NEW LONDON -- Leo Pizzini is riding high this week with a medal around his neck and a star-spangled shirt on his back.
Pizzini, 65, just returned from the national Cyclo-cross CCX Road and Mountain Bike race in Madison, Wis., and he came in first in his age group. As a reward for his excellence, he was awarded the medal and shirt, which he wore on Saturday night when he shared the joy of his victory with his riding buddies at Tyler Fitzgerald sports bar in Pike Creek, Del.
In honor of his accomplishment they toasted him with drinks and shared a wheel-shaped cake adorned with spokes and the number one.
Pizzini, of New London, is a Native of northeastern Italy who came to the United States in 1968 to join other family members -- including his mushroom grower uncle, Leone Pizzini -- who already live in the West Grove area.
Living in the Alps near the Austrian border he grew up with a fondness for sports including soccer games and bicycle racing. When he came to America, he started a gas station between Avondale and West Grove but still retained his love of sports and his high level of fitness.
“When I came over, I didn’t bring a bike. I got into soccer. I coached some teams around here. He said one team he coached was the Kirkwood Soccer Club that consisted of young people 8 to 21 years old.
When he was 40 years old, however, he began racing bikes with local clubs including is current group, FSVS (First State Velo Sport). He and his friends spend the fall and winter season attending racing events throughout the area. The season concludes with the national and world championships.
Pizzini said he’s gearing up for the world championship in Louisville, Ky., in three weeks.
On a scale of fitness levels, Pizzini far exceeds that of most 65-year-olds. He’s tall, lean and muscular, and moves with an athletic gate.
He said he gets up every morning at 4:30 a.m. and works out for three hours. He then works 10 hours a day at L&L Car and Truck Service in New Garden.
“I eat lots of nuts, salads and yogurt,” he said.
Cyclo-cross racing is similar to bike road and mountain bike racing. The purpose is to covers the most laps in a given time (usually between a half hour and an hour for the senior classes).
The course is about two miles long and is full of obstacles including sand, gravel, grass, wooded trails, rocks and steep hills. In the course of the race, the competitor must carry his or her bike around the more rugged areas and then remount.
Along the way there is a pit crew for the rider that has an extra bike in case once gets broken.
There is no stadium for this sport, and fans watch from along the roped off areas like a cross country course.
Because of the need to carry the bike, it is very light -- about 20 pounds. The wheels are knobby so they can grasp the turf on which they ride. Good ones cost about $6,000 each.
According to Pizzini’s friend and riding buddy, Tom McDaniel, the terrain can present some frustrating challenges.
“The last time I was at the races with Leo, he got pulled from the race, and he threw his bike down,” McDaniel said.
Pizzini is getting ready for the world competition, to which he intends to drive. He carries his bikes in the rear of a mini-van rather than ship them to the destination by air.
Pizzini is married to Susan Pizzini and has two sons, Leone, 37, and Alex, 27. He also has an 8-year old granddaughter who recently came in first in her class on the balance beam in the state gymnastics championships.