Shortly after Les Schwartz turned 50, he stood at the bottom of Rib Mountain, wondering what his body was capable of. His goal was to run to the top just to see what he could do at a half-century.
“I found out I wasn’t quite as good as I thought,” Schwartz says. “In fact, I was terrible.”
Thirty two years later, Schwartz is far from terrible, and his level of fitness would be the envy of people half his age. Today a traveler on Park Road, the winding path that climbs up to Rib Mountain State Park, has a good chance of seeing the 82-year-old Schwartz tackling the long, steep road on his mountain bike.
Schwartz hits the hill every other day. On opposite days, he takes his kayak out on the Wisconsin River. That’s just what happens in the afternoon. Mornings are reserved for a daily round of golf.
Even a seasoned recreational cyclist might find one trip up Rib Mountain a challenge, leaving their legs burning and their lungs screaming for air. But Schwartz isn’t satisfied with one trip up and down. He often does it three times a day at the peak of summer.
I caught up with Schwartz on one of these mountain climbs after his wife suggested I might find him there. I found him chugging up the hill on his gold and red mountain bike —breathing hard, but by no means struggling. He slowed long enough to tell me to meet him at the top. “I’ve got to get my workout in,” Schwartz called, suddenly speeding up the mountain road with a burst of energy.
Near the ranger station at the top of Rib Mountain State Park, he biked toward me, apologizing for making me wait. We made arrangements to sit down for an interview the following week.
It’s not the first time I’d encountered Schwartz. For the past 10 years I’ve seen him at just about every mountain bike event I attended. Even though his racing days were behind him, he’d volunteer to do course clean up or help guide someone on the right trail during races. He’s well known as a mountain biking pioneer in the area, for many reasons.
He might not have started cycling and running until he turned 50, but Schwartz was never a stranger to the mountain.
A skier since his youth, Schwartz still skis down Granite Peak’s slopes in winter, every morning. Afternoons are reserved for snowshoeing the mountain.
I met with Schwartz and his wife, Marian, in their Schofield home on a Thursday afternoon. Schwartz was known as a fierce competitor when on a bike, challenging bikers half his age. Off the bike he’s all smiles, with a politeness from another era, and one of the friendliest of people you might meet.
A living legend, all seasons
Even if they don’t know him personally, most cyclists in the area, mountain or road, have heard of Les Schwartz. And if you talk to longtime downhill skiers, you’ll get the same. Most in one sport community know a little about his involvement in the other, but usually not much; it’s almost as if they’re two separate worlds that Schwartz made his name in. Two separate legends.
It started with skiing.
Schwartz graduated from Wausau High School in 1954, long before the school was split into its east and west divisions. There, he played hockey and joined the ski club. After graduation, he got a job selling appliances and later servicing them. He loved taking apart machines to see what made them tick. He received no training in this; he just started pulling things apart to figure out how they worked. “I could never buy anything new, he would always fix it,” his wife Marian says.
He eventually retired from Furniture and Appliance Mart, making repair his full-time occupation. “I repaired everything: TVs, washers, dryers, ranges, air conditioners, anything and everything that needed repair, I would could fix it.”
When he wasn’t fixing machines, Schwartz spent his time working on the ski patrol, where he eventually became an instructor to the north central region, covering Wisconsin and the U.P. He and his wife started a newsletter for the ski patrollers, hand-written at first, that went out to ski rescuers all over the region.
He would teach ski patrollers “who thought they knew how to ski,” Schwartz says. “We would show them a little different.”
During his years on the ski patrol, Schwartz was named a runner up for the national organization’s ski patrol person of the year—a distinction among more than 25,000 ski patrollers, says Mark Klein, who spent decades on the ski patrol with Schwartz.
“He was an instrumental person on the patrol,” Klein says. Schwartz even developed a light-weight, easier to maneuver toboggan ski patrollers use during rescues, Klein says, further demonstrating his fix-it abilities.
New ski patrollers usually got a schooling, Locher says. “A lot of people think they can ski when they join, and then, oh my,” says Marcia Locher, a current ski patroller who was on the team with Schwartz.
She says Schwartz would drill fundamentals into them, making sure they skied in a way that had the stability required of a rescue. Patrollers routinely make 400-500 rescues per year, Klein says, so solid skiing skills are paramount.
“He was one of the best trainers we ever had,” Klein says. “He was able to explain things to people that other trainers couldn’t.”
On the slopes, Schwartz was known for a style of downhill skiing called telemark, an exaggerated form done on special heel-released skis that have more in common with cross country skis than modern downhill skis. The skier descends the mountain in wide arcs, one leg in front of the other. It’s the equivalent of doing deep knee bends down the mountain, and Schwartz still used that style into his 70s. “It was a thing of beauty to watch him ski,” Locher says.
Schwartz still skis Granite Peak every day during the season. Locher says he’s usually the first one on the lift in the mornings, and she razzes him a little if he’s not. “He always gives me a hug,” Locher says. “I respect him greatly.”
A hard man on the bike
In his earlier days, Schwartz also played softball and later coached his sons and daughters in the game, long before any endurance sports entered the picture. (He was one of the original Wausau Area Softball Association board members, according to the group’s website).
His start in the biking scene came years after softball and skiing, with that one moment after he turned 50, running up the mountain. That first trip might have been disappointing, but Schwartz persisted, and came to love endurance sports. Eventually he started running up the ski hill, a steep and difficult run up rocks and loose dirt.
That led to a number of 10-kilometer races, and eventually a pair of marathons, which he ran fast enough to qualify for the well-known Boston Marathon. He didn’t go, and looking back, it’s one of the things Schwartz wishes he had done.
Endurance running led to biking. And when his two adult sons got into road cycling, he did, too. Before long, Schwartz, then in his 50s, was in the pack, racing handlebar to handlebar with other cyclists at speeds between 20 to 30 miles per hour. Schwartz considers it one of the most dangerous and exciting sports he’s participated in. He gets chills thinking about it to this day. “It’s so intense, all you hear is this hum of the road.”
His love of biking led to Schwartz being one of the earliest adopters of the mountain bike, popularized in the 1980s. Schwartz helped establish the sport in Wausau, developing many of the trails at Nine Mile Forest Recreation Area. Today they’re designed and maintained by Central Wisconsin Off-Road Cycling Coalition, but once they were mostly Schwartz’s creation.
Anyone who talks to Schwartz knows he’s a friendly guy, if not a little private, but a beast when he gets on the bike. Schwartz’ competitive streak followed him from running, to road biking, to mountain biking, and there’s hardly any outdoor athlete in the community who hasn’t heard of him.
“You didn’t want to throw the gauntlet down in front of him,” says Peter Kohlmoos, a bike mechanic at Shepard and Schaller’s and early mountain biker in Wausau. “You would end up eating dirt.”
Schwartz is known by many as one of the first to blaze single track trail at Nine Mile, when most mountain bikers were sticking to the ski trail. Through his efforts beginning in the 1980s, the sport grew in the area, Kohlmoos says. “He made the sport available to a much larger body of people who wouldn’t have been able to experience it otherwise,” Kohlmoos says. “I feel a large quantity of gratitude for the work he’s done.”
One of the first things people say when I mentioned I’m writing about Les Schwartz is “oh, is he still riding up Rib Mountain?” The next question is usually “How old is he now?”
“He’s in better shape than me,” says Klein, who also mountain bikes. “And I’m more than 20 years younger.”
Schwartz and I sat down for an interview in Schwartz’ living room, his wife nearby to fill in any details. Schwartz credits Marian with being his support, through injuries that left him in the hospital through both skiing and biking.
I asked him to think of something people might not know about him. “That’s a really good question,” he says, taking a few moments.
“I don’t think people know how much I enjoy the outside. I can go outside in the winter time and shovel, ski in 30-below weather, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I don’t think people realize how much I enjoy being outside.”
Oh, I think they have an idea, Les.