I’m just young enough that the movie and television Westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s escaped me. Even when Daniel Boone, Bonanza and other shows of the genre went into reruns, I never got the bug. I didn’t play cowboys and Indians; my friends and I were the third-grade equivalent of WWII re-enactors.
However, my father was a big fan of the Westerns and a few years ago we visited the Gene Autry Museum. It was a curious place to me. I find 10-gallon hats odd in the same way most folks think cycling shorts are strange. Among the things we encountered was a display with Autry’s Cowboy Code. I knew nothing of Autry’s reputation as the gentleman cowboy and on first reading, I found the code to be quaint.
Here’s Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code:
1) The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2) He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3) He must always tell the truth.
4) He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
5) He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6) He must help people in distress.
7) He must be a good worker.
8) He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
9) He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
10) The Cowboy is a patriot.
The opportunities for ridicule and comedy are just too plentiful and easy. See rule 1.
I read it a second time and was reminded of the Boy Scouts’ Laws (trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent … yes, I still remember them).
As I considered them further, I began to see that the code reflected many of my views on how I believe I should behave on group rides. As I’m only slightly more exemplary a citizen than Rod Blagojevich, let me say this is what I aspire to.
We’ll take them as a David Letterman-style top-10 list:
10) The rider is a patriot. I take this to mean representing my team well. I’m not going out swaddled in stars and stripes on each ride, but I think I do have a responsibility to try not to be a d@#$ (always), especially when I’m in my team’s kit.
9) He must respect women, parents and his nation’s laws. While most of the women riders I know I’ve been riding with for at least 10 years (and the last thing they want from me is pity masquerading as chivalry), every now and then a new woman shows up. I do what I can to helpful. Parents? Still don’t know where that one fits, but respecting my nation’s laws I translate as sticking with the group’s etiquette. This means not blowing a red light if the group is stopping, and it also means not stopping at the stop sign if the group is rolling and there are riders behind me.
8) He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits. There is little hope for my thoughts, so we’ll just move along. As for speech, this is one I have to work on. Once, at the turnaround for a TTT, my teammate leading into the turn stood up and sprinted away from us and the rest of us were still rounding the cone. I unleashed a shotgun spray of expletives intended to slow him down; all it did was come within a couple of quarks of getting us disqualified. How clean are my actions and personal habits? I’m not doing anything that could be construed as doping. No problems there.
7) He must be a good worker. This one is obvious isn’t it? Get to the front and do your turn. That’s been harder of late, but I’ve never been one to shirk my pull. I’ll kill myself for a teammate. Love that stuff.
6) He must help people in distress. I usually stop for riders in my group who flat, but admit there are times when something else short-circuits me and I don’t pull over. I always feel embarrassed later. I often stop for riders I don’t know, though on one occasion I was with a friend and we asked a guy if he had everything. He responded, “If I did, do you think I’d be standing here?” As smart-ass goes, it was pretty funny, and we decided he should get the chance to use the line on some other folks. Maybe not the best choice.
5) He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas. ‘Nuff said. That stuff doesn’t play well anywhere.
4) He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals. For me, this refers to the care I take when I’m riding on the bike path or through residential and retail areas where there are people about. Charging down the bike path in my big ring at noon ranks on the morality scale way ahead of Goldman Sachs partner, but it still isn’t cool.
3) He must always tell the truth. I’ve been known to tell a fib or two (per day), but for me, this one, again, resonates with doping. Not really a problem where group rides are concerned, but because this is aspirational and my aspirations key on the PROs, that’s how my sense of truth in cycling is tuned.
2) He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him. I suck at this. It’s not that I can’t be taken in confidence, the problem is when I say I’ll show up on a ride, what I mean is that I intend to be there. A lousy night of sleep for me, my wife or the little guy can derail my plans like a toy train swatted by a cat. Diseases go double. I mean to be there, even when I’m glad I’m not rolling out of the garage.
1) The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage. Okay, there are exceptions to everything and this is no … nevermind. If you don’t attack first, then you have, at best, counter attacked. Now, I see hitting a smaller man in more metaphoric terms; I see this in terms of hitting the ill-equipped: Don’t attack a newcomer or Fred. In other words, don’t bring a gun to a knife fight.
As for the last element, the admonition not to take an unfair advantage, I see this as the ultimate gentleman litmus test. If you hear the sound of people crashing, do you attack? I have to admit when I was a new racer, I’d drill it when I heard grinding metal. I soon realized that once I really knew my competition I wanted to make sure that if we didn’t all get to the finish together it needed to be for sporting reasons. On those occasions the riders most likely to finish ahead of me flatted out, I discounted my performance in my head.
Opinions varied wildly about Alberto Contador’s counter attack to Andy Schleck’s attack during stage 15 of the Tour, and the incident is a subtext to this post that can be scarcely avoided. On a training ride, attacking when another rider has crashed strikes me as inexcusable. In racing, when a career is on the line, I can understand that someone might not choose to wait. Waiting is nothing short of classy, but racing rarely rewards class. But what is more PRO than class?
Still, if Tyler Farrar wins a sprint, I will cheer more if he comes off Mark Cavendish’s wheel, rather than if Mark Cavendish’s wheel comes off.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
One got the sense from watching the finish of Stage 12, the extended confrontation between Julian Dean and Mark Renshaw and the subsequent reaction of the commissaires, that TdF officials were more embarrassed and angry than anything else. The ouster of Renshaw from the race seemed more of an emotional reaction than a calmly reasoned one. “How could you sully our race with this behavior?” might have been the question. The answer was an emphatic, “Ce n’est pas possible. (It’s not possible).”
No one that I’ve spoken with believes relegating Renshaw was uncalled for. His expulsion is another thing. Many respondents thought Dean also should have been relegated, and a case could probably be made, except that Dean’s actions (leaning and pushing) were probably just this side of the line, whereas Renshaw’s were pretty clearly over.
Common sense wanted the race jury to vacate the result of the sprint, to take Mark Cavendish’s win as a punishment for Renshaw, but the rules don’t allow for that sort of remedy. Riders are individuals, except when they’re not.
They probably ought to have relegated Cavendish as well. While Cavendish isn’t responsible for his lead out, he does benefit. Sprinting confers individual glory, but it’s a team pursuit. The winnings that come along with a victory get distributed. The net effect of Renshaw’s cheating was his teammate’s win. As when a defender’s error in soccer (football) gets punished with a penalty kick, the sanction applies to the whole team. Did race officials consider that relegating Cavendish would have disproportionately affected the green jersey competition? Maybe.
To lose Renshaw from the race is a shame. The Australian is a great rider and a good teammate, and as fans we would have benefited from more battles between him and Dean. For the sake of posterity, Cavendish won the bunch sprint in Stage 13, pegging back those (like yours truly) who believed he was neutered without Renshaw’s pull. It must have been a hammer blow, psychologically, for Dean and his Garmin team who lost Tyler Farrar to injury the same day.
The further question of how to react to such a sanction is difficult. Rolf Aldag’s assertion that Renshaw was the victim rang hollow. Impugning Dean at that point was pointless. What Cavendish did in the next day’s bunch sprint seemed a much better retort.
Now about Andy Schleck’s chain…?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The best lead out man in the business, Mark Renshaw, didn’t race his bicycle today. Given that the Tour de France was pointed uphill for Stage 13 means the Australian wasn’t going to do that thing he does anyway, but Mark Cavendish must have been awfully lonely in the laughing group.
Renshaw, of course, was relegated and expelled from the Tour after yesterday’s sprint finish to Stage 12. Coming into the final straight, Julian Dean of Garmin-Transitions began leaning into Renshaw, trying to clear some space for his sprinter, Tyler Farrar to come around. Dean was also, probably, trying to limit the amount of space Renshaw and Cavendish had to work in. Renshaw found himself suddenly behind Dean’s shoulder. Leaning back into his rival would only have pushed him backwards, so Renshaw struck out with his head, once, twice, three times, and then, glancing over his left shoulder to see that Farrar was coming around on the other side, he veered across the Garmin fast man’s line, effectively closing him out of the sprint. Cavendish cruised to victory.
See the video here.
In the brief time between the end of the stage and the ruling being handed down, most commentators expressed the belief that Renshaw would be relegated (i.e. given last place) and fined for his extraordinary behavior. Some, but certainly not all, were surprised to hear the Columbia rider was ejected from the race altogether.
The UCI rules governing sprints are not very detailed. Riders are prohibited from intentionally riding across each others lanes, and relegations for this infraction are not uncommon. See Abdoujaparov, Djamolidine.
Renshaw’s expulsion can be attributed, not to his closing out of Farrar, which would have earned a relegation, but to his head-butting of Dean, Tour officials taking the stance that such violent behavior poses a serious risk to surrounding riders in the high-speed chaos of a bunch sprint. Furthermore, given that Cavendish won the stage, officials weren’t content with a simple relegation, as it might have encouraged lead out men to court relegation as a reasonable means to stifling rivals in the closing meters.
What the rules don’t allow for is sanctioning Cavendish for something his teammate did, which puts officials in a tough spot as regards ensuring a fair result for all involved. It would only be too easy to DQ Columbia en mass and promote everyone who finished behind, but, in addition to being outside the purview of the rules, such a resolution raises more questions of fairness than it answers.
Today’s Group Ride asks what you think? Were the commissaires too harsh in kicking Renshaw out of the Tour? Or was his behavior over the line? Given the generally rough nature of bunch sprints, was the expulsion an overreaction to the overt violence (as opposed to the usual covert elbowing) of Renshaw’s lead out? Or is it high time that Columbia’s win-at-all costs sprint gets pegged back a bit? And even if you do think his behavior was over the line, should a team always circle the wagons and defend their riders, or should they admit if they crossed a line?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Well this is one time the FGR won’t be settled immediately. We’ve got nearly two weeks to see how this will shake out, but they are, after all, two weeks we’ve been waiting for since last August.
Interestingly, in your comments, There’s really only consensus on two classifications. With two exceptions each, everyone thinks that Thor Hushovd will take the green jersey, just as he did last year, and Andy Schleck will double up on the white jersey as well.
Alberto Contador was the only rider to come up with more than one vote for the yellow jersey, so it seems we must acknowledge that he remains the favorite. Interestingly, Andy Schleck was the only rider to get votes in three classifications: overall, mountains and best young rider. An inobservant reader might believe that to be an indication of his completeness as a rider, but it really doesn’t back us into a larger belief that he has the potential to wear yellow in Paris.
Eight stages in, a new question is worth asking: With Lance Armstrong’s GC hopes dashed, Christian Vande Velde out of the race, Bradley Wiggins unable to deliver as he did last year in the blue, white and orange of Garmin, if we assume that Contador, Evans and Schleck are the likely podium, who do you think will round out the top five or six?
Armstrong’s demise also spells out a very surprising development: Levi Leipheimer is finally the GC leader for a Johan Bruyneel-led team at the Tour de France. I don’t think anyone ever thought those three details would line up. It’s as if a one-armed bandit came up Bar-Bar-Bar for Santa Rosa’s favorite athlete. Go figure.
And as a corollary to my previous question, do you think Ryder Hesjedal can pull off what Wiggins did last year? Sky doesn’t seem to have figured out Wiggo the way Vaughters and White did. Rather an interesting development, given the way he badmouthed Garmin on his way out.
Desire has a way of informing our senses, giving us taste even before a thing is served. Our longing has a way of making us focus, making each detail of preparation a ceremony.
We wait. We look for opportunity. We wait.
And while any meal can sustain us, true hunger is a craving that cannot be sated by just any snack. It is why second place on a stage does not appear on the podium—there is no substitute for the win, which is like saffron—elusive and expensive.
The theatrics of Mark Cavendish’s victory salutes following his first win in the 2009 Tour de France told us nothing of the satisfaction that comes with a win on the world’s biggest stage. They were calculated to stroke sponsors that support him and his team. There’s nothing wrong with showing your appreciation for a sponsor, but what we expect in a victory salute is a statement. The winner’s salute should be an expression of unbridled emotion—the very antithesis of calculation.
Where does a win fit in the experience of a great rider? For some, it can be a surprise. Others may find the experience a triumph, an exaltation. The finish line may bring relief or it may be the stamp of domination.
Five stages in, Mark Cavendish has taken his first win of the 2010 Tour de France. His expression says that it might as be the first win of the season, if not of his career. In showing us unvarnished emotion Cavendish has made a gift of his win. Sharing with us the monkey-off-his-back relief and the satisfaction of vanquishing not one but two prior stage winners.
We knew how much he wanted this. Watch the victor feast.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Every now and then you ask a question that serves up its own seemingly obvious answer. Like the time I was in high school and called the local radio station to see what time they’d play the midnight album. The DJ hung up on me.
Stage 1 of the Amgen Tour of California was designed for the sprinters and to the degree that you prefer the obvious or unsurprising, Mark Cavendish of HTC-Columbia served up a win on schedule just like he’s been doing all season.
Oh, wait. Scratch that. He had a lousy spring thanks to an infected tooth and his teammate André Greipel bitched about being the better sprinter and being banished to the Giro when he ought to be the team’s chosen sprintmeister in the main event.
He’d probably have a case if he had scored even one stage win in Italy. As a result, the look of satisfaction and pleasure on Cavendish’s face looked … genuine. Having an adoring audience seems to matter to him.
You wonder if Cavendish won a sprint with no audience present if he’d celebrate as visibly. If a tree falls in the forest….
It’s hard to know how the land of chaos can transmit video while a sophisticated production in California can’t. Let’s just file this under “bygones” and go with the belief that it won’t rain again this week.
On to those catalogs.
Most of the love we heard for catalogs were for the old Bridgestone catalogs produced by Grant Peterson back in the 1990s before the Japanese manufacturer pulled the plug on its American bike operation.
Let’s try that again: For most of you, your favorite catalog hasn’t been printed in roughly 15 years. If I didn’t know better, I’d accuse each of you of being the paper equivalent of a luddite. But that’s not the case. Anyone who ever saw a Bridgestone catalog came to appreciate almost immediately just how insightful and involved the catalog was. It was created by people who cared as much about cycling as a means of personal expression as they did the bicycle as an extension of beauty.
The only present-day catalog that anyone expressed any affection for was Rapha’s. And while I had never considered the possibility that the old Bridgestone catalog had something in common with the Rapha catalog of today, it’s easy to see the parallel. Stylishly evocative imagery evokes less the perception of a premium brand than a particular outlook on cycling itself. Ultimately, you’re sold on your own love of the sport rather than just some cool piece of gear.
I suppose it’s not so much different from prostitution, which is generally sold on your imagination of the events to follow, rather than your attraction for the specific service provider. Between our increasing environmentalism and our desire to be sold on our own love, that may explain why the big mail order outfits don’t attract the same level of excitement they used to enjoy.
Oh, and for those of you who want to win some stickers, you need to step up your efforts; SinglespeedJarv nabbed them for the second week in a row.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
The peloton is coming! The peloton is coming! In the Land Down Under, Oz, the country formerly known as “Penal Colony,” hearty souls are already cranking their cranks in anger. The TDU is nigh. Rider itineraries are leaking out into the starved press. The softer among them are shivering in an unseasonably cold Spain. The harder are training in Belgium (Hello, Stijn Devolder!).
And you, our avid and ardent and aardvark-like readership, are spinning your rollers and braving your weathers and thinking about all the kilometers you hope to pass beneath your rubbery roundnesses over this 365 day period we call the “year.”
In other words, all is well and right in the cycling universe.
Given that we are in this nice, soft, clean spot in the calendar, the season stretching before us tabula rasa-styley, let’s take a moment to express wholly subjective opinions about the quality of the thing we are yet to see. Here is this weeks question:
In your (possibly) humble opinion, will the 2010 pro cycling season be better or worse than 2009? Why?
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
There’s a sequence in the great La Course en Tete, the documentary on Eddy Merckx, in which the filmmakers show a sprint unfold in a head-on view as the riders barrel toward the finish line. To a rider, their cadences are north of 120 rpm and they rock their bikes side-to-side hardly at all. In fact, each and every sprint in the film or any film of the era have something in common. The bunch sprints of the day are displays of redline agility, typified by furious pedaling in wound-out gears.
In another segment in the film the Cannibal climbs on a set of rollers in his garage. They consist of large drums, at least 15cm in diameter, and Merckx rolls them up to centrifuge speeds until his bike is bouncing on those drums. For those who watch carefully, Merckx’ frame flexes under his effort and his bottom bracket sways as if there was a wind stiff enough to torque the frame.
To my eye, these efforts feature two limiters: agility and frame stiffness. Cultivating the agility necessary to pedal 150 rpm is an incredible challenge for many riders. To hold that kind of cadence for more than a second or two is superhuman. It’s fair to ask why riders needed to pedal that fast. The fact is simple: the only way for a rider to generate his full wattage was to do so by pedaling a relatively small gear at gyroscopic speeds. Big gears caused riders to flex the frame too much, making the bike harder to handle. Rocking the bike exacerbated the flex issue.
So what has changed in 25 years? Quite a lot, when you add it all up.
First is the frame and fork. The difference between a 28.6mm-wide down tube and a down tube measuring more than 60mm in diameter is enormous, but that change didn’t happen overnight. Increases in stiffness occurred gradually and an increase in stiffness in one part of a bike showed a weakness elsewhere in the bike. It was only after frames became stiff enough that you couldn’t make the chain rub the front derailleur when in the big ring that frame twist became an issue.
But of course, the frame and fork were only the starting point. Rims were beefed up, and spoke tensions rose, decreasing the need to tie and solder them at crossings. Bars and stems got a dose of stiffening as did crank arms. And let’s not forget the changes to both pedals and shoes that increased a rider’s ability to deliver power to the bike.
All these changes can be summed up in a single part: The 11-tooth cog. Greater stiffness meant that bigger gears could be used, and while for the most part sprint speeds did inevitably rise, the bigger change was that more meat in the drivetrain brought cadences down.
It’s inaccurate to say that the riders are more agile now, but the drop in cadence has given riders a greater degree of control. While I haven’t conducted a survey of sprint finishes over the last 40 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found that crashes in final sprints had actually gone down.
More than anything, what changes in bicycle technology has given us is the ability for an athlete to show his full potential in the final 200 meters of a race. A sprint, after all, should not be defined by a rider’s ability to refine movement and flex the bike no more than can be controlled, rather, it should be a measure of his full power.
Cavendish 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