A Tale of Two Icons
I took up rock climbing this year. Inside. Away from the wind’s howl and the mercury’s shallow dip. In place of long rides through Boston’s quaint colonial burbs, and hill repeats out in the Arlington Heights. The commute remains, but the time I might otherwise spend spinning, I now spend climbing.
And as I’ve learned more and more about my new sport, the more it’s caused me to reflect on cycling, on how the sport is contested at its highest levels, on how it’s marketed and what its fans value most, and how its icons measure up against one another.
Over the last decade, Lance Armstrong has established himself, not only as the most famous modern cyclist, but also, likely, in this age of rapid information exchange and media saturation as the most famous bike rider ever. His comeback in 2009 brought money and attention flooding back into the sport. Despite the emergence of young superstars who may, one day, supplant him, Lance has proven that he is still the biggest draw in cycling.
Chris Sharma is, by near consensus, the best climber in the world today. Twenty-eight years old, lithe and handsome, Sharma has done and continues to do things no other climber ever has. He has opened innumerable new routes, first ascents of the greatest difficulty that the world’s other top climbers struggle to imagine completing, routes that, finally, required the expansion of the rating system to adequately describe their difficulty. From the age of 15 when he became the US National Bouldering Champion, Sharma has dominated competitions and set an entirely new standard against which future climbers will be judged.
Like Armstrong, Sharma has a list of victories as long as his arm. They are both generational athletes, rare humans with a unique combination of physical gifts, mental toughness and superhuman drive. And that, my friends, is where the similarities end.
Because while Lance Armstrong has developed a reputation for gargantuan ego, savvy business sense, ruthless managerial tactics and a bullying and condescending approach to his rivals, Sharma has gone about his business modestly, quietly and with a focus on something beyond competition.
It is traditional, in climbing, for the first one up a new route to name that route, but this is something Sharma is reluctant to do, leaving many of his first ascents to others to name. When climbing with others, he is well-known for offering to belay first (i.e. stand at the base of the climb, protecting his climbing partner by managing the rope and calling out encouragement). In interviews he talks about the necessity of competing, to promote the sport, to maintain his sponsorships, to stay sharp, but he also speaks about the desire just to be outdoors, working on various climbing projects, traveling, seeing friends, pushing the limits of climbing without necessarily vanquishing an opponent. He smiles a lot. Laughs.
Lance Armstrong is larger than cycling. He has used his seven Tour de France wins to further the fight against cancer, often taking meetings with heads of state and delivering inspirational speeches to cancer patients around the world. He dates celebrities and doesn’t rule out a future in politics, perhaps as Governor of Texas.
Sharma, for the most part, has remained within the climbing world, but he has redefined the sport’s aims and softened its risk-takers image. He has transformed climbing’s top end from a daredevil adrenaline rush into a more aesthetic and spiritual endeavor. He has, for the most part, walked away from climbing’s biggest competitions to push at the edge of what’s possible. in cycling, this would be akin to Armstrong winning a fifth Tour and then spending all his time working at the hour record.
To be sure, the sports aren’t entirely analogous. There is less money in climbing. There are fewer professionals and no teams. In short, the corrupting influence of hard specie has yet to finish its work. And while fans want to see Sharma win, what they really want is to see him do the impossible. Still, it’s interesting to me that Sharma has accomplished what he has without stepping on any toes. The guy still teaches climbing clinics at the place where he learned to climb.
Lance Armstrong is a remarkable person, strong, thoughtful, tough, focussed. And he has, arguably, done more for pro cycling than any other person, anywhere, in the sport. I’ve read innumerable writers claim that Armstrong wouldn’t have achieved what he’s achieved without an ego to blot out the sun, and yet Chris Sharma puts the lie to that claim.
Perhaps it’s Sharma’s lack of an overblown sense of himself that keeps him within the climbing world, that prevents him from curing cancer or influencing government leaders. No one, as far as I can tell, has criticized him for this. And maybe it’s unfair that so many take issue with Armstrong, even as he tries to better the world he lives in.
Images: Armstrong by John Pierce, Photosport International, Sharma by Pete O’Donovan
What I take away is that, even in sports where championships can be collected and awards awarded, how you do things is easily as important as what you do. And for an average guy like me, there’s a lesson in that.