SAN DIEGO — Vic Copeland grew up outside Dodge City, Kan., knowing that those who settled there before him had to be pretty quick on the draw.
Like that town's legendary lawman, Wyatt Earp, Copeland is quick--but not with a gun.
On his wheels.
Copeland, an optometrist and gentleman farmer from Rancho Santa Fe, is one of about 2,200 competitors participating this week at the U.S. Masters National Cycling Championship throughout the county.
Copeland's vision of being the nation's best cyclist for his age has been 20/20 this week, even before today's road race championship at Morley Field on a triangular, 3.3-mile course on Upas, Pershing and Florida streets.
"If you stay in shape, you keep wondering as you get older if you're going to slow down," Copeland said. "So far this year, I've run faster times in the flying 200 sprint, the kilometer and the 3,000 pursuit (races).
"That keeps me pretty well stoked."
The stoking continued Friday when Copeland--less than two months away from his 50th birthday--finished first in the one-kilometer sprint and third in the points race. He also received the best all-around track rider award in his age division.
"I think Vic typifies the '90s middle-age athlete," said three-time world champion and two-time Olympian Skip Cutting, who is also the promoter of the week's event. "He continues to get better even though he's getting older."
Earlier this week, Copeland won a gold medal in the one-kilometer time trial for men 45-49 years old. He clocked 1 minute 12.3 seconds, faster even than the 40-44 winner.
He also won the 3,000-meter pursuit time trial in 3:49.8.
The one-kilometer race is equivalent of a runner's quarter-mile, and the 3,000 pursuit is the equivalent of the mile, with the same pain.
With two cyclists on opposite sides of the velodrome track, each tries to catch the other. If no one catches the opposing rider, the fastest time wins.
"You've got to pace yourself very well," Copeland said. "It gets brutal in the last part."
Agonizing might be a better word. It is Copeland's experience that helps him outlast the agony that cuts into his muscles as his bike reaches speeds above 40 m.p.h. He knows he's going to survive despite the hurt.
To wit: "The pain is incredible. It really is. You have to relax into the pain. It's like when you're getting a massage and (the masseur) is driving into you and telling you to relax. Your body is trying to get your mind to back out of this commitment."
Cyclists don't call the one-kilometer race the kill-o-meter for nothing.
He explains: "You've been totally anaerobic for the last 30 seconds and, for me, the next 15 seconds is incredibly hard because you get so much pain in your legs at that time and you're gasping for air. It's almost like suffocating. You're breathing hard and it's like you're not getting any air.
"But with experience, you realize that you are going to get better. It's almost like being asthmatic. If you tighten up, it's a lot worse."
Copeland should be able to paint a realistic picture of life on a bicycle. This is a lifestyle for him and his family. Last year, he was the president of the San Diego Velodrome Assn.
Copeland began competing in the early 1980s, completing five Ironman Triathlons from 1983-87 and each time finishing in the top 10% in his age group.
"Physiologically, it was a little easier for me to do the cycling than the swimming," Copeland said, "so I gravitated toward cycling."
"My butt and quads are a little overdeveloped compared to my upper body," Copeland said. "Most swimmers have bigger upper bodies and lighter legs. When you have heavier legs, like me, it's tough to get up on top of the water. I'm what I call a sinker."
But he rises when he's on two wheels. He has won the kilometer race on a worldwide level the past three years, winning the 1989 World Masters Games and the past two World Cups.
Copeland, who entered two biathlons last year and won both, is not the only athlete in the family. His wife of 27 years, Joyce, completed the Ironman Triathlon in 1987 and swims often. She competes in triathlons still, but not with the same intensity.
Copeland's two youngest children are also avid cyclists. Joany, 15, leaves Sunday to compete in the National Junior Championships in Houston. Zac, 19, won the National Championships in 200-meter match sprinting and also was the lone U.S. representative in the one-kilometer race at the Junior World Championships for boys 18 and younger.
"He's real strong," Vic Copeland said. "He's got a shot at the Olympics next year, I think."
Copeland's other two children, Robin and Scott, operate his optical dispensary in Hawaii. In addition to that, Copeland has two practices locally, the Encinitas Eye Clinic and San Diego Optometry.
He puts in about six hours a day at the practice after a three-hour workout in the morning, usually riding along Highway 101 or near Palomar Mountain.