But the stretching I do is with movement — gentle, repetitive movement."

Among his mishaps was getting hit by a cattle truck in Petaluma in 1990, an accident that nearly severed his right arm at the shoulder. Doctors told Solon he would never swim again, or throw a baseball, or shoot a basketball. You can guess how that played out.

Solon also monitors his diet carefully, and incorporates chiropractic adjustment and acupuncture.

"I'm doing all sorts of things to have everything loose, so by the time I get on the bike, I feel like I'm about 15 years old or so, instead of an arthritic old man," he said.

Steven Honig, who owns Honig Vineyard and Winery in Napa Valley and spent years promoting bike races like the Sea Otter Classic, tries to swim at the Bay Club nightly after work.

"I see Paul every night," Honig said. "But I'm only here for a half-hour. Paul's here for six to 10 hours a day."

Impressed with Solon's dedication, Honig now is among his sponsors.

Even at 59, Solon is constantly fine-tuning his approach. Though he staunchly guards most of his training secrets, he noted that he eliminated salt from his diet just a few weeks ago. And 15 minutes before his interview with The Press Democrat, he discovered a new form of supported dip utilizing the ladder in the Bay Club pool.

Of course, much of his routine involves cycling. How far does Solon ride each week? He has no idea. Even most strong recreational cyclists can recite their mileage for you, but Solon focuses on time and heart rate. He generally alternates among three routes. He repeatedly rides the hill between Corte Madera and Mill Valley as fast as he can, with rest intervals in between. He rides from Corte Madera to Santa Rosa and back, and he climbs Mount Tamalpais.

It can be a lonely endeavor.

"I might stretch for three hours before I ride," Solon said. "And then I go ride at 11:00 on Wednesday. Nobody can do that. They want to ride when they get off work at 6, or when it's cold in the morning."

Divorced with no children, Solon says he loves theater, dance and reading, but even his leisure time is regimented. He just spent a year and a half working his way through the 32 surviving Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and now is embarking on the Roman tragedies.

Meanwhile, Solon is setting up a race that will connect all of Mexico's 31 state capitals in a zig-zag pattern, a 9,000- or 10,000-mile ride through rainforest and ranch land and desert beginning and ending in Guadalajara. He chose Mexico partly because of his involvement in an effort to build linked sports academies in Mexico City, Washington and Ottawa — the three national capitals of North America.

Mexico is also where Solon will attempt to break the one-hour record, probably in about four months. That country, he says, has two of the fastest velodromes in the world, in Aguascalientes and Mexico City. Both are at high elevation.

The time he is gunning for is a complicated and divisive matter. UCI, cycling's international governing body, recognizes Czech rider Ondrej Sosenka as the current record holder with a distance of about 30.9 miles in 2005.

Other people have cycled farther in an hour, and UCI used to acknowledge them — topped by Englishman Chris Boardman's 35-mile run in 1996 — but the organization later decided to sanction only times recorded on standard road-racing bikes. Boardman achieved his mark on a time-trial bike.

Now under new leadership, UCI reversed itself and announced on May 15 that it has decided to recognize marks set with time-trial setups — moving forward, anyway. The organization still officially considers Sosenka's mark the standard.

Solon, who has planned to attempt the one-hour record on a time-trial bike all along, doesn't particular care what gauge UCI uses.

"Whether UCI recognizes it or not doesn't matter to me," he said. "This is the record cyclists recognize, not bureaucrats or executives."

Should Solon comes up short in his quest, it will not be due to lack of effort or discipline. This is a man willing to put in the time, though his interview at the Bay Club came in at 57 minutes, 50 seconds. Remarkably, Paul Solon had done something for less than an hour.