PITTSBORO — It began with a race for a $100 prize in Greensboro, circa 1973.
Pittsboro’s Chuck Gillis, who was in school at Guilford College in Greensboro at the time, slipped on his makeshift …
Thanks for reading Chatham County’s leading news source! Making high quality community journalism isn’t free — please consider supporting our journalism by subscribing to the News + Record today.
Unlimited Digital Access: $3.99/month
Print + Digital: $5.99/month
PITTSBORO — It began with a race for a $100 prize in Greensboro, circa 1973.
Pittsboro’s Chuck Gillis, who was in school at Guilford College in Greensboro at the time, slipped on his makeshift cycling shoes — cleverly crafted by slicing off the rubber studs on the bottom of a pair of soccer cleats — and geared up for his first race on a racing bike he borrowed from his buddy.
He didn’t win the $100 prize. He didn’t even come close.
But from that point forward, he was hooked.
A career, as well as a lifetime hobby, was born.
“I showed up on the starting line and everybody’s legs looked really smooth and I was like, ‘These guys look pretty fast, but they’re going to go up this hill and I’ll hang with them,’” Gillis said. “And so the race starts and I just couldn’t believe that I was as slow as I was, but I just fell in love with the sport at that point.”
Gillis, now 70 years old, has been cycling for almost half a century. If you were born during or after the Gerald Ford administration, then he’s been on a bike longer than you’ve been alive.
He’s come a long way since his first race.
After the wake-up call during his introduction to bike racing, Gillis got to work learning the basics of road racing and training to become as fast as his smooth-legged opponents.
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s — with a four-year break wedged in to account for he and his wife starting their family — Gillis competed in state, regional and even national competitions, where he’d often finish in second or third place. He became very familiar with the podium in road racing and time trialing events.
During his “elite” peak, he was a time trial champion in both North Carolina and Virginia.
As he got more involved in the sport, cycling shifted from one of his free-time activities to his full-blown career.
He started by getting hired at local bike shops in both Raleigh and Durham, which eventually grew into a sales representative position at Schwinn, one of the oldest bike manufacturers in the U.S.
“I made cycling kind of my career choice, as well,” Gillis said. “I moved a bunch, but ended up settling down in the Washington, D.C., area and continued my job with Schwinn. But then I decided, with my two young kids at home, that I really wanted to be off the road and ride my bike some more.”
That decision led him to take a job with a local bike shop that was expanding, allowing him to spend more time riding — and racing — than he could as a full-time Schwinn salesperson.
But in 1990, Gillis and his family moved again, this time to Chicago, where he worked at the Schwinn corporate headquarters and rode his bike casually. He stopped racing until his journey brought him back to North Carolina a few years later, where he took a position with Performance Bicycle as a product manager.
“There was a lot of riding going on with folks in the building,” Gillis said, “so I got back into it and started competing in age group [40-plus] racing on the road a little bit.”
No matter where Gillis’ journey took him, cycling was always present. He made sure of it.
While his love for racing began at the 1973 competition in Greensboro, his interest in biking began much earlier.
He grew up in Pompton Plains, N.J., located in Morris County, a little less than an hour’s drive from New York City.
“Like a whole bunch of us, I rode my bike everywhere as a kid,” he said. “That’s kind of how I was able to get some freedom.”
In college, he cited a “boom” in 10-speed bikes as one of the primary reasons why he took the sport further. The surge in demand caused him to join in.
“I bought a so-called ‘department store bike’ between my junior and senior years,’” Gillis said. “It was my only way of getting around.”
From there, he rode around with a friend of his that was a college professor, which led to him getting into road racing as he was graduating from college.
Road races consist of any cycling race with a mass start, where all competitors take off from the same starting line simultaneously, which often results in massive clusters of racers traveling together. They can vary from being intense to fairly comfortable, depending on the race.
“Sometimes it’s comfortable to just sit in a group, a smaller group of 15-20 riders and just kind of hang in there,” Gillis said. “But it’s stressful, mentally, to be in a race condition where there’s fighting or struggling for position. And it requires a lot of concentration because you’re maintaining close distances. … It’s just a skill you learn by doing it.”
Road racing is infamous for its crashes, resulting in large pileups of cyclists which can cause injury and derail an entire race. Gillis said it typically happens when someone makes even the tiniest of mistakes, such as lightly tapping the person’s wheel in front of them, bringing a group down in the process.
He’s been involved in one major pileup in his career, which he recalls was in either 2008 or 2009.
“[Mass pileups were] the part of road racing that I think caused me to stop because it was so random,” he said. “You could be moving at 30 miles per hour and a whole bunch of riders would fall in front of you and there’s just nothing you can do. I experienced one of those kinds of races … and I said, ‘Well, that’s enough of that kind of stuff. Road racing, I don’t want to do that anymore.’”
So he pivoted.
For the last 15 years — including the last couple of his competitive road racing career — he’s competed in events in his age group hosted by North Carolina Cyclo-Cross (NCCX), a series lasting from October to December where the races are on a closed course, typically about a mile and a half in distance and timed in intervals of 30, 45 and 60 minutes.
One of cyclo-cross’s claims to fame is its requirement that riders either get off of their bikes to navigate around obstacles or jump over them while still on their bikes (if possible). It usually includes “a little bit of everything,” says Gillis, including gravel, sand, pavement, wooded trails and grass.
Usually, races are held regardless of the weather, often making for some interesting — and challenging — conditions.
“One time in Hendersonville, a couple of different times, there was like a foot of snow on the course the morning of the event,” Gillis said with a laugh. “They still held it, it was just very difficult.”
Just as he did when he was competing in road races and time trials, Gillis has seen success in cyclo-cross, where he’s often placed either first, second or third for his age group — 50-, 55- and now 60-plus — for the entire series, which consists of 10-13 events. Standings are created based on overall performance among the different events.
Despite being 70 years old, there’s no sign of Gillis stopping anytime soon.
His training has slowed down a bit since he retired from full-time work in recent years, but he still finds time to go out on hour-long rides a few times per week, averaging anywhere from 55 to 75 miles in a single week, using a cyclocomputer and the Strava app to track his mileage and speed.
In a single year, he still rides anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 miles.
“It’s still an interesting challenge to see how my body responds to training,” Gillis said. “It’s just a rewarding experience and it’s a good way to stay healthy because, cycling, you can do it well into your later years because it treats your body well. … It’s good on your joints, helps you stay healthy by increasing your circulation and not causing as much wear-and-tear to your connective tissue.”
Gillis plans to compete in this fall’s NCCX series for his 15th season and is already slated to ride in the 102-mile Blue Ridge Brutal race along the Blue Ridge Parkway on Aug. 21, but thinks he’ll switch to one of the lower tiers (56 or 72 miles) because “I’d just suffer (if I did 102 miles), so I’d rather have fun and go a little shorter.”
When asked when he thinks he’ll stop racing, Gillis said he’s no stranger to the question.
“I don’t know, I think about that … you know, I’ll probably do it until it’s not fun anymore,” Gillis said. “And ‘not fun’ would mean that I’m not competitive or that I feel like I’m putting my body at too much risk.”
But by the sound of it, cycling still hasn’t lost its luster in his eyes.
“It’s almost like a meditation, it’s a mind-clearing process,” he said. “It just makes me feel healthy and connected to the natural world. I like to not have in earplugs and just take in what’s around me. It’s just a way to experience the outdoors.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.