Why Boulder is the home of modern American cycling
Last week, I was asked to sit on the advisory board of the U. S. Cycling Monument — which will be a memorial to the sport in this country. Its goal is to raise funds to build the monument, a futuristic metal-and-stone sculpture, in the Boulder, Colorado, park that is regarded as the spiritual home of modern American cycling.
North Boulder Park is where a young Davis Phinney watched bike racing for the first time, fell in love with the sport, and later became America’s most-winning sprinter ever. It’s where a young Greg LeMond was crowned overall winner of the Coors International Bicycle Classic before he became the first American to win the Tour de France. And it’s in the center of the city where the foundations were laid for today’s major U.S. stage races, including the Amgen Tour of California and Colorado’s U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge.
The story began in the early-1970s when a 19-year-old Mo Siegel founded a small herbal tea company, Celestial Seasonings, to supply local health food stores. Siegel and his hippie friends, who handpicked herbs and wild berries for their teas, were environmentalists, and after their nascent business passed a million dollars in sales, Siegel decided he wanted to generate awareness of cycling’s environmental benefits (and also publicize the company’s best-selling tea, Red Zinger), by organizing a bike race.
The Red Zinger Classic started out as a modest two-day, three-stage event, with a short time trial, a hilly road race through Colorado’s Front Range, and a criterium in North Boulder Park. It had a tiny budget of $50,000 but heaps of enthusiasm from Siegel’s Boulder employees and local volunteers. The inaugural edition, in 1975, was the one that attracted Phinney to the sport. It did the same two years later for Michael Aisner, a journalism student at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, who was moonlighting as a DJ for a Denver radio station and stumbled into a career as a promoter. It happened like this….
When Aisner saw a public service ad by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 1976, asking for signatures to stop the killing of baby seals in Canada, he talked about it on his Denver radio show and garnered some 20,000 names for the petition. Impressed, the IFAW offered him a marketing job, and Aisner organized a trip by French movie-star campaigners Yvette Mimieux and Brigitte Bardot to witness the seal hunt in February 1977.
The subsequent story in Time magazine was read by Siegel, who contacted Aisner and invited him to lunch. “At the end of the lunch,” Aisner recalled, “Mo said, ‘So, you’re obviously good at PR. Would you mind doing PR for the bike race?’ I’d never even seen one before, but … I’m a curious guy, so I said, ‘I may as well do it.’”
Aisner produced documentaries of the race in his three-year stint as PR director, getting the film shown as a B-feature in cinemas all over the West. By 1978, the Zinger had expanded to seven stages, but the higher budget and extra working hours it now demanded became too much for the tea company. As a result, Siegel sold the event for one dollar to Aisner, who obtained the Adolph Coors Company as title sponsor and re-launched it in 1980 as the Coors International Bicycle Classic, adding stages in the Colorado ski resorts of Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen, and eventually extending it to California and even Hawaii over its two-week span.
The Coors, as it became known, had a glorious nine-year run, with the peak coming in the mid-1980s. Discussing those races, two-time Coors winner Dale Stetina told me, “I loved the Coors Classic because often, in the later days, the European pros would come over. They thought, because it was the U.S., they wouldn’t have a problem and it would be a cakewalk. They would come over, confident to race us at altitude on our home turf, and we would usually stomp ’em to pieces.”
That didn’t happen in 1985-86, when five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault came to Colorado with his La Vie Claire team. The French star helped teammate LeMond win the Coors in ’85 and won it himself the following year. Reporting the race as the editor of a European-based cycling magazine, I became so intrigued with the event and enraptured by Boulder that I moved to the city in 1987.
The 1985 race began in San Francisco, with a prologue up Telegraph Hill (which the Amgen Tour adopted two decades later) and a criterium on Fisherman’s Wharf. Everyone was impressed by the size of the California crowds — but they were just as big for the finale in North Boulder Park. That year, the last day’s circuit was extended from a short criterium loop to a hilly circuit of 1.65 miles, and Canadian star Steve Bauer won the stage with a remarkable solo break over the final 11 laps. At the following year’s race, just prior to the ’86 world championships in nearby Colorado Springs, the Boulder stage was again taken in a solo break, this time by local man Ron Kiefel. But my lasting memory of that day was Italian classics star Moreno Argentin making a searing, mid-race attack on the hill up Balsam to Fourth Street. Two weeks later, Argentin won the worlds.
Besides the Boulder-raised Phinney and Denver-born Kiefel, Boulder soon saw other pro cyclists move to the area, attracted by the mountain terrain, 5,430-foot elevation (with local roads climbing to 9,500 feet) and dry weather (with sunshine 300 days a year). The 1988 Giro d’Italia winner Andy Hampsten has a house at the foot of the Flatirons, the iconic rock outcroppings above the city, as does today’s top U.S. climber Tom Danielson. Danielson’s Garmin-Barracuda teammate Peter Stetina was born here after his dad, Dale Stetina, moved to Boulder.
“It was natural to come and settle here as soon as I stopped racing,” Dale Stetina told me. “In fact, when I first came to Boulder and looked up at the Flatirons and the mountains, I said I feel like I’m home. Being able to spend hours riding up in the mountains and down the canyons next to beautiful mountain streams, enjoying good weather, that’s as close to Nirvana, I guess, as I would get as a cycling enthusiast.”
Besides the athletes, some of the people who worked on the Coors Classic have remained in the sport. They include Jim Birrell, managing partner of Medalist Sports, which today organizes U.S. cycling’s major stage races in California, Utah and Colorado.
Over the past four decades, a whole cycling culture has taken root in Boulder. Its bike-race-related reputation and the number of cyclists settling here are the reasons that it now has an indoor velodrome, a custom-built cyclocross /mountain bike park and more than 300 miles of dedicated bike routes. It’s the home of advocacy groups such as Bikes Belong, Growth Cycle and the International Mountain Bicycling Association. And among the business that have settled here are CatEye, Dean Titanium Bicycles, Dual Eyewear, Optibike, Panache Cyclewear, Pearl Izumi, Recofit Compression, Slipstream Sports (owner of UCI ProTeam Garmin-Barracuda), TrainingPeaks, Velo magazine, VeloPress books and Vredestein tires.
A 2011 survey estimated that bike shops and associated business in the city accounted for more than 300 jobs and sales north of $50 million; but Boulder’s influence on American cycling is immeasurable in terms of prestige and legacy. Few would argue about its status as the country’s premier bike-racing community.
The city has donated a site in North Boulder Park for the U. S. Cycling Monument, which to date has raised about 25 percent of the $215,000 needed to build the structure. The symbolic sculpture, designed by local artist Kimmerjae Johnson, will include a 50-foot-long spiraling aluminum ribbon (which represents the racers and the looping course) linking a high, monolithic sandstone archway with a monumental element to be known as the Talking Stone.
Appropriate plantings around the monument will symbolize the waves of spectators that once packed the park’s criterium circuit. Later this year, the Boulder fans should be lining the climb up past the Flatirons for the defining stage of Colorado’s new race, the Pro Challenge. And should the fundraising be successful, Boulder’s grand monument to cycling in America will be in place.
To be part of the U. S. Cycling Monument go here.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The mentor and his apprentice
This past week has been a memorable one for British cyclists. In the space of eight days, they took seven international victories: two in Qatar, two in Spain and three in France. It was the best-ever start to a new racing season by riders from the UK. The two sprint wins by world champ Mark Cavendish at the Tour of Qatar were not totally unexpected; and sprinter Andy Fenn’s two stage wins at the Mallorca Challenge simply confirmed the great talent of Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s neo-pro. But the two solo stage wins and overall victory by Endura Racing’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke at the Tour Méditerranéen shocked everyone.
Well, not quite everyone. Locke’s mentor and onetime coach back in England, Colin Lewis, was calmly awaiting his apprentice to make this big breakthrough. Lewis, 69, who owns the bike shop in southwest England where Locke worked for several years, is one of the savviest and most knowledgeable people in the sport. He’s also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, with a dry sense of humor and a ready smile.
I first met Lewis on a long training ride over the hills of Brittany in the mid-1960s, when we were both racing with amateur teams and trying to make it to the big leagues. He was already a star in my eyes, having placed seventh overall in his first two-week-long stage race, the Tour of Britain Milk Race, and 25th in the Olympic road race in Tokyo. I was just starting out and had only won a few local races in southeast England before heading to France.
We had a long conversation on that training ride, much of it about the drug culture in French cycling. This was before there were drug tests in the sport, so there was no danger of being caught by anti-doping agencies. The only danger was to your body. Lewis said he was totally against any form of doping and would never race for a European pro team.
The English-born Welshman was good to his word. When he turned pro in 1967, he signed for a British domestic team with a salary only a quarter of what he could have earned in Europe. Even so, he won his national pro road title that first year and was selected to ride the Tour de France for the British national team (the Tour didn’t switch to the current format of trade teams until 1969). Despite having had no experience of European pro racing, and definitely not using drugs, Lewis rode strongly for the three weeks to finish 84th overall. He started the Tour again in 1968, but was eliminated on an early stage to Roubaix.Colin Lewis in 1969
In his eight years as a pro, Lewis was consistently one of Britain’s top-tier riders, winning 38 times, but he rarely raced in Europe. Today, when there are several British teams in the big leagues, and there’s a very different attitude to doping, Lewis would likely be one of the very best in the world. He was a rider who could have won classics and stages of the Tour. And that’s just what he’s hoping for Locke.
On retiring from pro racing in 1975, Lewis became a coach and opened his bike shop in the seaside town of Paignton. He continued to compete in masters-level racing, while coaching younger riders who joined his Mid Devon Cycling Club. Among those who went on to become pros were Jeremy Hunt (now with Team Sky in his 15th pro season) and Yanto Barker (racing with Magnus Bäckstedt’s Team UK Youth).
When Locke began road racing in 2003 at age 18, after a couple of seasons as a mountain biker, he moved from fourth to first category status in just a few months. Seeing the teenager’s talent, Lewis found him a spot on the French amateur team, U.V. Aube, in 2004. Locke did so well there that, only 18 months into his road career, he was selected for the British under-23 team for that year’s road worlds in Verona, Italy. In 2005, he moved to a nationally ranked French team, CC Étupes, and established his credentials immediately by finishing on the podium in all of his first 10 races, including a win at the GP de Rocheville, near Cannes, on the Côte d’Azur.
A couple of months later, his health suddenly deteriorated. Locke returned home and was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus. He quit cycling, and for the next three years attended the University of Bristol, graduating with a degree in product design, while working at Lewis’s bike store each summer. Finally, after graduating in mid-2007 and feeling less fatigued than he had been, Locke began training again — riding the 30km each way from his Plymouth home to the bike shop. He returned to amateur racing four years ago, at age 23, and soon started winning again.
That 2008 season ended early when he was knocked unconscious by a panicked horse during a training ride; but he’d done enough to earn a place with a small British pro team for 2009. His new team’s main sponsor went bankrupt mid-season, so he returned to working at the bike shop while racing for no pay. That’s when John Herety, the former British national coach and now manager of the well-funded Rapha-Condor-Sharp pro team, remembered Locke’s talent from the 2004 worlds and asked him to join his squad in 2010.Lewis on the Col Portillon at the ’67 Tour de France
With Rapha, Locke’s pro career finally started to move. In 2010, he won the toughest stage of Ireland’s Rás Tailteann, taking fifth overall; and last year, with a more international schedule, he placed eighth at the Tour of South Africa, fourth in the Tour of Korea, second in Spain’s Vuelta a León, and then fifth in the Tour of Britain. His highlight at his national tour last September was securing the King of the Mountains title, mainly thanks to instigating and leading a long breakaway on the fifth stage, over the hills of Dartmoor National Park on the roads where he trains.
Like his mentor Lewis, Locke prepares for racing the old-fashioned way. “I don’t train with any power meters or a heart-rate monitor,” he told local cycling photographer Simon Keitch last year. “I’m quite old school in my training. I’m quite good at knowing how to get myself into shape.”
His aggressive riding at the Tour of Britain had ProTeam managers talking, but when Herety transformed the Rapha team into a development squad this past winter, Locke chose to join Endura Racing, another UK-based UCI Continental team, which has a strong schedule of international and domestic racing. He promised to “hit the ground running.” And Locke has done just that. Following a training camp in Mallorca, he headed to the Med Tour last week, planning to use his climbing strength up to the last day’s traditional summit finish on Mont Faron.
That plan was derailed by snow in the south of France, which forced the organizers to reroute three of the four stages, including the first and last ones. This didn’t stop Locke’s plans. His team scouted the finish of the opening stage and thought a short climb 3km from the line could be a good place to attack. Locke did just that, riding a dozen riders off his wheel and gaining enough time to hold off the sprinters to win the stage.
The Europeans said it was a lucky win, but the lean Brit emphasized his true class on Sunday. When overnight snow covered the Faron, Locke adjusted his sights on the lower-elevation summit finish up the Col du Corps de Garde. And he didn’t wait for the final kick to the line; instead, he surprised the Continentals by jumping clear with 10km to go, catching and passing the day’s lone breakaway on the first steep slopes of the final climb, before establishing a 40-second lead. Locke held on to win the stage by 17 seconds over Saxo Bank’s Spanish climber Dani Navarro and Acqua & Sapone’s Italian star Stefano Garzelli — and clinched the overall title.
When asked by a British website last year what he hoped to achieve in 2012, Locke replied, “I’d love to win a UCI stage race … with the prospect of moving on to a ProTour team in the future.” Well, goal one is already achieved, and if he continues to show his strength for Endura Racing, Locke could well join a UCI ProTeam in 2013.
At just under 5-foot-9 and 139 pounds, Locke, 27, has a similar lean build to his cycling hero Michele Bartoli, the Italian who won the Mont Faron stage of the Med Tour at age 27 (in 1997) and took the overall title the following year. Bartoli won multiple classics, including Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy — just the type of races that Locke relishes.
And now that his career-interrupted has finally moved into top gear, it won’t be long before Locke gets a chance to emulate Bartoli in the hilly classics. When he does, the apprentice knows that back in a British bike shop, his mentor will still be rooting for him.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
The wind beneath my wings
We all remember when we were kids discovering the joys of riding a bicycle. Sometimes, with friends, we’d whistle a tune or sing songs as we pedaled along. Later, when I got into racing, I found that music was a helpful ally. In a race called The Circuit of Glyndebourne, held on a rolling course through the Sussex countryside on a bright spring day, I found myself humming The Four Seasons hit, “Rag Doll.” I began pushing my pedals to the tune’s metronomic beat, which continued to pound through my head as I went on a solo break. I was pumped, and I barely felt the pain that I should have been feeling.
Music has always played a big role in European bike racing. When I first saw the Tour de France, in 1963, I was watching from a hillside in Normandy when the leading vehicle in the publicity caravan arrived. It was a box-like Peugeot van, and sitting on the roof was the iconic French accordionist, Yvette Horner, playing romantic melodies for spectators at their picnic tables — Paris café music at its best. To this Englishman, it was all so appealingly French!
Horner played her accordion at the Tour for more than a dozen years; she also presented the yellow jersey at most of the finishes before performing at evening concerts in the stage towns. I was reminded of her a few years ago at a Tour stage in the Massif Central when we watched an outdoor screening of “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” the quirky animated film that features a 1950s’ Tour and accordion music by Roberte Rivette, a Horner caricature.
Today, the Tour’s publicity caravan is filled with piped pop music and disco dancers, while the brass band that performs on one of the custom floats is not actually using its trombones and trumpets — they’re just lip-synching. But a real oom-pah band does come from the Netherlands every year, jazzing the crowds at places like Dutch Corner on L’Alpe d’Huez. That band, made up of true cycling fans, also travels to events like the road and cyclocross world championships, where they help establish the party atmosphere that plays such a defining role in this sport.
In the 1970s and ’80s, opera was an integral part of cycling in Italy. RAI television used to open its Giro d’Italia coverage with an inspirational aria, perhaps Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s “Turandot,” while showing sepia scenes of Coppi and Bartali battling over cloud-covered mountains. And the Italian version of Radio Tour would play classical music for long stretches of races when there was no real action. During quieter moments of the Tour, one of my press-car colleagues, a passionate Catalan journalist from Barcelona, Miguel Utrillo, would entertain us with his own operatic outbursts, his favorite being a made-up song about a Pyrenean stage town: “Oooo-ooh, Saint Lary!”
Another indelible memory is Sean Kelly’s phenomenal time trial between his hometown of Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel that won him the 1985 Nissan Classic; the video of his record-setting ride was later set to the hit song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” sung by Sheena Easton. The lyrics well described how the Irish regarded their Sean: “Did you ever know that you’re my hero … I could fly higher than an eagle, ’cause you are the wind beneath my wings.”
There’s also something truly uplifting about the dramatic fanfare-style refrain played before every single presentation at the Tour de France, bringing pomp and dignity to those jersey-awarding ceremonies. But the Tour’s most stirring moments come in Paris, when a military band regularly plays the winner’s national anthem.
After listening mostly to “La Marseillaise” or “La Brabançonne” through the late-1960s, ’70s and early-’80s, it was emotionally moving to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” ring out for the first time in 1986, with Greg LeMond on the top step of the podium. Ironically, there have been no more French or Belgian winners since then, replaced by 10 victories for both the Americans and Spanish, and single breakthroughs for Ireland, Denmark, Germany and Italy. And then, last year for Cadel Evans, we heard the first rendition of “Advance Australia Fair”, unusually and joyfully performed by Aussie singing star Tina Arena.
What does the near-future hold? Maybe Andy Schleck will rightfully bring us Luxembourg’s “Ons Heemecht” for the first time since his countryman Charly Gaul won the Tour in 1958. Or perhaps there will be the first-ever win for a rider from eastern Europe, Africa, Asia or South America. I know that my personal collection won’t be complete until I hear the noble strains of Britain’s national anthem, “God Save The Queen,” echoing off the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées.
Did anyone say Bradley Wiggins?
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Hailstones, snowstorms and survivors
I was taken aback last week when I heard about a field of pro racers coming to a halt during the opening stage of Argentina’s Tour de San Luis. It wasn’t because they had to stop for a train rumbling through a rail crossing; no, they stopped to seek shelter from a storm, one of heavy rain and hail.
Wait, I thought, aren’t bike racers supposed to carry on whatever the conditions, rain or shine? Next, they’ll be stopping because it’s too hot, or too cold, or maybe too windy! It wasn’t always so….
In my first multi-day race, the Easter Three-day on the Isle of Wight in southern England, we raced through a violent hailstorm. Within 10 minutes of hailstones hitting our bare arms, legs and heads (we didn’t wear helmets back then), the intact pack was reduced to about a dozen. That was perhaps the most unusual way I’ve ever gotten into a breakaway!
A couple of years after that, I took my bike to Italy to report the Tour of Sardinia, an early-season race that Tour de France champions Jacques Anquetil, Lucien Aimar and Jan Janssen were riding. They would all survive a true winter tempest of lightning, rain, hail and snow on a mountainside of that sparsely beautiful Mediterranean island. British rider Derek Harrison told me the peloton was slowed when an intense part of the storm covered the road an inch deep in golf-ball-sized hailstones, and Tour winner Janssen stopped several times to wipe his glasses clean and another time to scrounge a pair of woolen gloves.
That day, I climbed just ahead of the race to the 4,000-foot summit of the Arcu Correboi pass, where a well-muffled spectator gave me two swigs from a flask of Cognac before the riders arrived. As the hail turned to snow, a white blanket covered the bumpy road. And after the peloton passed, I began the steep descent, where the wind-blown snow stung my face. In order to see, I had to close one eye, leave the other half open and screw my head around at an angle.
My feet, hands and face were slowly freezing when suddenly a great booming sound came from behind, and a high wall of metal loomed into my peripheral vision. It was a snowplow. The driver waved me over, stopped, put my bike in the back of his truck and helped me into the heated cab. He dropped me off 10 miles later in the remote mountain town of Fonni, where a group of villagers crowded around this still-shivering stranger, and one of them took me and my bike into a bar to treat me to another tot of brandy!
I had a more frightening snowstorm experience in the mid-1980s after reporting the Étoile de Bessèges, a February stage race in southern France — where rookie American pro Thurlow Rogers from Southern California was shocked one day when the water in his bottles turned to ice. I covered the race by bike. The next day, I headed east on a back road through the Cévennes. As I gained elevation, the light snow grew in intensity, and fell so deep on the road that I had to dismount and push my luggage-laden bike as best I could; I’d gone too far to turn back.
There were no houses on that desolate plateau, and I hadn’t seen any vehicles since early in the day. I was having trouble navigating in the whiteout, and I was getting colder and colder, despite putting on all the extra clothing I could find in my panniers. What should have been a pleasant two-hour ride was turning into a never-ending trudge … perhaps I wouldn’t even make it.
The snow kept falling. And when the road began dropping toward a far valley, I hopped onto one pedal, scooting the bike, in the hope of getting to a village before I collapsed with hypothermia—well, that’s what was going through my mind after all those hours of plodding alone in that bleak, silent, snow-covered landscape.
Just as I was despairing of ever reaching civilization I spotted a truck moving in the far distance. It didn’t come my way, but when I reached where it had been, I found the road had been partially plowed. I was able to start riding (very slowly) again … and I did reach a village, where I stuffed myself with cookies and hot tea before continuing to a real town. I checked into a small inn and soaked in a hot, deep bathtub. Bliss.
As for the most memorable day of bad-weather bike racing I’ve witnessed, that came in 1988 at the Giro d’Italia — and I don’t think anyone told the peloton to stop racing when heavy rain turned to snow on the Passo di Gavia. I know how cold it was because the French journalist I was traveling with stopped his car on the 8,600-foot summit. We stood in snow being driven horizontally by fierce crosswinds and watched the racers climbing laboriously, one by one, through the blizzard.
I’ve written about that (truly) epic day many times: how first-man-to-the-top Johan Van der Velde was so cold he stopped and climbed into his team car, and stayed there for many long minutes, warming up and changing into dry clothes before continuing; how second-man-to-the-summit Andy Hampsten donned ski gloves and a balaclava before tracking a solo path through snow and fog on the treacherous, dirt-road descent, risking frostbite, before claiming the leader’s maglia rosa in the valley; how several riders went hypothermic; and how only a handful actually quit the race.
Bob Roll, who was one of the survivors, wrote a piece titled “The Day the Big Men Cried” for one of his books. Those big men weren’t stopped by a little hailstorm — as their counterparts were last week in Argentina.
That’s a somewhat harsh verdict on today’s peloton, so I was pleased to see a couple of tweets this past Sunday from pros training on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Former U.S national champion Ben King of RadioShack-Nissan wrote: “Miserable training! 4 degrees C, windy, pouring rain and hail, 2 hrs was the max that [we] could face … and I’m still numb.” World champ Mark Cavendish of Team Sky added: “My cheeks are red and stinging from a hail storm….” Yes. But better that than red from embarrassment.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
The blank slate
When Red Kite Prayer founder Patrick Brady asked me if I would pen a regular column on this site, he gave me no particular theme to write about, no particular length and not even a deadline. “Just enjoy yourself,” Patrick said. That was too good an offer to turn down. Or was it?
Being given a completely blank slate is both a luxury and a liability. It’s a luxury because in the world of journalism you are nearly always writing something that an editor has commissioned, with a set number of words and a (nearly always) very tight deadline. With this column I can choose any subject I like, as long as it’s loosely connected with cycling. And that’s the liability: There are so many facets to this sport and so many people involved with it that choosing just one topic is a not a simple task.
Among the things I’ve written about this month have been the challenges I’ve faced over the years as a cycling journalist and the tribulations (of a different nature) that talented bike racers have to overcome to achieve greatness. So, this week, I’m choosing to write about … hmmm … the blank slate.
One of the first times in my life that I faced a blank slate came during my Eleven-Plus exam — a matriculation test that English schoolchildren took (at age 11 or older) to decide whether they had the requisite knowledge to move on from sixth grade to a grammar school (England’s version of a charter high school). If you didn’t pass muster, you were sent to a secondary modern, a less-pleasant fate.
This happened eons ago, yet I can still recall sitting at my school desk, dipping my pen into an inkwell, and puzzling over the choice of essays we’d been given. There were three subjects listed, and we had to write about one of them. After panicking and thinking I couldn’t write anything about any of them I decided on the third subject: “The Life of a Milk Straw.” But as soon as I wrote down the title my mind went as blank as the page.
It seemed like an impossible challenge, and I struggled to channel my wildly diverging thoughts. Back then, a milk straw was made of paper not plastic, so I thought backwards from the finished product and put pen to paper: “I began my life as a tall pine tree in a forest in Canada.” Then my imagination took over, tracing the story of the tree being logged and floated down a river to a paper mill on the Pacific coast … and a milk straw emerging at a factory and traveling with dozens of other straws in a box packed onto a boat crossing the Atlantic to England … before the box was eventually opened at our school, where a small boy sucked on the straw to drink his third-of-a-pint bottle of milk that we were given at morning break every day.
The examiners must have liked the essay because I passed the test and went on to grammar school. Which reminds me of an even blanker slate I faced in my fourth year at the high school, when I was 15. English grammar wasn’t my favorite class, and the English teacher, Miss Norah Barter, was not my favorite teacher. She usually marked my papers with a C+, or a B– at best.
Then, one day, she gave us a very different task. We didn’t have to parse a page of a book or write about some obscure subject she’d chosen. Instead, Miss Barter told us to write an essay about anything we liked — and we had half an hour to complete it. What to do? I didn’t have long to decide on how to fill this blank slate. And so I began writing about something that interested me a lot, but could be a bore to Miss Barter. Perhaps my choice was a mistake and she’d give me a D….
What came to mind was an event I’d attended that week in London with my brother Dave. It was a “friendly,” as the British call an exhibition soccer game, and it was unusual because it took place midweek at night, and floodlit games were still a novelty. Adding to the interest were the two sides: West Ham United was one of England’s most exciting football teams, and Fluminense, from Rio di Janeiro, Brazil, played the most exotic soccer we’d ever seen.
The match between the two clubs was magical, with the final score being something like 7-5 after 90 minutes of brilliant end-to-end soccer and spectacular goals. There were amazing players on both sides, including West Ham’s right back John Bond and left winger Malcolm Musgrove and Fluminense’s Didi, one of the greatest midfielders of all time. With all these wonderful ingredients, my essay was easy (and fun!) to write. Miss Barter liked it. She gave me a first-ever A, and even read it to the class as an example the following week. “You see, even John can do good work,” she said.
What has all this to do with cycling you may ask? Well, half-a-dozen years after that English writing project, I learned how to apply the blank-slate theory to bike racing. I was in my first season of road racing with Redhill Cycling Club, and one of my earliest races was a Cat. 2/3 event on the notoriously hilly Ashdown Forest circuit in the county of Sussex. I began the race with an injured knee and wasn’t sure how long I’d last. I knew I couldn’t try my usual (novice) tactic of going out on an early break, so I’d have to make it up as I went along — gradually filling the blank slate as I did with that story about a paper straw.
Instead of attacking, I sat back in the bunch, watching what the more experienced riders were doing. They were also watching and waiting as the steep climbs made it a race of attrition. My knee was hurting the whole time, but because I was riding conservatively it didn’t get any worse. And by the time we were on the final lap, I even began thinking about doing something I’d never done before (because I was never up front to try it!): make a late-race attack. I followed a couple of moves on the last rolling hills, and feeling fairly fresh, I instinctively jumped away on my own at the foot of the 2-mile climb to the finish. No one came with me, but I dared not turn to see if there were chasers. I was running scared. And then, suddenly, I saw a small crowd at the top shouting and clapping. They were cheering me on. I crossed the line with an arm in the air and, as soon as I stopped, I collapsed to the grass at the edge of the road, exhausted and exhilarated. I’d won my first victory.
A blank slate has never again looked the same.
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Grinta: the hidden ingredient of great racers
The Italian word grinta has become so prevalent in cycling journalism that a Dutch-language magazine in Belgium chose Grinta for its title. Translated, it means grit, spunk, bravery, or endurance. And when European sportswriters use the word to describe an underdog’s performance in cycling’s Heroic Era of the early 20th century, they are likely thinking of all four of those nouns.
They would certainly use grinta to describe how Eugène Christophe, when leading the 1913 Tour de France, broke his forks on the descent of the Tourmalet, walked more than 10km with the bike on his shoulder, crying all the way, to reach Ste. Marie-de-Campan, where he repaired the forks at the village blacksmith’s shop, and then, despite having lost a couple of hours, carried on riding over the Aubisque and Peyresourde climbs to Luchon — and still finished that Tour in seventh overall.
Journalists would use grinta to tell the story of Fausto Coppi’s winning the Cuneo to Pinerolo stage of the 1949 Giro d’Italia in a 192km-long solo breakaway over five mountain passes … or describe the heroism of Eddy Merckx at the 1975 Tour when he battled to second place overall after being punched in the liver on one stage and breaking his jaw on another … or relate how Lance Armstrong picked himself up after being floored at the foot of Luz-Ardiden, fighting back to the lead group and then charging clear to win the stage (with a cracked frame) to clinch the 2003 Tour yellow jersey.
So how does the latest generation of pro racers shape up to those cycling legends? Do they exhibit the same levels of grinta as their predecessors?
Take reigning world champion Mark Cavendish. The man with the flashy sprint certainly has to show grit and bravery in negotiating a risk-filled mass stage finish at the Tour or Giro. But his performance that impressed me the most was when he won (with Rob Hayles) the Madison title at the 2005 track worlds in Los Angeles.
The then teen-aged Cavendish was a last-minute replacement and had never teamed with the veteran Hayles before. They overcame their lack of competitive experience together with sheer class. The pair was impressively fast in lapping the field to take the lead with 28 laps to go — and even more impressive, Cav especially, in hanging with the pack as team after team launched attacks in the closing kilometers.
At the end of that high-speed 50km contest, Cav was in tears, not only from the thrill of becoming world champion at 19 but also from the pain of racing (and beating) the world’s best trackmen. That took grinta! In an emotion-tinged interview, the young Brit said that winning a rainbow jersey was “something I’ve been waiting for all my life.”
Another young racer who has displayed enormous amounts of grinta in his so-far brief career is Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway. He needed plenty of nerve on stage 7 of the 2009 Giro to join a breakaway on a treacherously wet (and cold!) alpine descent into Chiavenna, where he easily took the sprint. Even more impressive was his victory a month earlier at Ghent-Wevelgem.
Also on a cold, rainy and windy day, Boasson Hagen wasn’t supposed to win this rugged Belgian classic. His teammate Mark Cavendish was favored, but the Brit flatted just as the race split apart. Their team director Brian Holm told me he wasn’t expecting anything from the Norwegian. After all, he explained, it was only three days after a difficult Tour of Flanders, where Boasson Hagen “had diarrhea and had to stop to go to the toilet three times…. That must have taken something out of him.”
Despite that, Boasson Hagen got into the front group at Ghent-Wevelgem with two senior teammates, both former winners of this classic, George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt. Still, no one was expecting anything from the 21-year-old Norwegian when on the final climb, the ruggedly steep, cobblestone Kemmelberg, he jumped away from the Hincapie group and bridged to lone leader Aleksandr Kuschynski of Belarus — and after pacing each other for the remaining 35km, Boasson Hagen led out the sprint from 300 meters to win easily.
Hincapie could have complained about an upstart colleague stealing the race, but realizing the scale of Boasson Hagen’s grinta, the American admiringly said, “It’s huge for Eddy … and it doesn’t get much tougher than today.”
Like Cavendish and Boasson Hagen, the Slovak phenom Peter Sagan has quickly established himself as a rider of immense talent and grit. Only two months into his pro career, at age 20, he shocked the cycling world by taking two stage wins at the 2010 Paris-Nice in bitterly cold weather — the first by out-sprinting a select group of six that included Spanish stars Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador; the second with a solo attack on a steep climb 2km from the finish.
A few weeks later at the prologue of Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie, I witnessed his ambition first-hand. Standing beyond the finish line, with no other reporters around, I was able to talk to riders as they circled back after finishing their time trials.
Sagan raced across the line head down, riding as hard as he could, and didn’t see what time he’d done. He said he understood a little English, so I indicated that he was one second slower than the fastest rider, Italy’s Marco Pinotti. Sagan knew enough English to react to his narrow loss with: “F–k! Only one second?” And the very next day, goaded by his prologue defeat, he proved the strongest sprinter, with the most grinta, in a wild bunch finish.
Like the legends of the past, modern stars Cavendish, Boasson Hagen and Sagan all have immense talent and, even more important, that indefinable gift called grinta.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
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The typewriter … and other machines
The French reporter was sweating profusely as he pushed the telephone into an acoustic coupler, one of those slow-speed, low-tech contraptions we used to transmit stories before sleek laptops and Wi-Fi were developed. He hit the “go” button over and over, but nothing was passing through the modem to his newspaper in Paris. It looked like his story on Jeannie Longo’s silver medal at the 1992 Olympics was going to miss its deadline.
As he let forth a stream of “merde, alors” and “mon dieu”s, he tweaked the cables and forced the old-fashioned phone harder and harder into the coupler’s rubber receptacles, hoping the line would eventually stay clear long enough to work. His curses didn’t bother us, the few writers left in the makeshift pressroom at a Spanish elementary school; we’d all had similar experiences with inefficient technology. After countless tries, the French scribe’s rudimentary computer finally gave a satisfying “ping” to signal that the transmission was successful. He wiped his brow and breathed a sigh of relief.
The stories I was writing that day had later deadlines, but even back at the Olympic press village, my Tandy word processor and the Spanish phone lines had a connectivity problem. The words would slowly flow across the Tandy’s tiny screen and then cut off, only partway through the transmission. After a couple of hours of trying I gave up for the time being, and thought to myself: “I wish I had a typewriter.”
In the first 25 years of my writing career, I loved using a typewriter. There was something inspiring about winding a clean piece of paper onto the platen, the black cylinder at the heart of the machine, banging down on indestructible keys and seeing your story grow line by line in printed form. In fact, filmmaker Woody Allen likes the typewriter so much that he still writes on the same German-built Olympia portable he bought when he was in high school.
Before I discovered the charms of typewriters, journalists had been using them for a century. And coincidentally, the world’s first viable typewriter was invented the same year, 1868, that the first velocipede races were held in Paris and the world’s first cycling magazine, Vélocipède, was founded in eastern France.
It was on the typewriter that cycling journalists began writing dramatic tales of races that excited the public and brought the sport alive, at a time when newspapers were the only source of mass communication. The first long-distance bike races, initially for amateurs only, were Bordeaux-Paris and Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891, followed by Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1892 and Paris-Roubaix in 1896. Some were organized by cycling magazines, giving their readers an inside feel for the races and the athletes.
New sports publications proliferated in that era, especially in France, where a turf battle between the two leading titles gave birth to the Tour de France in 1903. The first director of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, was also the editor of L’Auto, as was his successor Jacques Goddet. Their stories helped L’Auto (whose title was changed to L’Équipe after World War II) become the world’s biggest sports newspaper; and their daily opinion pieces during the Tour, along with the reports and feature stories of their contemporaries, helped create a rich fabric of cycling history.
During my early years in the Tour pressroom, I often sat next to two legendary French writers: L’Équipe’s senior cycling correspondent Pierre Chany and the novelist Antoine Blondin. They traveled together, almost always stopping for an extended lunch and a bottle or two of wine before driving to the finish, while listening to Radio Tour as they discussed the strategies for their respective stories.
Chany was the specialist. He not only analyzed tactics better than most journalists, but he also established a close relationship with the riders, notably Jacques Anquetil, and that enabled him to bring extra weight to his pieces (this was before the era of post-stage press conferences). Chany worked hard at crafting his daily report, gently striking the keys of his typewriter, usually under a plume of tobacco smoke, with a pack of Gitanes at his side.
Blondin, a friend of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote a short, literary column for L’Équipe, starting with a title that was almost always a play on words. He contemplated every phrase before slowly setting pen to paper in perfect script. No, Blondin didn’t use a typewriter, but he was the exception that proved the rule.
Sometimes, I broke that rule too. At the 1978 world road championships in Germany’s Nürburgring, the early deadline I had for The Sunday Times coincided with the estimated finish time of the amateur road race. After dictating the early part of my report, written on the typewriter, to the copy-taker in London, I stayed on the phone, looked through a doorway toward the finish and ad-libbed the end of my piece as the racers sprinted for the line — headed by Gilbert Glaus of Switzerland.
A half-dozen years later, at the Tour, I had a little longer to write my piece after Scottish climber Robert Millar scored a stage win at Guzet-Neige in the Pyrénées. But the pressroom (and a telephone!) was 40km away in St. Girons. I sat in the back of our press car tapping away on the typewriter — but there were so many twists on the mountain road that I’d find myself typing on the same spot of paper as each turn sent the platen shooting from one side of the machine to the other. Still, with persistence, the story of Millar’s big victory did get written and dictated on time.
Now and then I would follow races by bike, with my portable typewriter tucked away in the panniers. One spring, I followed Paris-Nice that way (using trains to overcome long transfers between stages), and arrived at the pressroom each day in time to watch the finish, get some quotes and write my newspaper story. Since I had official press accreditation, I didn’t have a problem riding my bike along the race route — except once, at St. Etienne.
I was descending into the city about a half-hour ahead of the race, moving at a fair clip, when an over-zealous gendarme spotted me coming toward him. Assuming I had no right to be on the course, he dived out from the roadside to wrestle me and my bike to the ground, as if he were a rugby player making a game-saving tackle.
I was bruised and grazed, but more concerned about the health of my typewriter. Luckily, its case just cracked a little; there was nothing wrong with the keys. And no, I didn’t get arrested. The gendarme escorted me to his capitaine, who inspected my press credential and admonished his subordinate before sending me on my way.
Typewriters are sturdy machines, and I’d still be using one if Wi-Fi hadn’t taken us out of the dark ages in transmitting copy. Nonetheless, I keep my old Olympia Traveller de luxe portable in a closet, just in case an outage ever puts my laptop out of commission. That typewriter weighs 11½ pounds, more than twice the weight of my Apple MacBook, and it still works perfectly. Computers need replacing every few years, unlike the typewriter — as Woody Allen well knows.
Another retro wordsmith is Italian sportswriter Gianni Mura. Just as Blondin was an anomaly in the 1960s and’70s, navigating with a pen in a sea of typewriters, so Mura is a 21st century hold-out. The clip-clop of his 1960s Olivetti Lettera 32 often drowns out the quieter clatter of computer keys in our Tour pressrooms. And because he’s a smoker, like Chany and Blondin, Mura usually sets up shop outdoors. “I can concentrate better out here,” he tells you. Yet even Mura bows to modern technology: When he calls his copy through to La Repubblica in Milan, he uses a mobile phone.
Before cell phones came into general use, we used to search for payphones when driving between stage towns. You’d think that was a pretty safe method of communicating with our editors back in the office. Not always. One day at a Tour in the late-’80s, Gilles Goetghebuer of Cyclisme Internationale was standing in an all-glass French phone booth talking to his office when the line suddenly went dead. The reason? A passing car lost control and smashed into the phone booth, knocking it over, along with Gilles!
In today’s instant world, when we can watch live images of nearly every major bike race on laptops, tablets or smart phones, it’s easy to forget that for most of its history, cycling was reported on the typewriter. And there are days — say, my computer crashes or there’s no Internet access or I’m just feeling nostalgic — when, like that cursing French reporter at the ’92 Olympics, I wish the pre-laptop days of Anquetil, Blondin and Chany were still here.
Images of Robert Millar: John Pierce, Photosport International