I love sports. If you give me a choice between watching a sitcom on TV and watching a sporting event, I will choose the sport every time. If you ask me to choose between going to a play or going to a race, I will choose the race. I have a degree in philosophy, and I was reared on public radio, opera and frequent trips to the museum, but really, I’m a fan.
So the last two pro cycling seasons have been strange. As riders both past and present got more transparent (or were made more transparent), it became harder and harder to tell who to root for.
Let me back up a moment. Let me outline some of my basic ideas about sport. First, while I love the game or the race, my enjoyment, my true passion, depends on having an interest in the outcome. Pro wrestling has understood this from the beginning. As much as we love the physical exploit, the subtext of good guys vs. bad guys is an equally compelling part of the entertainment. Even if we are only watching one rider hurling him or herself against a steep European col, we want to know that rider is pure of effort and will.
As I sit on a Saturday afternoon to watch football (soccer) with my sons, they will invariably ask who we are rooting for. They want to know who the good guys are. This comes before understanding the nuance of tactic and skill for them, and I believe it is elemental to the enjoyment of sport, even when your rooting interest is only nominal, even if you are not fully invested, a card carrying member of some metaphorical tribe.
So part of the problem for me, in continuing to follow pro cycling, is that I don’t know who the good guys are anymore. I think I know, but whatever willful ignorance I had cultivated has long since fermented, leaving only a surfeit of skepticism and a dull hangover.
But as I said, I love sport.
And it’s true, at least for me, that watching the pros inspires me. Motivation can be hard to maintain on the 24/7/365 plan. I need to draw on as many sources as I possibly can.
So I plan to renew my effort to follow the races in 2014, to read deeply about the good sensations of the Italians and the stoic perseverance of the Belgians, the tragic second-bestness of the French and the imperious, even hubristic temerity of the Spanish. We’ll leave aside the British for now. I’m half-British myself, and it gets complicated, so much easier to hate family than friend.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question, who to root for? Who to support? Who are the good guys/gals with legitimate chances to win races? Are you ready to turn this corner with me? Or will you sit out another season, content to watch Breaking Bad reruns or sit silently in the museum courtyard? Is your own riding enough now? Was it ever not?
Image: AFP/AFP/Getty Images
The Italian sees the future. Where everywhere people are saying, “My customers are asking for this. My customers are asking for that,” the Italian says, “Your customers don’t know what they need. They do not think of the future. They only read magazines and stare at the television.”
The future is in Urban riding, he says. He pronounces it “Ooor-ban,” and he doesn’t mean hipsters on fixies. He means a type of riding that includes your commute, your errands, picking the kids up from school, everything. Commuting, according to the Italian, is a bad word for cycling, because it implies only one use for the bike, to get from home to work.
Even Oorban doesn’t capture his meaning correctly, but it is closer, he thinks.
Cycling needs a new vocabulary, new words to express the benefits attendant thereto. “No other machine is so perfect,” he says. “Nothing else moves you from place to place, makes you healthier, eliminates pollution, connects you to the world.” The Italian uses only vegetable based lubricants. They are not the best lubricants, but when you use them correctly, they are good, and they do not destroy the environment.
The Italian doesn’t seem to care for Italians very much. “Terrible businessmen,” he says. In Italy, we only race. No one is riding Oorban. No one is touring. He rides the white roads of Tuscany, stops at a hotel, and gets greeted in English. “I am Italian,” he says. “Why are you here,” they reply. “Here we only have Americans and Germans.”
“Since Coppi and Bartali, we have only racing,” says the Italian. “They ruined everything.” Even riding with your friends is racing, in Italy. I ask him why they don’t win more races then, and he says, “Because they are terrible businessmen.” I laugh. He does not.
In the car, on the way to the bus, the Italian explains the entire European debt crisis to me, in detail, quoting the exact value of bond issue returns. The Spanish have been downgraded, he informs me. He then explains the difference between the quality and construction of various makers of merino wool cycling gear. Again, there are specific references to the percentage of wool and synthetics in each garment, the advantages of each. “Wool is the future,” he says, “as it was the past.”
The Italian is one of these people you meet in the bike business. There is a charisma and insanity to him. You don’t speak with the Italian. He speaks TO you. And you listen, because he sees the future.
Maybe Greg LeMond had it right all along. He lived in Europe. He learned French. He immersed himself, but he retained his American-ness. He adapted, but never compromised.
This past weekend, I was at the Grand Prix of Gloucester, and Padraig was at Levi’s King Ridge Grand Fondo, two singular American cycling events, their origins in European riding/racing, but their executions fully-yankeefied. Neither of us was logged into an illicit web-feed of a pro race with commentary in Flemish, French or Italian. Neither of us was reading about a far off mountain or daydreaming about being someplace else. We were both on home soil, physically AND mentally.
There was the smell of wet grass and diesel exhaust in Stage Fort Park in Gloucester on Saturday (this was before the sanitary facilities were overwhelmed and another distinct odor took the air). A schooner sailed into the bay, and a light mist fell. The feel was decidedly New England, though I didn’t see anyone whaling.
First run in 1999, the GP of Gloucester is known locally as “New England Nationals,” but it has grown into a quality, international event with riders from the UK and Switzerland standing on this year’s podium. They’re coming to us now.
The King Ridge Grand Fondo is just three-years-old, but as Padraig’s report will tell you, it is already a massive, well-organized ride. In fact, our calendar is now dotted with races and rides like these, events that enjoy massive support from sponsors and riders alike. Some are even taking on a cultish mystique despite their youth. D2R2 anyone?
For too long, our cycling culture has been imported. How many of us have read hagiographic accounts of Belgian kermisses and swooned a quiet swoon of wanna-be-ness? I know I have. There are probably more riders in the Belgian colors in the United States than there are in all of Belgium, population 11 million. Is there such a thing as velo-envy? If so, we’ve had a bad case.
How many of us have lusted for a steel Merckx? How many of us have pulled on an orange Molteni top despite looking awful in that autumnal hue (everyone does) and not ever having laid eyes on one of Molteni’s stoves.
Is Coppi your man? Formulate the parallel questions in Italian. The answers are all the same. We have been more than Europhilic. We are perhaps lucky our brethren across the ocean haven’t filed a cultural restraining order.
But, there is no longer a need to hitch our bikes to that particular sag wagon.
We have a new American cycling made up of legions of top pros not named Lance Armstrong. That we’ve outgrown the controversial Texan says as much as anything about our growth.
American bicycles, for better and for worse, dominate the modern peloton. Our cycling events reach back into the past when they can, as with the Major Taylor Hill Climb in Worcester, but they also maintain a very contemporary outlook as with our unique take on Grand Fondos and Randonees.
We have magazines like peloton and Embrocation Cycling Journal and Bike, as well as the usual suspects like Bicycling, Velo(News) and Road Bike Action, who are telling our stories back to us in colors more crisp and vivid than we first imagined them in. They write about domestic makers of embro, American beers, events, and custom bike builders. They ride our epic (yes, epic) rides and document them for posterity. Mt. Baldy. The Texas hill country. The Maine seacoast.
I can’t help but feel excited by what is happening in our new American cycling. That doesn’t mean I eschew the spring classics or the grand tours, or that I no longer covet my neighbor’s Italian steel (even though I already own an Italian steel bike). It just means that we also have our own thing. I don’t have to rue the fact that I’ve never seen a kermiss, because I’m too busy yelling at my buddies as they hurdle the barriers in Gloucester, or checking in with Padraig to see how he did at King’s Ridge.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m sitting too close to the television, and what I perceive as a blossoming cycling culture, is really just a pixelated reflection of what’s going on in the old world. But it feels like more. Everytime peloton comes in the mail, or some one of my non-cycling friends asks me if I can help them find their first road bike, I think, “It’s happening. It’s really happening.”
And I smile.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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Fausto Coppi had a big schnoz. I like to think it helped him cut through the wind. His hair was notoriously neat, Brylcreemed left and right, with a razor sharp part. No wind would take purchase there. He had a strange barrel chest that housed steam engine lungs, a narrow, almost feminine waist, and a pair of bird legs you would hardly believe could generate the power that made Coppi ‘il campionissimo,’ nearly untouchable on the road between 1949 and 1952, and the unquestioned top cyclist on this big blue marble in many of the preceding and successive years as well.
If one were to take the palmares of the top five or six riders in history and set them side-by-side, it would be hard not to conclude that Eddy Merckx is number one. In this exercise, Coppi would drift down the standings somwhere between Hinault and Anquetil. But this is the stuff of paper and statistics and apples and oranges and oddly colored fish on impossible bicycles. It’s nonsense.
Coppi won the Giro d’ Italia in 1940 and set the Hour Record in ’42. He then went off to war in North Africa where he was taken prisoner and lived in a POW camp. He didn’t race again, properly, until ’46, three seasons later. That year he won Milan – San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia, the Grand Prix des Nations, the Giro della Romagna and three stages of the Giro d’Italia. He won the overall again in ’47. Thereafter, he won everything in front of him, Spring Classics, Grand Tours, a World Championship. He was a climber of legendary ability, his signature move being to attack on a hard climb, distance the field and finish minutes before the next rider, alone, as they say, in photo.
It is difficult to separate Coppi from the history of Italy at that time or, for that matter, from the history of professional bicycling. While he, along with great rival Gino Bartali, gave Italians something to cheer about in the bleak post-war years, he also revolutionized bike racing, developing new standards for nutrition, rest, recovery, and preparation. He was a great contributor to modern team tactics at a time when the Grand Tours were just beginning to embrace the notion of competing teams rather than individual cyclists.
I would argue that, given back those three seasons during WWII, and without the toll of disease and ill-nutrition that POW camps and wartime rationing imposed on him, he would have set a standard that Merckx would have strained to see, even from his lofty perch.
For these reasons and many others, Coppi is my favorite cyclist of all time. Though I never saw him race, perhaps even BECAUSE I never saw him race, Coppi represents the absolute apex of what it means to be a PRO cyclist. He is a man who really did transcend himself, both athletically and culturally. With Coppi there are myths and legends, because we don’t always have the concrete language to describe the things he achieved.
I could go on and on, but you’ve read all this before by other people’s hands.
This week’s Group Ride seeks to leave behind the troubling times of our current top cyclists and would-be legends. What we want to know is: Who is your favorite cyclist of all time, and why?
Rhapsodize, my friends. Wax poetic.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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.