In every bike race there is a race, and there is a performance, a narrative of sorts that plays itself out over 130 or 150 or 212 kilometers. On occasion, the race and the performance are the same, which is to say that the driving force of the narrative is the winner of the race and the manner in which he or she has won. But then, much of the time the race and its result are distinct from the performance. In fact, sometimes the two diverge later, as when a rider wins a big race, but is later separated from the result by a doping conviction. Reading the order of finish or scanning the standings of the general classification don’t usually tell you, in any compelling way, what happened on the road.
It is this dichotomy that crept into my brain as I continued to ponder the enduring value, the legacy, of Marco Pantani, or, for that matter, Johan Museeuw, Bjarne Riis, Frank Vandenbroucke, Floyd Landis, Richard Virenque, Tom Simpson, or even riders not tainted by allegations of doping like Raymond Poulidor or Gino Bartali. The comments on my last piece here, É Andato da Solo, sent me back to the proverbial drawing board.
The thing is, it is easy to look up a rider’s palmares and think you know what his or her career was like. I do it all the time, especially for those legends of the sport I never got to see race. But then how do you explain why some riders, indeed some individual performances, remain in memory, while others do not?
Bike racing is hard. No other statement, perhaps, has been written so often, by so many, about our sport. It’s hard. Its conflicts and denouement play out at the ragged end of human capacity. It is epic, operatic and internecine.
And this narrative quality explains a lot about the way we see our past as well as our present. For example, on paper, there is no qualitative difference between the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. They are three-week stage races that include difficult climbs, time trials, beautiful scenery, etc. They all attract the very best riders in the peloton. And yet, the Tour remains the most important, I would posit, because it spins the best narrative about itself. Call it history. Call it marketing. The Tour captures the imagination more completely than the other two Grand Tours.
And though Pantani, Museeuw, VDB, Landis, Riis, Virenque, Simpson, et. al. all cheated (either by conviction or by their own admission), they also told us these amazing stories about cycling, about what happens out there at the ragged edge of things, where most of us will never get to go, and so we hang onto them.
You might even argue that the performance is more important than the result. For this reason, we can elevate a rider like Pantani above a rider like Andy Hampsten, though Hampsten is likely more worthy of our reverence. Hampsten was a great champion, but Pantani told better stories. Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi both won five Grand Tours, but we don’t talk about them as much as we talk about other riders of that caliber. Why?
Among those who are ostensibly more pure than the Pantanis and Virenques, Poulidor or Bartali for example, it is still the performance that matters. Poulidor is revered because of the efforts he made and the grace with which he lost, first to Anquetil, and then to Merckx. Bartali’s rivalry with Coppi was itself a great story, but further, the character of Bartali, the devout, working class hero, always plays well, regardless of results, though his were pretty good.
If we tell ourselves that only the results obtained in perfect honesty matter, we retain only a few threadbare icons. Many of us will, however, choose to perform the complex calculus of weighting the manner of cheating against the quality of the performance. Merckx is legend, perhaps, because his use of amphetamines is gauged less egregious than blood-doping AND his performances were bravura, dominating, crushing and relentless. The recently deceased Frank Vandenbroucke was a blatant cheater, but his brilliance on the stage was, perhaps, equally blatant.
It is difficult to express the creation of a legend mathematically. Each of us gives different weight to the performance versus the result, but we all most certainly do it. We have to. In cycling, because of the evolving manner of cheating, a simple asterisk won’t serve to differentiate the pure from the chaste. Our cheating exists on a continuum that starts with a bidon full of brandy and spans the illicit universe to include, in the present day, bags full of oxygenated blood. Shall we create a code to denote all the forms of illegality to which a rider has prescribed? Their names might trail strings of alphanumeric characters, like pscyho-pharmaceutical periodontists with legal degrees.
It is good and right to acknowledge those who have done things the right way, the aforementioned Andy Hampsten, for one. Riders like him deserve a special reverence. Greg LeMond too. But we can’t factor out the quality of the performance either. The opera is full of overblown characters, usually heavyset men and women with lungs like…well…like cyclists. Some of them are good and some are villains.
I love them both.
Valentine’s Day marked the 6th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. And in light of Padraig’s recent post “Reclaiming Our Past” and a tweet forwarded by Joe Parkin questioning why some idolize Pantani while reviling other dopers, I wanted to do a little writing. That’s how I think through a question like that. It is interesting how we process our cycling idols (not just their performances) after we know they were cheaters, and Pantani occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart, so…
First of all, let’s be entirely clear. Marco Pantani cheated. He did it systematically, repeatedly and seemingly without remorse. As cheaters go, Pantani laid the blueprint for how not to do it. Through this prism, perhaps David Millar lends the best example of how to cheat well, i.e. with subsequent apology, outspokenness and openness, but that’s another post. Not only did Pantani dope, but he also led a rider’s strike at the ’98 Tour to protest police raids on team hotels aimed at rooting out the dope. Bold. Brazen. Shameful. Full stop.
So, on some level, Pantani was a bad guy. He dazzled on the bicycle, thrilling us with monster mountain breakaways executed with panache and merciless cruelty toward fellow racers, but it was all a lie. Here was this improbable, little guy with a pirate’s beard and kerchief crushing the legs of all comers. He was a star, if an awkward one, that would eventually burn out.
We all know the story by now. Pantani was broken by the revelations of his cheating. He retreated into drug-use and the resulting paranoia. He isolated himself, one last breakaway, in a hotel room, and did cocaine until his heart refused to go on.
How do you idolize a man like that?
The answer is: I don’t. I think making heroes of people is cruel. It puts them up on a pedestal they will eventually fall from. Pantani fell hard. He died, and don’t think the fame and shame didn’t play a part. I think it’s fair to ask: Did Pantani kill cycling, or did cycling kill Pantani? The answer, to both questions, is probably yes.
So then, backing away from idol worship, what is it that endears a rider and a person like Pantani to a rider and a person like me?
Well, like me, Marco Pantani was an addict. I empathize with that trajectory of self-importance to deep shame to self-destructiveness. His highs were high (winning the Giro and the Tour), and his lows were low (six-feet below sea level to be exact). He did amazing things, but remained all too human. He could never win enough or do enough coke to quite escape that doomed trajectory. Here was a master of the sport to whom I could relate directly.
As I climbed in the mountains of Southern Vermont, I thought of Pantani. I tried (and failed) to dance in the pedals like the little Italian. When I got off the bike, I had nothing further to live up to. To me, Pantani is and was just a man, with all the frailty and failings attendant thereto. Unlike the untouchable idols of pelotons past, Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and LeMond, Marco Pantani didn’t ever demand more of me than I could provide. He let me ride and be who I am, not more, not less.
I believe there is a flawed genius in each of us. If you tick back through that list of bike racing heroes, you will be able to hang faults on each of them. Coppi and Anquetil doped. So did Merckx. Hinault is an asshole, a graceless winner, a poor loser, and a lout. LeMond, for all his charm in victory, has been an unhappy legend, a dour presence in the cycling universe. None of this makes them unworthy winners in my mind. It just makes them men. Like you. Like me.
When we talk about the legacy of our sport, doping is one of the unavoidable subjects. It may be the one thing that keeps us from getting too carried away with idol worship, and that is, in my humble judgement, probably a good thing. I don’t mean that as an absolution for dopers or an acceptance that doping goes on and is ok. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, and where riders are systematically cheating and by extension tearing the sport down, that is clearly a bad thing. But, and this is important to me, it is just a sport, and we are just riders.
Image: Spray paint on canvas board by the author, inspired by this AP photo.
Qatar rhymes with afar, which is where it is. The Tour of this tiny, wealthy, Arab emirate has slowly but surely planted itself on the ProTour calendar as an early season race worth watching, if for no other reason than to see the guys who didn’t ride in the Tour Down Under for the first time in the new year.
The question was, does the Tour of Qatar mean anything, or is it merely a warm-up for the stürm und drang of the spring? The answer you folks seem to have come up with is: yes. Both. For some it’s a way to put miles under wheels in preparation for the real races. For others, it’s the first chance to notch up wins. While some whiled away their time in the pack, chatting and acclimating to the flow of the peloton again, others sprinted in real anger, storming for the sandy line like it was the last chicken wing on the buffet.
Small teams, like GC winners Vacansoleil, have to take their wins where they can get them, and this registers as a big win for them. The sprinters who aren’t named Cavendish or Greipel took every stage, bar the opening TTT, as a chance to get their trains sorted out and their final bursts in order. Do NOT tell me that Tyler Farrar wasn’t disappointed not to take a stage. Do NOT tell me that Tom Boonen was just toying with his opposition like so many mice on the doorstep.
And so it’s a real race, for some, if not for others, but other than the Tour and Worlds, what real race is not?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There have been entirely too many doping storylines in cycling lately. We’ve had the Alejandro Valverde problem, the Danilo DiLuca suspension and Ricardo Ricco’s imminent return to the sport. His girlfriend, Vania Rossi, tested positive for the same drug—CERA—for which he was suspended, and he subsequently dumped her, months after she gave birth to their child. Bernard Kohl has opened a bike shop and seemingly ended his monthly interviews that teased out details of his doping regimen like bread crumbs for birds. Stefan Schumacher continues to fight his suspension.
And today we mark six years since the lonely death of Marco Pantani. Like Pantani, Jose Maria Jimenez was a once-talented climber who, according to circumstantial evidence, became addicted to cocaine and ultimately overdosed on the drug, cutting short a life that should have been full of promise, even after ending his career as a racer. It’s little wonder that so many cyclists reacted with horror at the news of Tom Boonen’s flirtations with the nose candy.
The constant parade of doping stories has made many cyclists weary of ProTour racing, but worse, it has changed our understanding and perception of racing in the past. We now accept Fausto Coppi’s statement about always doping when he raced, rather than discount it, which is certainly what I did when I first read the statement in the 1980s.
And while many of us took Eddy Merckx at his word when he insisted he had used nothing out of the ordinary when he was ejected from the 1969 Giro d’Italia, we have come to see that event was but one of three positive tests he gave in his career. Certainly questions abound to this day about that Giro test, such as no counter-analysis and questionable chain of custody, it’s easy to see the positive as a not uncommon occurrence in an era ripe with amphetamine usage. Why should Merckx be any different; after all, he ranks as the most successful cyclist of all time. Are we to think he was the only clean champion of his generation?
Looking back on riders I have admired—Greg LeMond, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, Andy Hampsten, Richard Virenque, Marco Pantani, Johan Museeuw, Moreno Argentin, Frank Vandenbroucke, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Alejandro Valverde, Danilo DiLuca and plenty more, what strikes me is that only two of these names have never been broadly accused or convicted of doping—LeMond and Hampsten. Were we to take every doping allegation out there as fact (save anything Armstrong has said to or about LeMond), we might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Hampsten’s win in the Giro was the last by a clean rider, as was LeMond’s last win at the Tour.
I admit, every time a new rider comes thundering onto the scene, I have moments (roughly one for every win) when I wonder, “Is this guy clean?” Even without a single positive test to implicate the rider, I can’t help but wonder if some new phenom is our next Riccardo Ricco or Bernard Kohl. To wonder such a thing is reputation assassination, even if I don’t share it with anyone else.
But this youngest generation of riders, riders who came onto the scene after the EPO problem had been identified, after the test had been devised, those are the guys who scare and upset me. It’s little wonder to me that any rider still in the game now who was there for the rise of EPO and the team podium sweeps of the ’94 Fleche Wallonne (Gewiss-Ballan) and the ’96 Paris-Roubaix (Mapie-GB) might still not be conforming to the memo. But what really troubles me are the new riders who still pursue EPO and its newer variant, CERA. Just as we think we’re making progress in doping thanks to programs such as those run by Bjarne Riis and Jonathan Vaughters, some new rider gets suspended for a drug that we have come to believe is easy to catch.
As a result, many of us have turned our backs on past performances that gave us chills, left us cheering at the TV and maybe even caused us to put up a poster of the rider in our dorm room or garage. Those were the days.
Museeuw’s win at Roubaix in ’96 came at the end of arguably the most dominant ride by any team in the history of the Hell of the North. Now we know that it was EPO that gave their performance the appearance of a Ferrari racing a Yugo.
In comments here at RKP, we’ve seen how many of your have turned against not just Lance Armstrong, but other riders we know to have doped: Marco Pantani, Frank Vandebroucke, Tyler Hamilton and more.
I realized not too long ago that if I disavow every performance that involved doping, I’d be stripped of almost every race that I ever cared about. I’d even be stripped of LeMond’s last-minute win at the 1990 Tour de France because the guy he beat—Claudio Chiappucci—was on EPO. Without him and that drug, LeMond’s win would have been much more dominant. And don’t get me started about 1991.
Despite the lies, the doping, the inability to know who was truly the best on the day, I don’t want to lose the wonder and awe I felt when I saw those performances. If I turn my back on every one of those performances in bitterness, it’s tantamount to saying of your ex, “I never really liked her.”
Those experiences, the wonder I felt at watching Richard Virenque or Floyd Landis winning in Morzine in 2003, the jubilation I felt at Tyler Hamilton’s win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, my astonishment at Armstrong’s win at the Tour in ’99 or my awe at any of Johan Museeuw’s wins at Paris-Roubaix were experiences of genuine and honest emotion on my part. While I have a different understanding of those performances today, and my feelings for those racers may have changed somewhat, I’ve decided I won’t let anyone, any new revelations, change how I remember those performances.
I can’t tell anyone else how to feel about those performances. The bitterness some of you feel at the betrayal of learning some win was doped is as valid an emotional experience as any jubilation I’ve felt for the same performance.
But for those of you who have felt frustration and confusion with each new revelation, I offer my perspective as a different way to process your feelings. I’m not suggesting we capitulate and just give in to enjoying doped riding; like each of you, I want a clean sport, full stop.
Society changes and what we tolerate changes as well. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. I can’t endorse his ownership of a person, but that act shouldn’t erase the work he did in establishing the United States’ democracy.
I truly believe cycling is changing for the better and that doping is on the decline. It is a scourge, though, that we should not fool ourselves into thinking will ever be eradicated. We should not accept the doped performances of the past out of inevitability and resignation, but rather because they inspired us in our own riding. And if we rode with honesty and conviction, then some good came from those tarnished wins.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The thing about Qatar, even though they don’t have any mountains (the highest point in the country is 340ft above sea level), is that it’s windy. Head winds. Tail winds. Cross winds. And they have massive air pollution from carbon dioxide emissions that come from electricity generation, sea water desalination, etc. So, despite not fitting the Euro profile for an epic race, the Tour of Qatar presents it’s own sort of challenges to the pro peloton.
Think of it as a prep for the winds of Northern Europe and the heat of Southern Spain, with all the lung choking charm of riding full tilt through Roman rush hour.
But what does the Tour of Qatar really tell us about the coming season? Tommeke Boonen took two stages there. Does that mean he’s on for the best season of his career? And who is Francesco Chicchi? The Liquigas sprinter notched two wins there as well, which is close to the average season win total for his career. Don’t even start me on the overall win for Wouter Mol (probably not his real name), who puts Pro Contintental team Vacansoleil on track to outpace a number of the Pro Tour’s lesser lights. Milram, that means you.
Or is this like preseason basketball/football/baseball/tetherball/curling/pinochle where the results mean nothing?
I shot this image high in the Pyrenees to the south of St. Lary Soulan. The road was just better than chip and seal and steep—more than 13 percent—for several kilometers. The turns were engineered in lovely, even radii, but were as frequent as stoplights in Manhattan; one set of switchbacks soared above us as we climbed, evoking the ramparts of a hilltop citadel.
The road leads to Lac de Cap de Long and isn’t something most riders will take the time to explore as it isn’t used in the Tour. It was, however, one of the prettiest climbs I’ve done in the Pyrenees. The long horizontal slash just above the rider’s head is the road as it continues down at a less vertiginous nine percent. There’s a little café at the top of the road, right on the bank of the lake. Lunch there was one of the unexpected delights of the Pyrenees.
When I tell you I have a graduate degree in English, I’m not so much stating a fact as a failing. An MFA in poetry suggests that the diplomate can string together a grammatically sensible sentence, true, but more importantly, it lets you know his or her math skills are as hard to find as sea lion unafraid of Great White Sharks.
When I say my math skills are basic, I mean they are as useful as basic cable. My abilities don’t include any of the useful or interesting stuff. As a result, I have to practice. A lot.
I use group rides to work through common problems I encounter at the bank, grocery store and in billing publishers for work I completed weeks or even months ago—in truth, I’m usually not too sure.
Believe it or not, there are lots of essential math problems I’ve brushed up on while sitting in the peloton. Let’s take odd numbers, for example. If I’m in a double-rotating, double paceline and after my pull I go to the back, an even number of riders will ensure that I’ve got company to chat with. An odd number means I’m riding along with ample silence to work through other math problems.
If a group is shrinking, then subtraction is at work. The key here is to assess how I feel. If I feel good, then my number is not likely to come after the minus sign. And if I feel good, then the smart move is to let someone else do the work of shedding the dead wood.
I use logarithms any time I want to do long, slow distance. I’ve learned that for each person who joins an easy ride, the odds that the ride will go faster than Zone 2 increases ten-fold. Two riders plus me means I’m 100 times more likely to go too hard than if I ride by myself.
The associative and distributive properties both taught me that it doesn’t matter who is actually at the front of the ride. The speed of the ride is determined by the fitness of the fastest riders present. They don’t even need to be at the front to make a ride faster. This point is most easily illustrated by having a pro show up for your local training ride. Said pro can sit at the back of the field and enjoy a rest day. Nonetheless, every Cat. 4 present will do the entire ride in Zone 5.
Understanding how to perform a squared function is handy, if depressing. While I can pedal on flat ground for a period of time at 28 mph, my ability to lift my pace to 29 mph depends not on how well I can do math, but on my body’s ability to increase wattage at an exponential rate. It’s like the difference in volume between a car horn and a Who concert. You may think the boat horn in that Hummer is loud, but just wait until the opening power chord of Baba O’Riley. I may be able to sustain 28 for minutes while managing 30 for only seconds. Knowing my exponents can help me keep a leash on my ego; it may roam, but not far.
The most important property I apply to cycling in general, and group rides in specific, comes from fractions. It is the property of the least common denominator. Socially, it gets used to explain all sorts of social ills, like what draws boys to gangs. It’s Darwin for the 21st century.
In my experience, the LCD is a measure of the amount of work the weakest rider will have to muster (kilojoules) to stay with a group. Unlike in societies, the weakest rider does not automatically slow a group down. While some groups may choose to slow to keep everyone together, the fastest groups prefer just to get smaller—the herd is safer if it sheds a member or two periodically.
During those fastest rides I find myself looking around, assessing the look of other riders present. I do a careful calculus (yes, more math!) weighing how that rider has performed in the last three weeks versus how they actually look at that moment. What I want to know is that minimum kilojoule number. It’s like buying a car; the sticker might say $36,000, but if you only need to spend $32,000, why would you spend more?
And ultimately, what I want is a difference, a delta. I want to know that my number is bigger than that other number. So long as I’m strong enough to stay with the lead group, I don’t really need anything more these days. Racing is part of my past; I just want to see the big move go and get home with something left. Whatever keeps the needle from pointing to ‘E’ is called the remainder.
And we know all the terms for what happens when the tank is empty. Bankers don’t understand the term ‘bonk,’ but they know all about overdrawn. I’ve made plenty of entries in training diaries that would have been more accurately described by a number in parentheses. And just as with a bad check, what I spent I owed someone else.
A few days ago, something I did caught the attention of more than a hundred tourists in Amsterdam.
Mind you, this is not an easy task. Most were bleary eyed and fresh off a plane or a high-speed train after having just arrived from a faraway place. And let’s be honest, this is Amsterdam after all—more than a handful were completely stoned out of their gourds. And, perhaps, one or two were even in a bit of a post-coital Red Light District daze. But, I had an advantage over all of these other distractions. I had a metal-cutting electric power saw. And I was standing in front of Amsterdam’s Sex Museum.
While most of the tourists thought I was setting up a new exhibit at the museum, I was actually dealing with one of the perils of being a daily bike commuter in Amsterdam—arguably one of Europe’s greatest cities for cycling.
I had the unfortunate task of having to figure out a way to saw through a one-centimeter-thick chain after the key snapped off in my bike lock. That’s what happens when it’s 10 degrees below zero in Northern Europe in the winter. But I figured I would make the most of the situation.
As a bit of a side note, it’s worth giving you some background about me. I’m an American ex-pat living in Amsterdam. My office happens to be next door to the Sex Museum. No lie. So each day, I battle the tourists and trams, park my bike, push it deep into a dozen other bikes and lock it in front of a few statues of some Romanesque or Greekish marblene figures—standing there erect in all their glory.
But, I digress. Back to my bicycle.
My poor 30-pound Dutch Batavus was locked to a metal fence and the remnants of the key were buried in the bowels of the lock. And after a 30-second effort of trying to pry it out with a paperclip, and two frozen hands I just pushed what was left of the key deeper into the lock. I borrowed a co-worker for an extra pair of hands, strung an extension cord from a store and got to work with a local bike shop’s borrowed machinery. (The Sex Museum wouldn’t let me use their electricity for fear I would blow a circuit. My joke about my power saw being nothing compared to the machinery he was running in his museum was lost on him.)
Fittingly, I am a virgin to this kind of metal-cutting saw. But this baby did a number on me. She was a bit hard to handle, at least to start. I revved her up and put the pressure on. I connected to the ice-cold metal. Things instantly heated up. Sparks flew more than 10 feet in the air and onto the tram tracks. Cyclists passed through a shower of sparks on the path nearby. Voyeuristic tourists stopped in their tracks and stared. I’d never glowed like this before. Neither had the metal. And, before I knew it, it was all over. In less than a minute, perhaps no more than 30 seconds, my work was done. I barely had time to enjoy it. The lock and chain fell limp to the ground. But I had my Batavus back.
And so goes another day in the life of an American living in Amsterdam.
I haven’t shaved my legs in years. I haven’t heard the crack of a start gun at a local crit for longer than I can remember. I stopped drinking cosmic-colored energy drinks. I haven’t touched any gooey energy gels in a good year or more. And I haven’t been in a good pileup in a few years. And worst of all, I’m horribly out of shape. But I ride my bicycle daily to get around this fantastic city.
If all I have to deal with is a frozen bike lock, a bicycle traffic jam at a light and the occasional slow-moving tourist—I wouldn’t have it any other way. Fortunately, very few incidents here have to do with cars. And most are just shrugged off in Amsterdam. And in this particular case, it was my own doing. Thankfully, the tourists loved the show.
Freedom, fit, road feel, miles covered, inspiration, dependability. Quite how two triangles, welded together and strapped to a pair of gyroscopes, become a machine of such majestic grace is beyond my powers of calculation. There are hints of the alchemical. The Star Trek transport has nothing on the bicycle. Beam me up, Fat Chance!
I find it interesting that only a few writers picked a carbon fiber bicycle as their all-time favorite. Other factors than frame material seemed to be at the top of the list for picking a favorite, though, perhaps by coincidence or perhaps as a simple matter of timing, a lot of loved steel bikes best. For many of us, where the machine took us was as important as what the machine looked like or what components it had hung on it.
When George brought up department store bikes, a cord struck somewhere deep within me. I inherited a Panasonic Villager from my brother when I was a teenager. It was too big for me, but I humped it around town anyway. That bike took me to visit girlfriends where I discovered things that have little to do with cycling, but everything to do with joy.
Padraig and Dan O brought up Fat Chance and the bikes they made, here in my hometown. For a Bostonian that chain of Fat Chance to Independent Fabrication provokes nothing but velocipedic pride, our contribution to legend of American bike making.
Many of us have a lot of bikes hanging in our garages/basements/barns/living rooms. Picking a favorite is hard. In many ways, my next bike is always my favorite. Better start saving my pennies.
Image courtesy the Mombat Museum
When I think about what we do as cyclists, certain words recur with pop-hit chorus regularity. There’s ‘hard.’ There’s ‘challenging.’ There’s ‘suffering.’ There’s ‘difficult.’ We can add dozens more, but I’ve established the pattern. You won’t find ‘easy’ on the list. Nor will you find ‘lazy.’
‘Fun’ is problematic. You and I think what we do is fun, but most of the world thinks we’re off our rockers just for wearing the Lycra. That’s before they find out that four hours is more fun than three. Most folks don’t trust our definition of fun.
I don’t know about you, but I take a bit of perverse delight in gradually paying out the crazy details of my life as a cyclist. Dinner parties are perfect for this particular hobby. I can usually guess the questions that will come, depending on the time of year. In the summer, they revolve around the L-word and the Tour de France. In the winter it goes like so:
“You didn’t ride today, did you?”
“Really? Wasn’t it cold?”
“Where’d you go?”
“How far is that?”
“Holy cow. How long did it take you?”
“That doesn’t sound like much fun.”
And that’s when it isn’t raining. Rain changes the stakes of the game. And the colder the rain, the higher the stakes. No regularly occurring weather event can make a cyclist skip training as easily as rain.
In Southern California, where months will pass without a drop falling from the sky, those first rains fall on oil-slick streets, turning them into SoCal’s answer to black ice. As hazards go, it’s as sure as the toaster in the bathtub, if not quite as deadly. But in an el nino year, there comes a point when they are as safe as, say, swimming with sharks.
Still, in a world full of hard deeds, among the hardest I’ve ever undertaken in my quest for my skewed sense of a good time is leaving home for a training ride in the rain. It ranks right up there on Moh’s scale of hardness alongside rubies and sapphires.
As many times as I’ve done it, I can remember a remarkable number of rides I’ve done in the rain. There was the time I had to climb 90 percent of the Col du Lauteret in an ever-cooling rain to get back to our hotel, only to arrive and learn there was no hot water.On another occasion, moments after it started raining on me on I-70 in Colorado that lightning struck a tree 200 meters away and I thought, “I need to be somewhere else.”
I once spent four hours riding in torrential rain and 50-degree temps to review a Mountain Cycle road bike. Two days later the bike tech poured two pounds of water from the frame. We knew this because he weighed it once without knowing there was water caught in the down tube and chainstays. He flipped the frame around to put it in the stand for the rebuild and a six-pack’s-worth of hazardous waste escaped the frame. After shaking and turning the frame around a bit more, he re-weighed it. Oops. Turns out the frame really was pretty light.
One late spring day, in the middle of a UMASS training ride, a trap door opened in the clouds and the rain hit the road with such force that I could see it splashing up, creating a mist that my front wheel cut through with the swift passage of a knife through Brie. A teammate turned to me and said, “Well Mr. Brady, this is a ride you’ll remember for the rest of your life.” Indeed.
I separate in my mind training in the rain from racing in the rain. They just aren’t the same. You’re supposed to suffer during a race. And if rain is suffering, then racing can’t possibly preclude rain. Avoiding a race because of rain is like wanting to skip the first 100k because it would make the race too long.
I always raced well in cold, wet conditions. The first time trial, the first crit and the first road race I ever won were all run in cold, rainy conditions. Irish blood is an easy excuse, but that’s hardly the point. It’s easy to skip a training ride when it rains. But skipping a rainy race could impugn one’s manhood. Gads. We race bikes to demonstrate precisely the opposite. And because it’s fun.
Even so, training in the rain isn’t about racing in the rain. A long ride in the rain teaches us what we can endure. It’s the x-ray that reveals the steel rebar deep down inside. After an crushing rain ride you can’t help but think, “If I can do this….”
But let’s be honest: Our idea of fun really is odd. It is measurably obtuse. That is to say, what we think is fun is somewhere between 90 and 180 degrees off from what the average person would consider an advisably, suggestably good time. The sort of thing you put in a guide for tourists.
The truth is, we can’t be trusted. With our clickety-clack shoes, stretchy clothing coated in postcard colors and billboard logos, we are, to most of the world, a fun antidote. They think we’re one roll of tinfoil shy of a hat. Thank God. It keeps us off the radar and ensures our secrets. Confidence comes from doing a long, hard ride in the rain, and that isn’t something we want the whole world to know.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International