All the big teams have had their presentations for the 2010 season. The season’s goals have been laid out, some publicly, some not as. So what’s likely to happen?
I got to thinking about what I’d like to happen. There are probably a great many of you who think I’ll be at the prologue of the Tour with sniper rifle trained on Alberto Contador. My equipment will be loaded, to be sure, but only with a 2 gig memory card.
Would it be interesting to see Cav win Milan San-Remo going away from the field? Sure. Would it be amazing to see Tomeke equal Roger DeVlaeminck’s record at Paris-Roubaix? Absolutely. Would it be great to see Contador battle Armstrong and Schleck until the field quit in submission? Truly, it would be riveting.
There’s just one problem. Not one of these outcomes would be surprising. Even those of you who hate Armstrong with the level of detestation ordinarily reserved for the intestinal flu must admit that an Armstrong victory is a possibility, no matter how damnable you think that version of the future might be.
And so, with five hours of me, a bike and an average heartrate lower than the speeds I drove as an irresponsible youth, I thought about the coming season.
Obsessed may be more like it.
I asked myself how I’d feel about Cav winning in San-Remo. Blah. Tomeke enter the velodrome in Roubaix alone? Equal parts thrilled and bored. Contador in yellow in Paris? Less ennui than I felt when Indurain won his third, if pleased to see him equal Thevenet’s and LeMond’s record. What if Armstrong stood atop the podium. Stunned. Plain damn stunned. Can you think of another rider that more teams will be riding against at the Tour? Has there ever been another rider that more teams will have deliberately ridden against? Did Merckx inspire that kind of opposition in anyone other than DeVlaeminck?
The answer, in my case, is that I just want some surprises. I don’t really mean of the Dirk Demol or Jean-Marie Wampers variety, you know a guy who doesn’t even get named as a dark horse, but rather, a guy who is a 10 to 1 or a 20 to 1.
It means seeing a break succeed at Milan-San Remo or—better yet—a tactical checkmate that leaves Quick Step chasing all the way to Roubaix—and off the podium. Not that I’ve got anything against them, I just want some finishes that I would never have guessed. And given the enormous limitations of my memory and creativity, it really shouldn’t be that hard.
So what would it require? Well, here’s the thing that occurred to me somewhere around Hollywood’s coastal outpost, better known as the Colony: Race outcomes were more uncertain—say it with me, people—before race radios.
There is plenty of dislike for race radios among the RKP readership as it is. I’ve straddled the line. Those of you who have been readers of VeloNews for a long time may recall Bob Roll’s account of riding the Giro d’Italia in the 1980s and entering an unlit tunnel only to plow into a pile of bricks in the middle of the road and fall in a puddle of diesel. Race radios might have helped him. They have done much to help team directors alert riders of coming course difficulties. On the other hand, the race courses are generally better scouted and selected today.
What of TVs in the cars? Honestly, I think these are as much a problem as the race radios. Do you suppose the team directors would be ordering their riders to the front to pedal hard quite as often if they couldn’t see live feeds of the race on TV in their cars?
So back to the old question. Should race radios be banned? If the team directors had less information about exactly what was happening from one moment to the next they might not bark quite so many instructions to their riders, ordering them to the front to ride.
Had radios been in use in ’88 and ’89 it is highly unlikely Dirk Demol and Jean-Marie Wampers would have stayed away to win Paris-Roubaix, and while I was non-plussed that a rider I had never heard of won Paris-Roubaix in ’89, I’d be grateful to see more uncertainty injected back into the racing.
So one thing is certain: At the very least, the TVs ought to be outlawed, even if the radios persist. It’s a miracle, if minor, that some DS, apoplectic over his riders’ inaction in the face of an attack, hasn’t crashed his car while glued to the feed.
Meh. So there it is, I’ve come around to wanting race radios banned from the peloton. I want the TVs yanked out of the cars, the radios left at home and team staff forbidden from watching TV at some hotel and calling the DS to update him on just what’s on the tube. So maybe the cell phones should go—just during the race, mind you—as well.
I risk seeming a Luddite. I’m not against technology, but what I want to avoid is the near constant feedback that tells the pack they are bearing down on the breakaway. The GPS data that reveals what the gap to the break is—5:10, 5:05, 5:03, etc.—is tantamount to the live TV feed. While it’s great for the home audience, I’d like to see anything that can give precise enough feedback to let the pack know the gap is coming down 10 seconds per kilometer find its way to Salvation Army.
After all, shouldn’t part of racing be based on your ability to do math when you’re at or above your lactate threshold?
So what’s going to happen? The call for radios to be banned will grow louder, that is what’s going to happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There is a covenant between us. The pros suffer. We watch. They will not suffer if we do not watch. We will not watch if they do not suffer. Some of us take this a step further. We suffer too. We suffer to understand ourselves, but also to understand their suffering. It puts their exploits in perspective and bonds us to them.
What is this transaction? Is it fan and competitor? Is it sadist and masochist? Entertainer and audience? All of those and more?
To be sure, there is art in cycling. Some riders have the tactical nous to achieve victories without being the strongest in the race. I’m thinking of Sylvain Chavanel, Phillipe Gilbert and perhaps Heinrich Haussler from the current peleton. Other riders find ways to turn their pure strength into spectacle. Now I’ve got Thor Hushovd, Fabian Cancellara and Mark Cavendish in mind. Finally, there are the sufferers, those who push themselves out into the red. These are the riders who win the Grand Tours, Contador, Armstrong, even Cadel Evans, on some level. There is no rider offering a red kite prayer who is not creating something from his or her capacity to suffer.
There is an audacity to suffering. Who dares go beyond the red?
There is a Kafka short story titled, “A Hunger Artist.” The main character is a once popular performer of fasts, a hunger artist, who falls out of favor with the public. Fasting is no longer appreciated. His straw strewn cage moves slowly from the center of proceedings out to the periphery of the circus. Eventually, the crowds walk by without so much as noticing his shrunken form. He pushes on regardless, starving himself to death, only to be buried in a hastily dug grave, along with the straw from his cage. He is replaced in the cage by a sleek panther.
This is, I believe, Kafka’s view of the artist in general, that he is made to suffer to earn his bread, but at some point the bread and the art get separated. The true artist goes on. He suffers to the end of the performance, regardless.
And so, looking back at the peleton, we can understand the popularity of a rider like Jens Voigt or Kurt Asle Arvesen or even Franco Pellizotti. These are riders who put it out on the line, that push at the edges of what’s possible, but do it for the sake of the thing. They aim less at winning races than they do at creating a story about themselves, a story of noble struggle, or purifying suffering.
I read an interview once with Jens Voigt (the King of Suffering), and the interviewer asked, “What sort of conditions are good for you to win a race?” I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the original. And Voigt responded, “When it’s rainy, windy and cold, it’s good for me. Basically, when things are bad for everyone else, they’re good for me.”
On another occasion Voigt described his strategy as basically throwing everyone into a blender of suffering, including himself, and seeing what comes out the other side.
As this winter descends on the colder climes (I’m exempting SoCal from that category, Padraig!), and the suffering ratchets up a notch or ten, I will think of what I’m doing, of what other riders are doing, as art. And as surely as no one hands me a bouquet when I walk through the door of the office, much less kisses me on each cheek, I will be satisfied with what I’ve done and know it’s more than simple hobby or transport.
I’m telling a story with my suffering. I tell it every day with the succinctness of a nickname. Robot. Robots don’t get cold. Robots don’t suffer. I’ve forged an identity from the way I ride, often alone, in the dark, into the wind. This is New England, after all.
Writing those words is much, much easier than riding them. Believe me. In my writing, I share my experiences, and you evaluate the truth of what I write, and you accept my suffering (maybe), and it bonds us (I hope).
We create this thing together.
How many saddle sores do we need to reach this point, and how much lactic acid do we need to be carrying? Is it uphill all the way? Is there a headwind? Will someone pace us? Will the echelons string across road like accordions of mercy and deliver us, just as a hole develops in the heel of our old wool socks?
Will the Earth spin under our wheels, and will all the trees blur into one, tall green spire? Will our chains run dry and our cables stretch thin on our way to this place?
In my mind, I can see it. The sweat soaks all the way out the brim of my cap and the lycra lets hold its grip. The road turns up and disappears, asymptotic in the distance. There’s a rasp in my chest and a creaking in my bars, and I used my last spare tube hours ago. It doesn’t matter, because the side walls of these thins tires are nearly gone. I’ve gone sallow in the cheeks, almost gray. I blend into the winter-bleached asphalt, pebbly and rough. And cars swish by, oblivious, the radio on too loud.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International