Joop Zoetemelk finished on the second step of the Tour de France podium six times. He won once, in 1980. And like Raymond Poulidor, who is known as the Eternal Second, many believe he could have won more races if he’d attacked more, if he’d been more ruthless, but Zoetemelk wasn’t an aggressive rider. He didn’t choose to win. When the race was on the line, he was as likely to let the moment pass as riders like Hinault and Merckx were to attack.

Today, in Boston, it was as hot as the devil’s undercarriage. I pushed away from the office into the murky swamp of the city and made the crucial mistake of jumping onto the wheel of a fellow apparently in a big rush to get someplace else. We rode fast. I thought, “It’s too hot to be riding this fast,” but then I kept pedaling until I washed up on the shore of the steep hill that leads to my house, mostly spent, soaked in sweat, and unable to pull any more air out of the air.

Sometimes, the indecision that might have cost Zoetemelk greater success is the same indecision that keeps a rider in a race he ought to abandon. Think of Cadel Evans, with a broken elbow, hauling the world champion’s rainbow jersey over cols and up monts at this years Tour, or Tyler Farrar sprinting on a broken wrist. Maybe even remember Tyler Hamilton finishing the 2003 Tour in 4th place after cracking his collarbone on stage one. These guys haven’t decided to finish the race. They’ve just put off deciding to quit until the finish line slides past.

Zoetemelk was a classy rider. In the high mountains he floated, his wispy form disappearing up around the next switchback as lesser men toiled away below. Despite his lack of aggression, he still won Fleche Wallone, Paris-Tours, Paris-Nice, the Dutch national road race championship twice, the world championship at the age of 38, Amstel Gold at 39. He’s a legend. Indecision may have cost him some wins, but he still managed.

I arrived in my driveway completely spent, sweating from every pore, absolutely gasping, but still trying not to look too pathetic in case the neighbors were watching. After dismounting, I sat next to my bike, in the garage, trying to compose myself before entering the house. It took a while. And then when I did go inside, it took another twenty minutes before I was convinced I wasn’t maybe having heat stroke.

They say the only reason Zoetemelk ever won the Tour is that his DS told him he had to. There was no one else. He would never have forced himself on the race. He was under orders.

When Louison Bobet finally hung up his Tour hopes, after a series of miserable stages in 1959, he was asked why he kept riding when he knew he couldn’t win. He said, “I’d never climbed the Col de l’Iseran. It’s the highest road in Europe. I wanted to ride up there.” He quit on the descent of the Iseran, on his terms. What looked like indecision was actually a declaration of intent.

It’s only supposed to get hotter here in Beantown. This was the second day of our heat wave. The humidity will get worse. The mercury will rise. It’s supposed to break on Friday, when Hurricane Earl arrives with torrential rain. When I was finally convinced I wasn’t dying, I thought, “Screw that. I’m done riding for the week. It’s only going to be more misery.” But we’ll see what happens. Sometimes he who hesitates is lost. Sometimes he who hesitates is simply enduring, until better days come.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. michael

    nice corollary. now go ride. fall and winter are around the corner on the east coast, and you will curse yourself every second you are staring at a basement wall over the winter riding on a trainer/rollers for missing out on the glorious weather that summer brings, heatwaves and all.

    now go ride.

  2. Champs

    I can’t speak for Joop Zoetemelk’s shortcomings, but when both he and Carlos Sastre finally did win the Tour, it was for the same reason. Sastre in any other year, and Levi Leipheimer at any point in his career, failed to win not because of indecision, but their lack of killer instinct. I don’t really understand this, because my mind is always thinking about making the catch and attacking.

  3. James

    My favorite all time World’s was when Joop won. He made the greatest move with a couple of kilometers to go to win. Think of Fabian Cancellara at Milano-San Remo a couple of years ago…same move but even more devastating! It was a thing of beauty!

  4. toddk

    One element that seems a bit different for today’s riders in contrast to the environments that Joop and Bobet raced under is the increased demands by sponsors for returns on their investment as an added pressure in addition to the abnormal drive that these guys have to keep pushing on despite injury and despite no reasonable hope for a good result. It adds a level of external pressure to stick in there that was probably more absent years ago.

    Joop was a real iron man and his ability to finish the Tour 16 times. That world title win 16 years into his career at age 38 was impressive in that he also beat several guys arguably in their peak: Lemond, Argentin, Roche… all of whom where there in the final k’s. He used the cunningness of a veteran to capitalize on a moment of indecision in the peloton to leap from the pack in the final couple of kilometers. He may have been indecisive in the Tour, but on that day he was anything but in that final attack. He seized the moment and put everything on the line and it netted him a great victory.

    Robot: We are having contrasting weather here in PDX. I’ve been out riding in barely 60 degree rain the last couple of days. I wouldn’t trade it for you weather.

  5. howard h

    Thanks, great reflections on many levels, for me anyway. When I was developing as a pro cycling aficionado all the mystique of the “euro” names and places had to be embraced in such a social vacuum compared to today. I remember the cool feeling of “hey I remember that name and NOBODY knows him” yeah cool name, Joop. These memories are important to me and cause me some conflicted emotions with how easy all this info is now but largely still lost. How many cyclists growing up now have appreciation for the Fignons, Zootemelks, Chiappuchi’s, Bobbets etc.
    Yeah, Indecision, great post. Our lives are so full of decisions, most so small. Every so often an insignificant one shocks us, or as you share, lead us to a deeper reflection and appreciation of our choices. Thanks for sharing with us.

  6. Mr Blue Sky

    Last night’s “Worlds” was a scorcher, here in Cleveland too! As we rode to the start of the ride, my buddy, Todd told me his computer read 97.2 degrees. Having not drank enough water all day, due to a steady stream of customers at the shop, I was anxious about the 50 k group ride with 1900 ft of climbing to come… I too had a point of indecision about midway, when after a long chase I caught the leaders. I entertained thoughts like “Shit, I should turn back and take it easy, it’s too damn hot, and I’m already hurting, etc.”
    Well, I rolled along at the back for a mile or so, undecided, and as the pace again rose, I found myself still in the group, still taking my turns at the front, etc… it hurt. A lot. Glad it was over, but I finished well.

    I remember watching Joop take the win back in the day, my impression was a brave , but doomed attack. How could he hope to beat the greats? But then came the moments of INDECISION for the favorites… each watching the others, to see who would chase down the old man, and thereby tow the rest to the line?
    Well by the time they did decide, the race was won! Bravo, Joop! I wonder if he wished maybe he had tried a bit more earlier in his career?

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