I know what the French call “jacque merde” about racing in the pro peloton. My last race was a Sunday town line sprint that I lost by about five bike lengths, because I was busy trying to see if the ice cream truck was coming up behind us. Also, I’m an American, which means that, for me, cycling is a decidedly middle class affair, popular only among my Europhile and immigrant friends, a thing with its roots in working class factories and the hard man lifestyle we in this country associate most often with lumberjacks or commercial fishermen.
How I came to love European racing, a thing both distant and alien, is anyone’s guess, but fall in love I did. A ’70s childhood of BMX and then ten-speeding spilled out into a two-wheeled adulthood, spandex clad, tappy shoe shod and my eyes strained toward the East and the velocepedic cults of France, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Spain.
Having never properly raced, even domestically, I had yeoman’s job to understand what was happening up the Ventoux, down the Champs-Élyseés, over the cobbles and through the Ardennes. This was a process not only of internalizing the tactics of bicycle racing, but drinking deep from the sloppy and chaotic cup of this odd Euro sport.
No one, I mean no one, has done more to help me see into the world of pro bike racing than Samuel Abt, the legendary cycling correspondent for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. In books such as: Off to the Races – 25 Years of Cycling Journalism; Up the Road – Cycling’s Modern Era from LeMond to Armstrong; A Season in Turmoil and Tour de France – Three Weeks to Glory, Abt collects his daily newspaper missives into wild and nuanced pastiches of the Euro racing life.
He gives voice to directeurs sportif, soigneurs, race organizers, the mayors of towns dying to have the major races grace them with their spiritual and monetary beneficence, as well as the riders, both legendary and journeymen, who animate the races. He describes the weather, the food, the farms and mountains. He is a writer, like John McPhee or Studs Terkel, who tells a story through the accumulation of minutely observed detail.
From an article called “When Autumn Comes” in Up the Road, Abt writes:
“Out in the countryside of France, the fields are brown and barren, their corn long harvested and the stalks chopped down for fodder. Until the stubble is plowed under when winter wheat is planted, the landscape is bleak and the air full of despair.
“For professional bicycle riders, April is not the cruelest month. Far from it. In April, hopes for a successful season are as green as the shoots just then starting to push through the fields that the riders pass in their early races. The cruelest month is really October, when the nine-month racing season ends and the riders finally know what they have failed to accomplish.”
From the introduction to Off to the Races:
“Far up the road, spectators had already jammed the switchback curves of Alpe d’Huez. The police finally gave up trying to estimate the size of the crowd and could only say it was more than the usual 300,000 to 400,000 who waited each year for the bicycle riders in the Tour de France to climb the peak. This Sunday morning in July, while the sun burned off traces of fog in the valley and melted a bit of the glaciers permanently atop the French Alps, the crowd was waiting for one rider. “Allez, Simon,” the banners said. But by then it was over.”
I have read the biographies, Anquetil, Merckx, Pantani, et. al., and I have read the various histories, and almost without exception I have enjoyed them, but no books have brought me to Europe to smell the dust of the hot French summer or feel the ice cold Belgian rain quite like Abt’s have.
These collections of his writings also serve as charming reminders of how the superstars saw the world before they were superstars. Here we find one Lance Armstrong, in 1993, talking about Miguel Indurain, from Up the Road:
‘“He’s got a super attitude,” he said. “He’s not obnoxious, he’s quiet, he respects the other riders, he never fusses. He’s so mild-mannered. I really like him.”
“So much so that the 29-year-old Spaniard seems to have become a role model for the likeable and sensitive Armstrong, who has occasionally been considered brash. “I still have a temper and an attitude sometimes,” he confessed.
“I wouldn’t mind molding myself into his sort of character,” he said. “Really quiet, just goes about his business.”’
You may watch Versus on your American television. You may steal a Eurosport feed from some Internet backwater. You may stand by the early season roadside in California, waiting for the peloton to streak by, but short of spending a season in Europe (a luxury I’ve never been able to indulge) it’s very hard to get the flavor of the sport. In this sense, if Paris Roubaix is a dish, Sam Abt is an able chef, translating that uniquely Franco-Belgian treat for an American palette.
Thanks to Da Robot of the Bottom Bracket Blog for this appreciation.