I hadn’t planned on doing a second review of Rapha products right on the heels of my first, and it might not be fair to insert them into the current controversy with Lance Armstrong, but I suspect everyone knows which line of the sand they’re on.
If you be hatin’ on Tour winners who doped, hit the “back” button now.
If you’re over that and dig cool designs that draw their inspiration from the five most successful of the Tour de France champions, you gotta check these shirts out.
The creators-that-be at Rapha noticed a little something one day in discussing previous Tour champions. For each of the last five decades the rider who won the race in a year ending in the number two went on to win the race four other times … at least. Armstrong was the victor in ’02. Miguel Indurain was the man in ’92. Bernard Hinault takes the honors for ’82. In ’72 it was Eddy Merckx, of course, And ’62? That was the great Jacques Anquetil. The shirts, then, are dubbed the Cinq Decennies de Champions—the five decades of champions.
So will this year’s victor enjoy a similar streak? Who knows? We’re not going to settle that this month … or even this year.
The world is full of crappy T-shirts with barely more thought afforded to their design than the garden-variety reality show. These shirts are the West Wing of T-shirts. Witty, smart, insider and aimed at those invested in the whole series, each of the creations speaks to the history of the rider. The shirt colors evoke the designs of their best-recalled teams. Better yet, at the top of the back of each shirt, a small icon appears. The The icons recall details like Indurain’s legendarily low resting heart rate or, in the case of Merckx, a variation on the skull and crossbones to recall his nickname, the Cannibal. And in another stroke meant to speak to the cycling roots behind these designs, the shirts sport a pocket, only it’s not a breast pocket; it’s in back, practically on the hip.
Rapha claims that the shirts are constructed of an ultra-wicking cotton. I can’t really speak to how well it wicks as I never wore it in a sauna (or outside when I went back to Memphis). What I can tell you is that they travel well. I’m not wild about pulling a shirt from a suitcase only to realize it’s too wrinkled to wear. Even after a there-and-back I noticed the Merckx shirt was prêt á porter.
At $60 a pop, these are the most expensive T-shirts I’ve ever encountered. Kinda no other way to slice it, huh? The flip side of this is calling these shirts T-shirts is something of an insult. Never in my life have I owned a T-shirt made from such a fine cotton. And if I could source a shirt this nice for the RKP designs, believe me, I’d consider it. These things are likely to become heirlooms in my family.
Should you wish to go in for the full collection, there’s good news. You can get all five shirts plus a stylish (like it would be anything else) musette bag for the price of four shirts—$240.
I’ve always liked the passion behind Rapha products, but these shirts may be the best marriage of their passion, design work and concept of quality I’ve seen.
Les Woodland climbed aboard his old Carlton bike to take a nostalgia trip across Belgium and Holland to visit some of cycling’s greatest riders. Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years tells the story of that journey he took in the early 1990s and the time he spent with some of the finest riders from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Among those he visited were Rik van Steenbergen, Rik van Looy, Hennie Kuiper, Peter Post and the great Jan Janssen.
When Franco Bitossi was asked his impression of Jan Janssen, he was succinct: “Un artista della bicicletta, he could do what he wanted with his bike.”
Janssen’s palmarès is eloquent. Here are the high points:
1962 Championship of Zurich, 1964 World Pro Road Champion, 1964 Paris–Nice (GC and points), 1965 Tour of The Netherlands, 1964 and 1965 TDF points, 1966 Bordeaux– Paris, 2nd 1966 Tour de France, 1967 Paris–Roubaix, 1967 Vuelta a España (again GC and points), 1967 Super Prestige Pernod, 1968 Tour de France GC, plus a couple of 6-Days. He could beat you anywhere, any time, single-day, stage race or track.
Here’s Les’ telling of his visit with Jan Janssen from Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years.—Bill McGann
JAN JANSSEN (1940– )
I never sensed I’d have difficulty with Jan Janssen. It’s funny how much you go by appearances. I remembered this open-faced chap who never looked angry but always wore sunglasses. You never saw him quoted as saying very much, but then that was probably because most cycling reporters were French and Belgian and Janssen was one of the few Dutchmen.
The French must have felt odd about him, anyway, because he made such a point of riding in French teams. He won for them, but he also kept good honest Frenchmen out of the limelight. That is difficult to resolve in France.
He wasn’t at home when I rang. His wife answered and said he’d be in Germany when I suggested visiting, but he’d be back if I could leave it to the afternoon. He’d be delighted to see me. I thought my judgments about him were coming true.
I knew Putte because it was where I went for my supermarket shopping when I lived in a neighboring village. The border runs through the middle, so south of what used to be the customs check and lorry park you’ll see a mishmash of pubs, shops and houses, and on the northern end the buildings have the eerie conformity of Holland.
Town planning is something that came late to Belgium, but it suits both nations’ characters to have things as they are—the happy-go-lucky, haphazard Belgians and the more worrying, better organized Dutch. The last pro race of the lowland season, the Sluitingsprijs, is in the southern half. You’ll see the village listed as Putte-Kapellen, which is what the Belgians call it. There’s no race at the Dutch end but when they have a carnival, the fun fair takes over the whole village.
I rode through what remained of Belgium through sandy heaths and small villages as far as Kalmthout. I rode a circuit past my old house for old time’s sake and noted that the current residents are better gardeners than I ever was. Then I turned down through a little place called Heide to cross into Holland. Only a change in car number plates gave the border away.
I reached Putte alongside the Wip Er In sex shops (“Pop in”, it means, but it looks better in Dutch), turned right past one of the ubiquitous Albert Heijn supermarkets, and rode up through the herring stalls, poffertje makers (a small sweet pancake) and on to a road on the right called Postlaan. And there, several hundred yards on the left, is the factory where Jan Janssen makes bikes. He’s parted with the company since my visit, but that’s all that’s changed since he won the Tour de France. He looks barely different. And until Greg LeMond’s tussle with Laurent Fignon in Paris in 1989, this trim, bespectacled, blond-haired Dutchman held the record for the closest victory of all.
Jan Janssen moved to Putte at the start of 1969, from Ossendrecht further up the road. His baby, also Jan, had just been born. Jan Janssen is the equivalent of John Smith in England or Paddy Murphy in Ireland. His house is called Mon Repos, recognizing that Janssen was always the most French of the Dutch riders—Pelforth, Bic, all French.
In 1968, it was surprising that he was having lunch at Melun. There was nearly no Tour de France at all that year. The Americans were bombing Saigon, Martin Luther King was shot dead and President De Gaulle flew home from an interrupted tour of Romania to deal with student rioting on the streets of Paris.
That riot, one of several around the world as young people struggled against their governments, were against the central and stifling authority of the French state, which controlled not just the radio and television stations but much else that could encourage progressive thinking. Cobble stones flew and the dead and injured were transferred hourly to hospital by the dozen.
For a while it seemed all France might flare up. There were secondary riots in provincial towns of what was then the most centralized of states. And the greatest symbol outside the government of the Old Way, the traditional of the mighty against the freethinking, was the Tour de France—“that gaudy monument to capitalism,” as the communist L’Humanité called it.
Astonishingly, the riots stopped to allow the peloton to pass. And then they resumed.
At Melun, just before Paris, Janssen was 16 seconds back from Herman van Springel, the maillot jaune. He, Janssen and another Belgian, Ferdi Bracke, were all within three minutes. Just the time-trial into the capital remained. Bracke, a man capable of the world hour record, should have won. But the Gray Eminence, so called because of his prematurely lightened hair, tended to stage fright, flopping on the big occasion. Success wasn’t predictable. By contrast Janssen had the calmness of Dutch tradition. A nation saved by a small boy’s finger in a sea wall (an American story, incidentally, little known in Holland) doesn’t panic at a 30-mile time trial.
Janssen was one of the last three to start. The also-rans were showered and changed in Paris and had returned in their suits or tracksuits to watch the play-off of the biggest drama the postwar Tour had known.
It took 54,600 meters to make the decision. At the end, Janssen had 54 seconds on van Springel, still more on Bracke. He had won the Tour de France. That final yellow jersey was the only one he had worn. His 38 seconds were the smallest winning margin until Greg LeMond.
Even so, Janssen was a winner whom Geoffrey Nicholson called among “the more forgettable”, along with Lucien Aimar and Roger Pingeon. But Nicholson, a fair judge of men, was comparing him to Anquetil. And certainly, if the manner of his success was not crushing in the way of Anquetil or Coppi, then at least he left the race in suspense and not the foregone conclusion that so often visited it when Eddy Merckx or Miguel Indurain was riding.
It also began a happy sequence in which, every 21 years, the Tour put on a show. In 1947, no bookmakers would take bets on Pierre Brambilla winning, so secure were his chances on the last day. More than that, tradition demanded the maillot jaune was allowed his glory, undisturbed by petty attacks. But under his nose, the Breton Jean Robic—“like a little old man in glasses with a helmet like half a dozen sausages on his head”—bobbed off on a hill out of Rouen and got enough of a lead to stand on the uppermost level of the podium at the finish.
Twenty-one years after Janssen also won on the last day, LeMond fitted his aerodynamic tribars to ride to Paris and beat Fignon.
But for Janssen even those memories aren’t enough. Nor is his rainbow jersey from 1964, won by beating Vittorio Adorni and Raymond Poulidor in a sprint at Sallanches. There is sadness in his voice. “In 1969, I said I shall ride for another three or four years at most.” He was 29 then. “I want to quit when I’m on top. It will never be a question of my giving up when I can no longer hang on. I know when to call it a day.”
There is sadness because that day came more quickly than he believed. Maybe he told me this because he was tired from the journey back from Germany, or maybe he just felt it anyway. But he said it all the same.
“To be honest, I had no more ambitions. It was all traveling, racing, and the results weren’t as good any more. And the older you are, the more you have to prepare—train further, train more, look after yourself more, and I couldn’t face all that.
“And then in ’71, I was already doing a bit less—criteriums, smaller races, no Tour de France, which I found a bitter blow—and then, ja, I decided to give up. I was just another of the hundred or so nameless riders in the peloton. And then one day I was in the Tour of Luxembourg, in 1972, and I heard on the radio from one of the motorbike marshals: ‘Winner of the stage…’ I forget the name now…‘With the peloton at 15 minutes, with Jan Janssen’ and so on. And I can’t tell you what a blow that was. Jan Janssen, at 15 minutes? Winner of the Tour de France, former world champion, winner of Paris–Roubaix, winner of Paris–Nice, all the big races? That couldn’t be. And there and then I decided to do a couple more and then hup, I was done.”
We sat in the small works canteen next to the workshop. Staff came and went, among them his teenage son, who races in the black and white stripes of the Zuidwest Hoek club (“southwest corner”) in Bergen-op-Zoom. The three of us laughed and chatted for a moment and spoke of mutual friends. Janssen puffed on a cigarette, just as he did when he was racing. It’s only away from the European mainland that cycling was seen as a route to health; on the Continent it has never been more than a route to money. Janssen smokes, van Est smokes, and Eddy Merckx made an income advertising packets of Belga.
Janssen confessed it must be difficult for his son, a young bike rider with a famous father. But while Janssen zoon might try to overlook his father, Janssen papa likes being recognized. Not bigheaded, really, but he likes being recognized as Jan Janssen when he goes out with the trimmers, the keep-fit riders. He turns up on television around Tour de France time and the bike on which he rode from Melun to Paris is now part of a traveling show—he uses the English word.
Every cycling site on the planet has postulated some theory about just which rider could conceivably beat Alberto Contador. Naturally, almost no one places much stock in their theories because all indications are that Contador will spend the next three weeks riding at an endurance pace and then making the odd acceleration to dust off his legs … and the competition. As foregone conclusions go, this harkens back to the time of Miguel Indurain when it felt like the other guys rolled up for the prologue hoping, at best, for second. Despite his ongoing dominance, it felt like there was more fight in the air as Lance Armstrong was winning.
Currently, Radio Shack is the only team showing up with anything like a strategy. Their stated game plan of four general classification riders is the right idea. Rather than sending them all up the road in a single shotgun blast, repeated attacks by each of their protected riders has the potential to put a strong rider on the defensive. It’s not possible for one guy to respond to each attack by a group of peers. Eventually you either crack or have to let someone go. Unless you’re Contador. The trouble I see here is that Radio Shack simply isn’t strong enough to deliver enough knockout blows to dislodge Contador from the lead group. Certainly, Contador will get smart to the sequence of attacks and his propensity to launch his own, withering, attack that has the ability to make previous attacks look like accidental surges could easily negate the whole of the Radio Shack team.
To make the us against him strategy work, a combine of teams will be necessary. That’s because even though Leopard-Trek will have two of the strongest riders in the race, the Schleck’s brotherly love will see them try to leave the field together, rather than truly alternate attacks. Their inability to take Philippe Gilbert at Liege-Bastogne-Liege showed their lack of tactical genius necessary to use their numbers to optimal advantage.
To beat Contador, Leopard will have to join with Liquigas and BMC and Euskaltel. This is a climbing Tour and Andy Schleck will have to choose whether he wants to ride for second or see Contador beaten. That’s the choice; for any of the GC favorites, the options are to work with other teams to collectively defeat Contador or resign yourself to racing for, at best, second. Even if the teams come together, the odds that a protected GC rider will win the overall don’t improve any. That’s why such a strategy is unlikely to succeed or even last the whole of the race.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that Contador has overplayed his fitness and won’t be as sharp in the third week as he needs to be. These days, very few riders can be fit enough to win the Giro and then go on to win the Tour. But Contador is at the height of his powers. Still, holding peak form for two months is like creating a balanced government budget—easier said than done. Adding yet another unusual wrinkle to all this is the embattled Spaniard’s decision to go vegetarian for the Tour. We must suppose that his chef has the ability to deliver the balanced diet necessary for Contador to ride well. Still, that does not ensure that his body will necessarily agree with said diet. It’s a big change to make so close to the race. The new diet is conceivably the greatest obstacle he faces.
As a total aside, Contador’s new diet is absolutely his best argument for his innocence I’ve heard. It should have no bearing on the case before CAS, but from the standpoint of a gut-check reaction to the individual, I’m chastened by his declaration.
What I see before us is a mouse smarter than the mouse trap. No one can attack with the paint-peeling acceleration he has and only Andy Schleck has the ability to accelerate as many times in 10k as Contador can. In my mind’s eye I see a flurry of attacks with accelerations that impress us, but followed by a counter-attack by Contador that casts his competitors as Mustangs compared to his Ferrari. “You thought that was fast? Check this out.” We’re all going to need neck braces to deal with his head-tossing speed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Literally: suppleness, softness, flexibility, adaptability, fluidity. On the bike: smoothness, a one-ness with the machine. Think of a climber dancing away on that steep section that leaves everyone else pushing squares and threatening to rip their handlebars off.
Cadel Evans is not much with the souplesse. Also, Denis Menchov is a no. Alberto Contador on the other hand is a striking, modern example. Miguel Indurain.
Fausto Coppi’s souplesse was legendary, a pedal stroke as smooth as the back of a spoon. Coppi was dubbed “il Airone,” the heron, for his beak-like nose, and long, gangly legs, but just as the shore bird, Coppi seemed to move in slow motion, all the time floating away from his opponents.
As we get older, and top end speed ebbs away, souplesse becomes a new pleasure and a way to distinguish ourselves. How steady a line do we hold? How neatly do we skirt obstacles? How still are our hips? How easy our grip? Do we mash, or do we stroke?
I like to think this smoothness has a place off the bike as well. Faced with life’s natural conflicts, between rider and motorist for example, how easily do we slip by, let go of the conflict before it turns ugly. How solid remains our roll? Family affairs can be a messy collaboration, even at the best of times. Souplesse is that quality by which we refuse to engage pettiness with a brother or a parent. We set examples rather than boundaries. We act more than we talk. Souplesse contains within it humility, strength and patience.
Think of a simple, forged crank. Think of the curving sweep of an Italian saddle. Think of a true wheel. The medium is, perhaps, the message.
Souplesse connotes style, but it also hints at a deep-lying efficiency, an elimination of non-essential movement. Much has been made in recent years of incremental improvements, the sorts of time gains made in wind tunnels and in customized nutrition plans. Souplesse has that same incremental value, except that it comes from within the athlete.
My friend Francisco lives in Mendoza, Argentina. In the summer, his club rides from Mendoza, up over the Andes, down into Santiago, Chile and back. Francisco is my age and still full of piss and vinegar. This annual ride is a searing sufferfest for him. His stories of it are interesting, not for the hyperbolic descriptions of hypoxic climbing exploits, but rather for the character sketches of these ultra-lean old Argentine men who ride alongside him as he struggles for breath, whispering exhortations in his ear as they spin effortlessly over the high peaks. Souplesse.
This is a thing you can’t get from a pill, a shake or a properly stored bag of blood. Souplesse is the immeasurable measure of class. It’s charm is in its elusiveness. Form, as the old saying goes, is fleeting, while class is permanent.
We should all hope to be faster tomorrow than we were today. Fast is fun. Just know that there is something beyond speed, something beyond fun.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Yesterday RKP celebrated its one-year anniversary. Your readership has made the last year possible. You’ve given us the chance to follow stories and explore perspectives that you won’t find at the other sites or magazines, which, for us, has meant getting to write content we wouldn’t have a chance to submit elsewhere.
In addition to the acceptance you’ve given the blog, the industry’s reception has been terrific as well. From the products we’ve been asked to review to the advertisers who need to be in front of you, we’ve been welcomed everywhere we go.
A brief note on my whereabouts for the last two weeks: I just finished a book on road cycling for new riders called Ride Like a Pro! Yesterday, I turned in the finished manuscript to my publisher, Menasha Ridge Press. I’ve no idea how many pages it will be, but I do know that we turned in 402 images. I’d say my relief is on the order of giving birth, but my wife would slap me; let’s just say this morning I took my first deep breath in months. Watch for it next spring.
And now, a year later, we’re at the start of the Tour de France yet again. Summer is ON. Has a more exciting Tour ever loomed? I don’t recall one. Traditionally, when the race has been called “wide open” the reason has been due to absences—missing former champions. However, this year is different.
The list of truly great riders capable of battling to victory is stunning for its depth. We have former champions Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, and all those who were counting Armstrong out in May are now curiously silent. Both Frank and Andy Schleck look capable of victory. And then there’s Cadel Evans. Evans may not have the strongest team at the Tour, but there is no question that he is the leader of a team and that he has full confidence from management.
Can Wiggins replicate his form from last year? The world is full of riders who rode to fourth once, sometimes twice, but never higher. Let’s watch and wait.
What of Sastre? No matter how likable and classy he is, he doesn’t seem to have shown the form necessary to be called a favorite.
It’s been almost 20 years since a rider took the Giro/Tour double and Miguel Indurain was in his prime. Can the same really be said of Basso?
We’re told this will be Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France. We’ve every reason to take him at his word. Many will be relieved to see his departure. I, for one, won’t be. While I’m no fanboy, I am a fan. Lance has been a fascinating, surprising figure in cycling and his insights into cycling, given in interviews have been fun to digest. The reign of Armstrong has been no cleaner than the reign of Indurain, but the interviews have been far more enjoyable.
The day following a fun birthday can be something of a let down. With the whole of the Tour de France ahead of us, it’s going to be a party every day. Thanks for reading.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There have been entirely too many doping storylines in cycling lately. We’ve had the Alejandro Valverde problem, the Danilo DiLuca suspension and Ricardo Ricco’s imminent return to the sport. His girlfriend, Vania Rossi, tested positive for the same drug—CERA—for which he was suspended, and he subsequently dumped her, months after she gave birth to their child. Bernard Kohl has opened a bike shop and seemingly ended his monthly interviews that teased out details of his doping regimen like bread crumbs for birds. Stefan Schumacher continues to fight his suspension.
And today we mark six years since the lonely death of Marco Pantani. Like Pantani, Jose Maria Jimenez was a once-talented climber who, according to circumstantial evidence, became addicted to cocaine and ultimately overdosed on the drug, cutting short a life that should have been full of promise, even after ending his career as a racer. It’s little wonder that so many cyclists reacted with horror at the news of Tom Boonen’s flirtations with the nose candy.
The constant parade of doping stories has made many cyclists weary of ProTour racing, but worse, it has changed our understanding and perception of racing in the past. We now accept Fausto Coppi’s statement about always doping when he raced, rather than discount it, which is certainly what I did when I first read the statement in the 1980s.
And while many of us took Eddy Merckx at his word when he insisted he had used nothing out of the ordinary when he was ejected from the 1969 Giro d’Italia, we have come to see that event was but one of three positive tests he gave in his career. Certainly questions abound to this day about that Giro test, such as no counter-analysis and questionable chain of custody, it’s easy to see the positive as a not uncommon occurrence in an era ripe with amphetamine usage. Why should Merckx be any different; after all, he ranks as the most successful cyclist of all time. Are we to think he was the only clean champion of his generation?
Looking back on riders I have admired—Greg LeMond, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, Andy Hampsten, Richard Virenque, Marco Pantani, Johan Museeuw, Moreno Argentin, Frank Vandenbroucke, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Alejandro Valverde, Danilo DiLuca and plenty more, what strikes me is that only two of these names have never been broadly accused or convicted of doping—LeMond and Hampsten. Were we to take every doping allegation out there as fact (save anything Armstrong has said to or about LeMond), we might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Hampsten’s win in the Giro was the last by a clean rider, as was LeMond’s last win at the Tour.
I admit, every time a new rider comes thundering onto the scene, I have moments (roughly one for every win) when I wonder, “Is this guy clean?” Even without a single positive test to implicate the rider, I can’t help but wonder if some new phenom is our next Riccardo Ricco or Bernard Kohl. To wonder such a thing is reputation assassination, even if I don’t share it with anyone else.
But this youngest generation of riders, riders who came onto the scene after the EPO problem had been identified, after the test had been devised, those are the guys who scare and upset me. It’s little wonder to me that any rider still in the game now who was there for the rise of EPO and the team podium sweeps of the ’94 Fleche Wallonne (Gewiss-Ballan) and the ’96 Paris-Roubaix (Mapie-GB) might still not be conforming to the memo. But what really troubles me are the new riders who still pursue EPO and its newer variant, CERA. Just as we think we’re making progress in doping thanks to programs such as those run by Bjarne Riis and Jonathan Vaughters, some new rider gets suspended for a drug that we have come to believe is easy to catch.
As a result, many of us have turned our backs on past performances that gave us chills, left us cheering at the TV and maybe even caused us to put up a poster of the rider in our dorm room or garage. Those were the days.
Museeuw’s win at Roubaix in ’96 came at the end of arguably the most dominant ride by any team in the history of the Hell of the North. Now we know that it was EPO that gave their performance the appearance of a Ferrari racing a Yugo.
In comments here at RKP, we’ve seen how many of your have turned against not just Lance Armstrong, but other riders we know to have doped: Marco Pantani, Frank Vandebroucke, Tyler Hamilton and more.
I realized not too long ago that if I disavow every performance that involved doping, I’d be stripped of almost every race that I ever cared about. I’d even be stripped of LeMond’s last-minute win at the 1990 Tour de France because the guy he beat—Claudio Chiappucci—was on EPO. Without him and that drug, LeMond’s win would have been much more dominant. And don’t get me started about 1991.
Despite the lies, the doping, the inability to know who was truly the best on the day, I don’t want to lose the wonder and awe I felt when I saw those performances. If I turn my back on every one of those performances in bitterness, it’s tantamount to saying of your ex, “I never really liked her.”
Those experiences, the wonder I felt at watching Richard Virenque or Floyd Landis winning in Morzine in 2003, the jubilation I felt at Tyler Hamilton’s win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, my astonishment at Armstrong’s win at the Tour in ’99 or my awe at any of Johan Museeuw’s wins at Paris-Roubaix were experiences of genuine and honest emotion on my part. While I have a different understanding of those performances today, and my feelings for those racers may have changed somewhat, I’ve decided I won’t let anyone, any new revelations, change how I remember those performances.
I can’t tell anyone else how to feel about those performances. The bitterness some of you feel at the betrayal of learning some win was doped is as valid an emotional experience as any jubilation I’ve felt for the same performance.
But for those of you who have felt frustration and confusion with each new revelation, I offer my perspective as a different way to process your feelings. I’m not suggesting we capitulate and just give in to enjoying doped riding; like each of you, I want a clean sport, full stop.
Society changes and what we tolerate changes as well. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. I can’t endorse his ownership of a person, but that act shouldn’t erase the work he did in establishing the United States’ democracy.
I truly believe cycling is changing for the better and that doping is on the decline. It is a scourge, though, that we should not fool ourselves into thinking will ever be eradicated. We should not accept the doped performances of the past out of inevitability and resignation, but rather because they inspired us in our own riding. And if we rode with honesty and conviction, then some good came from those tarnished wins.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I know what the French call “jacque merde” about racing in the pro peloton. My last race was a Sunday town line sprint that I lost by about five bike lengths, because I was busy trying to see if the ice cream truck was coming up behind us. Also, I’m an American, which means that, for me, cycling is a decidedly middle class affair, popular only among my Europhile and immigrant friends, a thing with its roots in working class factories and the hard man lifestyle we in this country associate most often with lumberjacks or commercial fishermen.
How I came to love European racing, a thing both distant and alien, is anyone’s guess, but fall in love I did. A ’70s childhood of BMX and then ten-speeding spilled out into a two-wheeled adulthood, spandex clad, tappy shoe shod and my eyes strained toward the East and the velocepedic cults of France, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Spain.
Having never properly raced, even domestically, I had yeoman’s job to understand what was happening up the Ventoux, down the Champs-Élyseés, over the cobbles and through the Ardennes. This was a process not only of internalizing the tactics of bicycle racing, but drinking deep from the sloppy and chaotic cup of this odd Euro sport.
No one, I mean no one, has done more to help me see into the world of pro bike racing than Samuel Abt, the legendary cycling correspondent for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. In books such as: Off to the Races – 25 Years of Cycling Journalism; Up the Road – Cycling’s Modern Era from LeMond to Armstrong; A Season in Turmoil and Tour de France – Three Weeks to Glory, Abt collects his daily newspaper missives into wild and nuanced pastiches of the Euro racing life.
He gives voice to directeurs sportif, soigneurs, race organizers, the mayors of towns dying to have the major races grace them with their spiritual and monetary beneficence, as well as the riders, both legendary and journeymen, who animate the races. He describes the weather, the food, the farms and mountains. He is a writer, like John McPhee or Studs Terkel, who tells a story through the accumulation of minutely observed detail.
From an article called “When Autumn Comes” in Up the Road, Abt writes:
“Out in the countryside of France, the fields are brown and barren, their corn long harvested and the stalks chopped down for fodder. Until the stubble is plowed under when winter wheat is planted, the landscape is bleak and the air full of despair.
“For professional bicycle riders, April is not the cruelest month. Far from it. In April, hopes for a successful season are as green as the shoots just then starting to push through the fields that the riders pass in their early races. The cruelest month is really October, when the nine-month racing season ends and the riders finally know what they have failed to accomplish.”
From the introduction to Off to the Races:
“Far up the road, spectators had already jammed the switchback curves of Alpe d’Huez. The police finally gave up trying to estimate the size of the crowd and could only say it was more than the usual 300,000 to 400,000 who waited each year for the bicycle riders in the Tour de France to climb the peak. This Sunday morning in July, while the sun burned off traces of fog in the valley and melted a bit of the glaciers permanently atop the French Alps, the crowd was waiting for one rider. “Allez, Simon,” the banners said. But by then it was over.”
I have read the biographies, Anquetil, Merckx, Pantani, et. al., and I have read the various histories, and almost without exception I have enjoyed them, but no books have brought me to Europe to smell the dust of the hot French summer or feel the ice cold Belgian rain quite like Abt’s have.
These collections of his writings also serve as charming reminders of how the superstars saw the world before they were superstars. Here we find one Lance Armstrong, in 1993, talking about Miguel Indurain, from Up the Road:
‘“He’s got a super attitude,” he said. “He’s not obnoxious, he’s quiet, he respects the other riders, he never fusses. He’s so mild-mannered. I really like him.”
“So much so that the 29-year-old Spaniard seems to have become a role model for the likeable and sensitive Armstrong, who has occasionally been considered brash. “I still have a temper and an attitude sometimes,” he confessed.
“I wouldn’t mind molding myself into his sort of character,” he said. “Really quiet, just goes about his business.”’
You may watch Versus on your American television. You may steal a Eurosport feed from some Internet backwater. You may stand by the early season roadside in California, waiting for the peloton to streak by, but short of spending a season in Europe (a luxury I’ve never been able to indulge) it’s very hard to get the flavor of the sport. In this sense, if Paris Roubaix is a dish, Sam Abt is an able chef, translating that uniquely Franco-Belgian treat for an American palette.
Thanks to Da Robot of the Bottom Bracket Blog for this appreciation.