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Cozza's cycling career comes to a conclusion


PETALUMA — Early in 2008 everything was coming together for cyclist Steven Cozza. He had turned pro three years before and now the Petaluma resident was aligning his confidence and his fitness with the demands of the sport. He started placing high in events. He felt as if he was about to summit and look at the view he always had dreamt about — someone everyone in the world's peloton would have to reckon with.

"I was getting into a lot of top 10s," Cozza said Tuesday. "I was on the verge of breaking out. I said to myself, &‘This is so much fun. I can easily see myself doing this until I'm 35.'"

Cozza was 23 when he said that.

On Feb. 15, Cozza announced his retirement from the sport sooner than expected — at the age of 26.

"I feel like I have been robbed," said Cozza, who turned 27 last Saturday. "I want to end it on my terms. My mind is still there but my body isn't."

Cozza has been diagnosed with "unspecified colitis," an intestinal inflammation that, now that he looks back on it, has been attacking him for the last four years. It began with stomach distress at the 2008 Tour of California that Cozza guessed at the time was just a very persistent case of the flu. It was persistent but it wasn't the flu.

"Each year the flare-ups (bouts of diarrhea) would become more frequent," Cozza said. "I'd be taking 8-10 Imodium tablets daily and up to 10 Pepto Bismol tablets daily. In April last year I bonked."

Cozza, sponsored by Garmin, quit only two hours into the legendary butt-kicker, the Paris-Roubaix race, a one-day event that covers 160 miles on road conditions about as nasty as the ones in his California hometown.

"I was eating Clif Bars every 10 minutes," Cozza said, "But in the end I was so weak I couldn't even lift the cranks."

Tests later in the year in Germany revealed the unspecified colitis, meaning the exact type of colitis is unknown at this point.

"I was told that 50 percent of the patients that have unspecified colitis," Cozza said, "develop ulcerative colitis, 15 percent develop Crohn's disease and 35 percent recover completely."

Tilting, naturally, toward being one of those 35 percenters, Cozza started a diet with red meat and vegetables. He felt a bit better but had a limited racing season for Garmin. He wanted to give his body a break and a chance to rest. In January this year, now with Team NetApp, Cozza underwent the standard preseason race physical. He still had those flare-ups.

The key test is to determine the percentage of red blood cells in his body. Red blood cells carry oxygen through the body and more red blood cells mean more oxygen and, therefore, increased performance. This is the base line definition of "blood doping" when cyclists try to increase their red blood cell count for competition. The International Cycling Union, the sport's world-wide governing body, has determined the maximum allowable percentage of red blood cells is 50.

"I have heard some cyclists have had percentages as high as 65," said Cozza, a 2003 graduate of Petaluma High School. "Which means their blood has to be like syrup."

When healthy, Cozza's count was between 45-48 percent. In 2010 the count was 43 percent. In 2011 it was between 41 and 42. Last January his count was 40 percent. Cozza was shocked. Ten days later he retested and it was still 40 percent. That's it, Cozza said, I've had it. He was tired of being tired, of feeling weak. As opposing too much oxygen in his blood, which is dangerous, Cozza was having too little oxygen, which is also dangerous.

"I was tired of getting my butt kicked in races," Cozza said.

Because of frequent diarrhea, Cozza was unable to retain fluids as well as nutrients.

"I was feeling run down all the time," Cozza said. "I don't mean to offend the elderly at all, but I was feeling like a 60-year-old man. I was feeling 40 years older than what I am."

Cozza has been taking a new drug — mesalamine — for the last few weeks and the results have been encouraging. But Cozza has been suffering for so long, the man is simply worn out.

What does a pro athlete do when forced into retirement at 26? Sure, Cozza admitted, if he regains his health, he would re-enter pro cycling. But that's too far in the future right now, years away, if at all. He'd rather concentrate on what he can do.

Cozza is taking an online real estate course to get his real estate license. A self-proclaimed exercise junkie, he has taken up the sport of kite-boarding. He still sponsors Steven Cozza's Race For Kids, a charity that collects donations for kids at risk, like his 2-year old godson, Brody Tatman, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia. His website — stevecozza.com — provides details.

While much of his future is uncertain, one aspect of it is not. Cozza will marry Jennifer Caudill in a Kentucky horse barn in November. Was to happen last November but health concerns postponed the event.

Now the concerns are not nearly as dramatic. And frankly, he admitted, he's enjoying not having to stress about competing against global cycling icons while being dehydrated and malnourished.

"I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders," Cozza said. "It wasn't fun anymore. And it wasn't like a broken leg and I had to immediately retire. This has been coming for years."

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.