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.

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  1. Michael Theesfeld

    “Chris Sharma is, by near consensus, the best climber in the world today.” I’m sure there’s little doubt that among sport climbers, Mr. Sharma is the best in the world today, and likely, ever. But just as cycling defines greatness in many disciplines…whether they be the classics, the time trial or the grand tours…so to does climbing. There is far more to climbing than the plastic holds of the indoor gym or the 5.15 benchmarks Mr. Sharma has become so well known and respected for. Spend a year in New England and watch the nameless greats put up hard, bold trad testpieces…watch them freeze their asses off in the winter pushing the limits on “barely there” ice lines. Pick up an issue of Alpinist and marvel at the strength and courage of men (and women) who continue to push the limits of what seems possible (or reasonable) in the high mountains. There are too many great climbers and too many arenas to measure greatness…As Alex Lowe (who is on nearly anyone’s short list of the best climber ever) was known to say “The best climber in the world is the one who is having the most fun”.

  2. Aaron Smith

    Remarkably good correlation there, Robot. I, for one, once thought of taking up the belay myself, but was at a lack of rocks to conquer. Perhaps someday soon…

    In any case – You could almost look at this from the lens of the proverbial ‘Sell-Out’. Where Armstrong has taken advantage of his gifts in order to further his own personal career/goals, and our friend Sharma has neglected that path in favor of staying ‘true’ to himself and his gift.

    I must admit that until recently I was among one of those who rallied against the Texan. Working in a coffee shop has it disadvantages, and this year it was hearing a new question every day about “How Lance was doing…” in the Tour. I even had (more than one) person claim that he had won his eight tour far into the late days of August…

    But that aside, it took the words of Dave Eggers to swing me towards a different side of thinking. Perhaps I am not the most avid fan of the Texan now, but I do respect him for what he is as a person.

    The article in question (the very bottom): http://www.armchairnews.com/freelance/eggers.html


  3. mark

    “Lance Armstrong is a remarkable person, strong, thoughtful, tough…”

    Thoughtful? Really? That’s about the last word I’d associate with Armstrong. Unless by thoughtful you mean conniving or manipulative.

  4. jc

    I had the funny experience of knowing Chris when he was thirteen, or so..We met just days after he laced up in the gym for the first time. At that age he was climbing 5.9’s- all hands, no feet. ‘Use your feet!’ I’d yell, from belay. Less than a month later, I went back to the gym after finals were over, and there was Chris, leading 12’s, hanging, jumping, dynamic and fearless.

    As I think back on him, he was like you describe him…more of a seeker than a conqueror. He was a good kid then, and he always seemed equally nice when I’d see him at an odd competition, or trade show years later. One of the things about a small sport, a niche sport, is that the greats often remain accessible and ‘normal’. When US pro cycling was just a glimmer of what it is today, Chris Carmichael, a neighbor of mine while I was in high school, was as human and accessible as any one else on my club team. Bob Roll would show up for our twilight crits near the Oakland airport. We all knew them, admired them, and even watched them with more interest- but they were our friends at the same time..I often wonder why we(cycling) rush toward greater popularity when what you get are NFL-like anti heros.

  5. Da Robot

    @Michael Theesfeld – Your point is well taken. There are a lot of climbing icons. I reached for the handiest. I hope the comparison still works.

    @Aaron Smith – Armstrong is a complex character. I find my perception of him is constantly evolving.

    @Mark – Yes. Thoughtful. This is a guy who has thought about cycling and the business of cycling on a deeper level than most pros. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but almost every lengthy interview I’ve seen with him, he’s managed to make and articulate good arguments to back up his views.

    @jc You seem to have met some big personalities in your everyday travels. I’m not sure whether to be jealous or not. In my experience, limited as it is, the legendary usually disappoint. Close contact usually reinforces the point that we’re all just humans.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  6. Nick

    Good angle and idea. Sometimes I wonder if Lance would have made it so far if he didn’t have the ego and confindence many have come to despise.

    darobot – there are no real hills in Arlington Heights..

  7. jc

    Da Robot,
    Yeah, not sure why that is, but I’ve met/know a bunch…I don’t have heros now as a matter of policy- Hinault was my last ‘hero’. Every person I know who is ‘famous’ impressed me more when I met them- rather than disappointing. I find the real person, the flawed person (arrogant, philanderer, dork, single-minded, boring, etc.) way more interesting than their public personas.

  8. travis

    As a rock climber myself since the age of 17 (im now 34) I can attest to the amazing nature of climbing at its highest levels. I have known Chris for a pretty long time through climbing and mutual sponsors, he is one of the most genuinely nice, and thoughtful people I have ever met. I don’t know how much of that is just luck of the draw. It seems to be that the climbers in all the arenas of climbing are really great people who love a challenge. But their love of a challenge doesn’t come at the expense of others. Usually a climber at that level is just as happy to see their friend succeed on something before they do. In my time climbing, I have found that their are few “EGO”s, and the climbers who do have them usually are few and far between. And at the end of the day, they have way fewer people to go climb with.

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  10. Souleur

    Robot, you bring to mind something that I continually think on and observe, that being the psyche of the alpha althlete. Lance, is without question, in his own mind, alpha. I am not sure about Sharma because I don’t know him, but he sounds confident enough to be secured in the same. It is an interesting thought that you make as you compare and contrast them, my point of interest is the difference between them and I wonder if the differences are because of the team aspect of cycling and wierd dynamics between helping one another, throwing bones and the assertion of the human will, as compared to the complete independence that rock climbing enjoy’s. It seems one/cycling must strike a mutualism amongst ranks & competitors, and the other/climbing is a mutually exclusive in terms of competitors, so therefore its easier to be nicer as its less threatened at the top. I find it interesting to think about.

  11. Author
    Da Robot

    @Souleur Yes, this is exactly what’s happening in my brain. I can see that cycling is a more competitive sport than climbing, though climbing is certainly competitive albeit in a sort of detached and indirect way. I just find it really fascinating that figures at the top of our sport, not just Armstrong, can appear so petty, fragile and insecure, when they are, demonstrably, some of the top athletes in the world.

    This is perhaps the enduring charm of Raymond Poulidor, his grace.

  12. Marco Placero

    @Souleur: thanks, you articulated my thoughts better vis teamthink. Amici having raced LA in early years relate his toughness.

    If thoughtfulness is shrewdly calculated research into how to exploit personal toughness, LA adds compassion to that via LAF.

    In my area there was a guy who the other carpenters criticised endlessly, yet while today those bitches are still struggling to make a living, this guy runs a multi millions homebuilding company, one of the biggest around. Point? It doesn’t matter how loudly your competitors squeal that you’re a prick, results and GENERAL public perception tantamount. The general public swarms to any race Lance runs. Nevada City went from maybe five thousand attendees in recent years to probably twenty thousand last year when the man showed. Thanks Lance.

  13. Anders Ronnau

    Hi Da Robot
    Thank you for at brilliant post. Interesting comparison of icons from two very different disciplines.
    The climbing realm is well known for its majority of cool people. In every gym and at every rock where I have been, there’s been a really nice atmosphere, and I have seen number on more than one occasion have I seen competing climbers assist each other with betas.
    I think it was Lynn Hill who said that the reason for this great atmosphere in climbing is because there’s no money in the sport. I think that she is absolutely right, and I wonder what the sport would have looked like if it was run over by media like cycling…

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