This cycling ‘maniac’ conquers the impossible

Staff writerMay 25, 2014 

Suffering gets a bum wrap.

Just ask Leon Matz.

While most of us aspire to lives devoid of even minor inconveniences, the Orting High School guidance counselor is hooked on suffering.

Matz loves using his bike to challenge himself. To grind out mile after thigh-burning uphill mile to see if, even at 63, he can get a little stronger.

“Improvement is exciting,” Matz said. “When you are 63 or 62 years old and you are going faster than you were when you were 58 or 57 or 55, that’s thrilling. It’s addictive.”

Last year Leon Matz logged 12,200 miles. That’s the equivalent of a roundtrip from his Puyallup home to Atlanta with side trips to Guatemala and Alaska.

And the miles weren’t flat. He climbed 337,971 feet, or 23.5 times the height of Mount Rainier.

And, for Matz, that’s a slow year. A shattered leg kept him off his bike for two months.

“He is incredible,” said Conor Collins, a 17-year-old cyclist who sometimes trains with Matz. “I honestly don’t know how he does it.”

Nor do other members of the Puyallup Cyclopaths, a group of about 24 cyclists who like their rides long and hilly.

“He’s a maniac,” said Mike Smith, a longtime friend of Matz. “And he’s an inspiration to be out there doing what he does at his age.”

Last month Matz and Smith went to Hawaii. But instead of relaxing on the beach, they hopped on their bikes and started pedaling toward the sky. In seven days Matz bagged five of the toughest climbs in the United States.

THE BUCKET LIST

Four years ago, Matz’s brother, Jerry, told him that he’d made a bucket list. He loved golf and traveling, so he set a goal of playing at least one round in each state.

Matz liked the idea so much he decided to come up with his own list for his favorite activity, cycling.

It was about this same time he was reading John Summerson’s 2007 book “The Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike).” In the back of the book he found a list called the “100 Most Difficult Road Bike Climbs in the U.S.”

Mount Washington in New Hampshire tops the list. And two rides in Washington made the cut. Hurricane Ridge is No. 41 and Mount Spokane ranks 87th.

So far, Matz has checked off 85 peaks. He has 10 in California and five in New England to go. He hopes to finish by next summer.

The volcanoes of Hawaii are among the toughest on the list. Mauna Loa, Haleakala and Mauna Kea rank second through fourth respectively. All climb from sea level to above 9,000 feet.

In cycling, climbs are ranked on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the most difficult. All three volcanoes are listed as “beyond classification.”

Matz plan was to knock out these and two other climbs with Collins in 2013. But his plans were dashed by a bike commute he’s done hundreds of times before.

UNLUCKY BREAK

In January 2013, Matz was biking home from work when he hit a patch of ice and went down. His right femur was broken in eight places.

Doctors reassembled his leg using two bolts, six screws and a plate. But the Hawaii trip was on hold and it was quite possible he’d never be able to ride again.

Mike Hassur, one of Matz’s closest friends, remembers visiting Matz in the hospital and hoping the guy he’d once inspired to start biking big hills would just be able to walk normally again.

“Most people would be hoping to be able to ride a bike again,” Hassur said. “But I could tell he was hoping to get back to his original level of fitness.”

After the surgery, a friend brought Matz a device that allowed him to make a pedaling motion while sitting in a chair.

At first, Hassur said, Matz could barely turn the pedal. “It was just a terrible injury,” Hassur said.

But Matz says it was a turning point. His wife, Fran, said she could see a depression lift. “And I started having hope I would ride again,” Matz said. “I wasn’t even aware (of the depression). It’s very clear that being active is very important.”

Five months later, Matz was cranking the pedals on his bike on a route known as the Triple Bypass, a 112-mile loop that climbs over White, Chinook and Cayuse passes.

“That’s a big wow,” Hassur said. “I didn’t think it was possible. I still can’t believe it is possible.”

At the sixth-month mark, Matz qualified for the amateur world cycling championships in Italy. And by the end of the year he’d pedaled 12,200 miles, including miles he’d logged on his trainer.

“His determination is amazing. When he sets a goal nothing is going to stop him,” Hassur said.

Matz credits his surgeon, his physical therapist, his Cyclopath friends and Fran for inspiring a recovery he says is still in progress.

‘THAT’S SO LEON’

Even after logging tough miles in the Cascades, successfully climbing the Hawaii volcanoes wasn’t a sure thing.

After Leon’s injury in 2013, Collins had gone ahead and made the trip on his own. Collins, the Cyclopath’s youngest and strongest rider, says he was concerned his friend was taking on the challenge at less than full strength.

“Some parts (on Mauna Kea) are steep enough that if you don’t maintain a certain speed you will fall over,” Collins said.

There’s a race on Mauna Kea each year and workers at a bike shop in Hilo told Matz that it’s not uncommon for as much as 70 percent of the cyclists to get off their bike and walk.

Matz, who did the ride with Smith, had a lower gear installed on his bike and conquered the 18 percent grade.

But this was only the third-toughest climb on the trip. He’d bagged Haleakala — a 10,000-foot-climb — five days earlier.

And two days before Mauna Kea, he’d biked up Mauna Loa, the second hardest climb in the nation, according to the Summerson list. From Hilo to the top of the road on Mauna Loa, Matz climbed 11,000 feet in six hours.

And in between he did two other rides ranked 50th and 61st on the list.

And while Collins might have been concerned before hand, he and the other Cyclopaths weren’t the least bit surprised he was successful.

“We have an expression when somebody does something like that,” Smith said. “‘That’s so Leon.’”

WHAT’S NEXT

Matz hopes to head to California this summer and New England next year to put the final check marks on his bucket list.

But don’t expect him to slow down when he’s finished.

He’s been at Orting High for 34 years and he has no interest in retiring. “Being around kids keeps you young,” he said.

He’ll keep cranking out miles, too. He’s already contemplating his next cycling goals. He might try to bike in every National Park or pedal across the country. He wants to continue to bike a mile for every year on his birthdays. And one of his daughters recently gave him a book called “50 Places to Bike Before you Die.”

Whatever is next, Matz is sure to find a way to happily suffer a little bit along the way.

“My personal belief,” he said, “is that the things of value in life don’t come easy.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497
craig.hill@thenewstribune.com
thenewstribune.com/fitness
theolympian.com/fitness
@AdventureGuys

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