Driven to ride

Russ Kempka of Grafton was out of shape and slow to get into cycling. Now he can easily ride 100 miles at a crack and is really fast.
Ozaukee Press staff

Russ Kempka of Grafton showed his newly purchased bike to his wife after he came back from the store.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” she said, and then inquired about the price.

Kempka wouldn’t tell her and began walking up the driveway with it.

She persisted and followed her husband, but stubbed her toe on the way to the house.

“I’m not telling you. You’re mad now,” Kempka said.

Kempka bought the bike in 2010 after his doctor in 2010 told him he had a fatty liver and should lose some weight.

Running was never Kempka’s thing, “But what I found is when I get on a bike I can ride and ride and ride,” he said.

He did finally tell his wife what the bike cost. It was $2,600. She said that was OK as long as he used it.

Kempka has ridden every day since, on that bike or others he has purchased.

What started as a way to get in shape has turned into a passion and lifestyle. Kempka can describe racing strategy using cycling terms and has won a few events.

 His love of cycling started a little slowly, figuratively and literally. Kempka rode by himself for six weeks and was bored. Then he got introduced to the Ozaukee Bicycle Club and things got interesting.

He was new to the area — he moved from Milwaukee in 2008 — and to cycling, and had no idea what level he was at.

“Holding on to the group was survival for me,” he said of his early club rides.

But, “I loved it. It’s the people, the cycling community,” Kempka said.

He remembers his legs feeling like gelatin after a six-mile ride. Now he can go 100 miles and just feel tired.

“It takes years,” he said.

Kempka, 52, squeezes in 10 to 15 hours of training per week around his 10-hour-per-day engineering job. He usually comes home at 5 p.m., has coffee, changes clothes and heads out riding.

“The biggest challenge is recovery,” he said. “Old guys don’t recover as fast. Young guys can go hard and get little sleep.”

Kempka has been training the past several months for the Tour of America’s Dairyland, an 11-day, 11-race race series that makes a stop in Ozaukee County on Saturday, June 22, with Giro d’Grafton.

It doesn’t take him much to keep going.

“You can train eight months and one good race makes all of that training worth it,” he said.

Kempa’s commitment and the help of a professional coach has led him to become a Level 2 rider on a 5-level scale.

Training is specific to Kempka’s body. His coach, Emile Abraham, who has 17 years experience as a professional cyclist and is a USA certified cycling coach, lives in Atlanta but can tailor workouts for

Kempka using software that tracks a host of data, including his heart rate.

Kempka said that Abraham, by just looking at the numbers, can tell if Kempka changed his diet, didn’t get enough sleep or is sick.

Kempka could tell he was becoming a better racer when he saw his energy output significantly decrease. At first, he was so confused that he got his equipment checked for malfunctions.

When that came back normal, he finally figured out he was making better use of his power.

“The whole idea is to be as efficient as you can,” he said.

Therein lies some of the strategy of cycling, which is similar to auto racing.

Riding behind someone to decrease a cyclist’s headwind and thus require expending less effort than the leader — called drafting — is one of the key ways to conserve energy. That, Kempka said, can lead to working 30% less than another cyclist, leaving more energy for the final sprint.

While Kempka can sprint, that isn’t his strength, he said.

“I’m more of a diesel engine when it comes to cycling,” he said. “I can go a long time. Other guys are punchy.”

For example, he said, both types of cyclists may attack hills but Kempka needs less time to recover and can soon pass his competitors.

The sprinters, he said, just sit in with their teams and draft until the end. The “workers” ride ahead to conserve the sprinters’ energy until the final 200 meters, when the sprinters slingshot past to try to win.

A couple of years ago, Kempka lost a race by six inches in Wauwatosa because a sprinter used his draft and had just enough left at the end.

Kempka will sometimes “attack” competitors — try to move ahead of them and have them burn more energy to keep up. Every cycler, he said, only has a certain number of matches to burn each race.

Cyclists will talk to each other to gain an advantage.

“You tell the guy ahead he’s great and racing strong. You can get guys to work for you,” Kempka said.

“It’s fun because it’s a chess match.”

Strategy changes with different courses.

“If this course has hills and you’re not a climber, you could lose the group if you’re alone (not drafting),” Kempka said.

Wind can be another factor. Cyclists search for pockets with good drafts.

Race speeds, he said, can range from 26 mph to 40 mph during sprints.

Like any sport, races don’t always play out as planned, and decisions need to be made instantly to keep up.

“If you need to make a move, you’re watching the podium ride away from you,” Kempka said.

Kempka goes through different experiences while prepping for a race. If he’s trying to win, “I’m a wreck,” he said. He gets a pit in his stomach and has to force himself to eat.

But if he’s just working to help his sprinters, he’s calm.

Regardless of a race’s results, Kempka said cyclers are consistent.

“When the race is over, everyone will congratulate each other,” he said.

Race winners usually get $100. Kempka gives his winnings to his sons.

Despite the crowds at the Tour of America’s Dairyland races — almost taking on a community festival feel, with music and food — Kempka said riders are too focused to notice.

“You don’t hear anyone calling your name,” he said.

But after that final sprint, he looks up and hears the roar.

“It makes you feel like one of the pros,” he said.

For those interested in cycling, getting into the sport is not cheap. Kempka now rides a $10,000 bike. Shoes can run $400, a helmet $200, other clothes $150, along with a $90 race license and $30 to $50 per race fees.

For Kempka, it has been worth it. Beyond the friendships and camaraderie, he has lost 30 pounds and his liver is well.

For more information on the Tour of America’s Dairyland, visit



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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