One of the ongoing themes of the infinite email thread between Padraig and me is how strange life can be. The older we get and the more our families grow, the more we find ourselves in unexpected situations, both positive and negative, an ongoing confluence of circumstance that serves up surreality like Dali on amphetamines.
And so it was that I found myself rolling through this New England countryside alongside Hennie Kuiper, on a bike I’d loaned him, and me somewhat dumbstruck as he spun tales of his many, many victories. 1972 Olympic road race winner, 1975 World Champion, winner of Paris Roubaix, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Lombardia. Twice second in the Tour de France. Rival of Bernard Hinault, and part of a dominating ’70s Dutch team. Directeur Sportif to Team Telekom and Motorola. One of the true Giants of the Road.
At 64, he is still every bit the physical marvel he was in his prime. Chiseled calves. Barrel thighs. A style on the bike that comes from living there. He could clearly have dropped any of the motley crew we’d assembled for our little tour of farms and orchards. But he didn’t. He just rolled along and chatted.
How we had come to be here is still a little mysterious to me. One of Hennie’s sons lives here, in the States. His son is not a cyclist. He works, tangentially, with my neighbor, that is to say, they are not co-workers, but they are somehow professionally affiliated. This part of the connection I don’t really understand, but when I was asked if I’d like to go for a spin with a former World Champion I thought, “Yeah. I’ll do that.”
Four weeks later, I show up in Concord center to meet Hennie Kuiper.
After riding with him, I understand more clearly what it is that separates schlubs like me from legends like him. His physiognomy marks him out, even at retirement age, as something of an outlier. His musculature is just not something you see at the grocery store, or even at your local crit.
Add on top of that his own statement, made later in the day, that his talent was to be able to attack one more time, after 150km, after 200km, always one more time, a thing few of his generation, or any generation could do.
Having said all that, what most impressed me was his generosity. He never failed to answer a question, and he patiently listened to every opinion offered. He didn’t once mention how badly wrenched his loaner bike was, nor that I’d forgotten to put water bottle cages on it. His best trick was simply being just one of the guys, albeit the one who had taken gold in Munich in 1972 after a 40km solo breakaway.
So there I was on a Saturday morning, having the tale of Paris-Roubaix 1983 spun out for me, not by some historian or commentator, not by someone who’d sat in the velodrome waiting for the riders to emerge from hell, but by the guy who won the race. As a cycling fan, I found it dizzying.
He laughed as he explained how hard a grand tour is, and why he’d finished twice in the Tour but never won, how angry one of his domestiques was with him one day when he’d ridden at the back and been caught behind a crash, the seconds slipping away and the yellow jersey with them.
He said that the hardest day of his career was a long time trial early on. He knew how to go hard before that, but he suffered so much that day that something inside him changed and afterwards he could always go harder than he’d ever thought possible.
Throughout the day I drifted in and out of earshot, and each time I got close I found myself in the middle of another story. He talked about being in the car behind Andy Hampsten in the Giro, about battling with Hinault in breakaways, and all the while he asked little questions about us, our jobs, our families.
We met up with the families at a folk festival north of the city, racked the bikes and shook hands. The ride dissolved into hand shakes and kids running in circles. It could have been any group ride anywhere, ending. We had ridden with a world champion, and it was just like riding with a friend, which was extraordinary to me and that little bit surreal.
And then, a week later, just when I’d finished boring people with the story, the autographed picture above appeared at my house. I am not one for autographs. I don’t ask for them, and I don’t really understand their value. But in this instance, I took it for what it was, a sincere thanks for a ride shared, from a fellow rider. And that meant a lot to me, as I’m sure you can imagine.
The Spring Classics season is over. And now that I’m done crying in my espresso over it. It’s time to shift the mental gears for Grand Tour time. Ignore that grinding sound. My mechanic said it would work itself out, eventually.
And so, let’s take the Group Ride away from race predictions. Who really feels predictively competitive about the Tour of Romandie?
No. This week, in the aftermath of Alexander Vinokourov’s win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Mark Cavendish’s profane victory salute in Romandie, I’m thinking about character. I am looking at today’s pro peloton and wondering who the real good guys are. Who, amongst our champions, has the character to go along with his victories? Who has the poise? Who has the class?
Of course, we’ve always had our villains, and I believe they’re a necessary part of the equation. They bring brashness and audacity (Cavendish). They play as foils (Vinokourov) to the good, clean talents pedaling for glory. The bad are often more entertaining than the good, and we all like to be entertained.
What I want to know this week is who you admire? Who will be remembered, not just for their palmarés, but also for the manner in which those victories were won?
My mind goes immediately to a rider like Jens Voigt, the breakaway artist loyal to his team, who suffers with a smile on his face, who makes the hardest parts of bike racing look like fun and respects the riders around him for their power, intelligence and effort.
Then there’s Phillipe Gilbert, outspoken about clean racing, a hard rider on a weak team, an intelligent and humble champion, who can beat stronger riders with his mind, rather than his radio.
There are other worthy riders, of course, but I’ll let you name them.
Image: John Pierce, Photosp0rt International