By Louis Borgenicht
It has always been a curiosity to me that some professionally educated people eventually end up not practicing their chosen profession for a variety of reasons.
It is well known that a reasonable number of lawyers forsake the practice of law for a variety of pursuits (John Cleese obtained a law degree and found another calling) but the situation is less common amongst physicians. Jonathan Miller, another Englishman, has had a distinguished career as a comedian, author, and director (especially grand opera) despite completing medical training.
John Lawrence is locally trained physician who completed both medical school and residency at the University of Utah and whose multifarious passions have turned to cycling. He is the writer-director-producer of a film Peloton, shot mainly in Utah and currently being edited for release soon.
John has led a varied and eclectic life but is now focused on raising a family, Peloton, writing, and recreating. Talking with him leaves you with a sense of disconcerting incredulity: he tells his story with an engaging ease.
He was born in White Plains, New York, and moved to England with his parents at the age of one. The seeds for his attraction to cycling had their roots early in his life: by the age of seven he was riding a ten speed orange Merckx that undoubtedly planted the seed for Lawrence’s admiration of the racing legend.
“Merckx excelled in so many disciplines, won the yellow, green and polka dot jersey in one Tour de France (and would have had the white if existed that year). Attacked, attacked. A perfectionist…and I had my orange Merckx Junior,” said John.
In college at Georgetown in Washington DC John not only wallowed in the educational offering of a very liberal education (he majored in International Studies) but managed to explore a number of his other interests. The one thing he knew would not do was go to medical school.
One of his favorite classes was an offering in Shakespeare where each student studied one character in depth in one play rather than being asked to read a number of plays in a survey course. He loved the class and was depressed when the course ended. It clearly piqued his interest in theater and acting.
It is difficult to describe chronologically how Lawrence’s life has evolved; he describes his experiences with earnest enthusiasm almost as a series of serendipitous events.
What follows is a stream of consciousness listing gleaned from a one-hour conversation with him this winter:
He has been a ski guide in Chamonix. While there he fell ill and met a doctor who worked for Medecins Sans Frontiers who was “a great guy and made me think medicine might be interesting.”
He founded a company marketing environmental products and thus lived for a while in Poland. While there he was a river guide in his spare time.
Throughout his life he was been a passionate writer: currently he has a screen play for another feature, a documentary and is looking for a publisher for a book of stories he wrote about medical school.
How he got to medical school is somewhat anecdotal. John wrote his application in the back of a trailer while he was in Moab and when he got notice of his acceptance entered medical school with the knowledge that “medicine was not my passion.”
Lawrence, a proverbial bike rider (he had raced for a while) had two serious accidents during the month before medical school one of which landed him on the Neurology service and ultimately resulted in memory loss for about six months.
“I had a hard time remembering what subject I was studying for about six months,” he said.
Lawrence’s frenetic curiosity continued throughout medical school and his Family Practice Residency. He would sneak out of class for theatrical and film auditions and began thinking of writing a screenplay about cycling.
One day in the midst of his third year in medical school he got a lift changing call: one of his best friends, a cyclist named John Schlesinger, had died in an automobile crash. The news “threw [him] for a loop”. After a series of deep conversations with friends Lawrence realized even more intensely than he had before that “people need to commit themselves to their dreams”, which made him even more committed to Peloton.
Financing the film was the first issue. Lawrence started by cashing out his retirement plan and then contacted every major cycling organization he knew about. He approached family and friends and ultimately got a $30,000 incentive grant from the state of Utah.
With that financial backing work on the film proceeded assiduously. Aside from experienced riders, Lawrence hired some professional actors, some of who had never ridden a bike. Lawrence said that some of them trained in Emigration Canyon riding at fifty miles an hour but when they got to their endpoint, a parking lot, they forgot that they were clipped in and simply fell over.
During the 2010 Tour of Utah he filmed the Peloton on stage two (Ogden Canyon around East Canyon over Big Mountain to research Park) with robotic cameras.
Lawrence describes the film as a love story but it will clearly be an expression of his personal belief that “cycling is a welcome back to life.” He will have succeeded if the film gets people excited to get on a bike.
Currently he is working at After Hours Medical Urgent Care about sixteen hours and then has four days off to edit his film, be a partner and a father, and ride his Focus Izalco.
At the end of the interview I asked John about some questions that had cropped up:
L.B.: Who are your favorite professional cyclists?
J.L.: These days, Cancellara just blows my mind. Saw him in London at the TDF prologue and were the idea of a motor not so preposterous, you might have thought he was on one. He works hard for his team, works hard always, and seems to have a sense of humility…
Museeuw was kind of a hero, total badass, winning in those cold, wet, Belgian classics, holding up the almost amputated leg as he wins Paris-Roubaix. But I suppose his legend is slightly tainted.
L.B.: How would you describe the mindset of bike racers?
J.L.: They seem like a unique breed of athlete.
Certainly a goofy breed of athletes! Perhaps they have just a wry sense of humor…. I think any athletes that have to face pain and suffering as a standard of their trade have a unique outlook, a willingness and almost sense of pleasure in the pain… dedicated to the point of obsession.
L.B.: How would you describe the dynamics and dangers of the piloting?
J.L.: The piloting itself is not dangerous, it's the individual mistake, but that can happen anywhere in a group of solo…its a powerful machine that can make riding more effortless and when you're in the back fighting it, it's a beast, something just aesthetically beautiful about the piloting motoring past, the blur of riders going that fast, that close together, a lot of kinetic energy, a lot of potential excitement as riders look to make moves and splinter the group
L.B.: Do you see the piloting as a metaphor?
J.L.: Hmm, I suppose we can make metaphors out of almost anything, but I think the peloton is powerful as a group that can work together and be unstoppable, and at the same time, its the group that riders need to break away from in pursuit of victory… so perhaps the metaphor for life and cycling is how much we are interconnected, and must be to maintain our humanity, but we also strive to excel in our own goals… something like that… or perhaps when we strive for success, we need the help of so many people, even though at the end of the day, the success or failures rest on our own shoulders…
A few weeks later John reconsidered my question:
I think now that the metaphor is best realized in how many people were in my peloton to see this film get made, how we all have to live our own lives, but they are really not complete without our peloton around us. Despite wanting to break away at times, there are other times we are so thankful the group is there for us!
John Lawrence is a man who is driven by his interests and curiosities as well as the need to do whatever he chooses to do with ultimate perfection. He is a multifaceted artist who just happened to become a doctor. It is clear that all of his interests feed on one another.
Peloton (www.pelotonthemovie.com) will likely be an expression of his exuberance.