“Intense workouts…the fountain of youth”

Lenny Lighter, in black, pedals against the clock.

An unexpected mix.

The man running Montreal’s landmark steak house also happens to be a competitive cyclist. Read on to find out more about what drives Lenny Lighter and post a comment.

Photo courtesy The Montreal Gazette

  • Name: Lenny Lighter
  • Age: 57
  • Profession: Restaurateur. Moishes. Montreal, Canada
  • Passion: Cycling
  • Team: PowerWatts-Moishes, Montreal.
  • Objective: To stay young as long as possible!

When Sidney Crosby and the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins ate at Moishes restaurant on an off-day in their 2010 Playoff Series with the Montreal Canadiens, there’s no way they could have known they’d be greeted by a restaurant owner who’s likely just as fit as they are. And while I don’t have the stats to back it up, I’m willing to bet that Lenny Lighter has a VO2 Max which rivals many NHL’ers.

Lighter is not the archetype of a restaurant owner. In addition to running one of the city’s most famous restaurants, Lighter is an accomplished cyclist, training over hundreds of kilometers a week. He competes with the PowerWatts-Moishes cycling team at regional events most weekends through the summer, as well provincial and national championships. In 2009, he made an improbable return from a broken hip to win a gold medal at the 18th Maccabiah Games.

Few people understand time like Lenny Lighter, as he keeps an eye on the clock both in sport and at work. He knows exactly how long it takes to cook a perfect Moishes steak.  A wine expert, he knows that every wine has a natural lifespan, and that some decline in old age. And as a cyclist, he knows that it takes far too long to get up the 1.8 kms (and 8 degree grade) of Camilien Houde the road that crests Mount Royal in the centre of the city!

I met with him at his restaurant to talk about what motivates him to push so hard as a cyclist.

His Drive

Before meeting, Lighter had managed to get away from the restaurant for long enough to complete an intense 1.5 hour ride, which included the Camilien Houde climb. He was completely recovered by the time we spoke.

I’m 57, at a stage in my life when it’s going to go one way or the other. You are either going to stay fit and try to fight off ageing, or you are going to let it take over and go the other way. To me, cycling – and intense workouts more generally – are the fountain of youth. That’s the defining line. My sense is that I’m on the right side of the line as long as I can work out intensely  – and it’s about a certain intensity, like when I went over Camilien Houde today, it hurt in my lungs. That happens almost every day in my life, I push myself to that point. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to make the difference. Cycling just happens to be my vehicle. I love the sport, the racing, the competition, and the camaraderie with friends and teammates. I love the clothes, the bikes, the machines, and the culture that surrounds it.

It’s an important part of my life. It’s what’s going to keep me young for as long as possible.

His Accident

In late March of 2009, Lighter unwillingly got a taste of what it’s like to get old in a hurry. He and some cycling friends were training in the hills, near Riccione, Italy. Near the end of a long ride (140/160K), he had slowed down to almost nothing and turned to catch sight of one of his teammates when his tire slipped sideways on sand. There was no slide, and he fell straight down to one side of the bike, landing flat on the pavement, hip-first.

I knew I hurt myself badly because I’ve crashed before, and this was different. This was serious. My first thoughts were about the Maccabiah Games in Israel that summer, which we were training for, and I started to do the math. How much time do I have until then, and is it possible to recover, heal, and be able to compete?

All that mental computing went on while he was still lying on the pavement, an indication of how quickly the mind can process things under stress, and of how committed he is to his goals. Before healing, Lighter was taken to hospital where he had surgery to repair the broken hip. A week later, he was on a plane back to Canada, wondering how soon he could get back on his bike again.

His Comeback

It would be nearly two months before he could get back to something that approached regular riding again, but the next story he told me is simply amazing. It’s the kind of story that exemplifies the focus sports provides, even if it can border on obsession.

A week after I got home, I took my bike, put it in my station wagon and drove to the estacade. I’m by myself and on crutches, and take the bike out, and I get on my bike and go probably for a 40 km ride. The point being there were no cars, and it was safe. It was fun, if a little painful. There were a couple of people who train with my coach Paolo Saldana, and they saw me. The word got back to my trainer/physio Scott Livingston that I had been on my bike. That’s when he read the riot act to me- he told me that it was a stupid thing to do. I needed to be properly healed before getting on the bike again.

The good news is that he did heal quickly, and he found the patience to wait another six weeks before getting on his bike to resume normal training.  Amazingly, he was able to compete less than three months after he broke his hip. Before talking with him about how he approaches competition, I asked him about embracing a sport which has relatively high risk for injury, especially since he’s already living a life so full in so many other ways (family, professionally).

You have to take a leap of faith. It’s a percentage game. Things happen. It wasn’t my first crash, and it’s probably not going to be my last crash. The more you ride, something is going to happen. Hopefully it’s small, sometimes it’s big.

His Racing

If you don’t follow cycling closely, or if you haven’t competed, it’s hard to understand the importance of team in racing. The large majority of riders are there in support roles, trying to get their lead rider to the front of the pack at the finish. It’s the role Lighter has happily embraced for most of his competitive races. The victories aren’t always in the medals, but often in just having completed certain sections of the course the way the team was hoping you would.

Even at the 18th Maccabiah Games, when Lighter had just recovered enough to compete, it seems the journey to his part in the team gold medal was as important as the actual medal.

I was happy at the moment. It was a great hour after we finished and the ceremony. But after that, it was over for me. And I was moving on.  I’m not the kind of person who feels elated for a long time.  It’s nice but it’s fleeting- and it’s on to the next thing.

When I ask him about the defining moments in his cycling competitions, as well as his many business accomplishments (he has had many), he emphasizes again how fleeting success is – that it’s quickly forgotten and that only working harder will make you more successful.

I work a lot more than most, and I train a lot more than most. When you combine them, it’s a lot. I love it, and I don’t think I can have it any other way.

His Workouts

When I ask Lenny about his typical mileage and workouts, this is what describes:

  • Week:  200- to 300-K’s.
  • Saturdays: long, easy ride: 60-90 K.
  • Hill workout: 25 – 35 K.
  • Speed (on the circuit):  40 K
  • Race day: 90 K.

Last Thursday, I was behind in my accumulated mileage. I purposely blocked off three hours in the afternoon – and played hooky, as it were. I went out and did an 80 km ride. I made sure somehow that I had to get it done, before a race.

His Fear

Lighter, who didn’t get started as an athlete until he was in his 20’s (he ran marathons before turning to cycling), does not remember being drawn to sports as a kid. But he does remember being fat, which is truly hard to believe when you see how taught and trim his body is today.

Inside me of me still, there’s a fat kid. You see the way I’m eating tonight. No carbs, just proteins and vegetables. And chicken and not steak. In my mind, I’m still a fat person.

The nice thing about being fat – as opposed to being ugly – is that you can change certain things.

You can physically transform yourself if you have the desire and the willpower.

It’s about control – in terms of what you eat – and the other side is the discipline to burn calories. Part of this whole thing with exercising and staying in shape, and cycling, it’s part of my strategy and part of my thought process to keep myself from ever being fat.

My goals and dreams and fantasies when I was a kid were to be buff, like Charles Atlas – you know the stuff of comic books. That doesn’t work unless you do the work, and at some point, it was just important to me.  I had lost weight, not through training or hard work, part of it was just a natural process and eating less. At some point I realized, to stay fit, and never be fat again, I’d have to work hard at it. That’s why I became an aerobic athlete.

His Roots

Lenny Lighter always works from the same table at his elegant restaurant, which is located on the Main, between Duluth and Pine avenues. His table is under the picture of his later father Moishe, who started the restaurant in 1938 – fifteen years after leaving Romania for a new life in Canada.

Lenny and his older brother Larry spent countless hours at the restaurant as children, and eventually learned to run the business from their father, with the most important quality being dedication and hard work.

I asked him what his father might think of his dedication to cycling.

He didn’t give sport much thought. I don’t think he’d be too impressed with what I’m doing. We weren’t the type of family that put emphasis on sport. The choices we made were in light of our family’s background. The pursuit of sport is sort of a luxury, and my father never had time.

Sense of Identity

One element drawing Lenny Lighter to sport is that it gives him a sense of identity which is separate from his persona around Moishes. It is, in effect, creating a fuller, more complete life – seizing an opportunity that his father did not have.

It may, and I stress may, also counter the perception that his work demeanor leaves with some people. Every inch the professional, he keeps his distance inside the restaurant, projecting a stoic look about him.

I have this very serious, intense, and often tough look about me, even though it’s often not what I’m feeling inside.  My kids are now used to it and so is my wife. But I’m not sure if people out here really get me.

My kids always say that if they saw me walking down the street, they would  cross to the other side!  And my wife often says – is there something wrong?

Indeed, there’s nothing wrong. His is just the face of someone deeply aware of how short the days are. For Lenny Lighter, every second counts. And the regularity of training and racing are to his clock like the compass is to the mariner. Good weather, or bad, he knows what direction he needs to take.

My sport and my commitment to fitness have been like that. Even when my parents died, I still got up the next days to go for my run. It’s something to hang onto, and it helps to clear the head. No matter how bad you feel, it takes you to a BETTER place. It’s always BETTER than where you’ve been.  It works every time.


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