Joop Zoetemelk finished on the second step of the Tour de France podium six times. He won once, in 1980. And like Raymond Poulidor, who is known as the Eternal Second, many believe he could have won more races if he’d attacked more, if he’d been more ruthless, but Zoetemelk wasn’t an aggressive rider. He didn’t choose to win. When the race was on the line, he was as likely to let the moment pass as riders like Hinault and Merckx were to attack.
Today, in Boston, it was as hot as the devil’s undercarriage. I pushed away from the office into the murky swamp of the city and made the crucial mistake of jumping onto the wheel of a fellow apparently in a big rush to get someplace else. We rode fast. I thought, “It’s too hot to be riding this fast,” but then I kept pedaling until I washed up on the shore of the steep hill that leads to my house, mostly spent, soaked in sweat, and unable to pull any more air out of the air.
Sometimes, the indecision that might have cost Zoetemelk greater success is the same indecision that keeps a rider in a race he ought to abandon. Think of Cadel Evans, with a broken elbow, hauling the world champion’s rainbow jersey over cols and up monts at this years Tour, or Tyler Farrar sprinting on a broken wrist. Maybe even remember Tyler Hamilton finishing the 2003 Tour in 4th place after cracking his collarbone on stage one. These guys haven’t decided to finish the race. They’ve just put off deciding to quit until the finish line slides past.
Zoetemelk was a classy rider. In the high mountains he floated, his wispy form disappearing up around the next switchback as lesser men toiled away below. Despite his lack of aggression, he still won Fleche Wallone, Paris-Tours, Paris-Nice, the Dutch national road race championship twice, the world championship at the age of 38, Amstel Gold at 39. He’s a legend. Indecision may have cost him some wins, but he still managed.
I arrived in my driveway completely spent, sweating from every pore, absolutely gasping, but still trying not to look too pathetic in case the neighbors were watching. After dismounting, I sat next to my bike, in the garage, trying to compose myself before entering the house. It took a while. And then when I did go inside, it took another twenty minutes before I was convinced I wasn’t maybe having heat stroke.
They say the only reason Zoetemelk ever won the Tour is that his DS told him he had to. There was no one else. He would never have forced himself on the race. He was under orders.
When Louison Bobet finally hung up his Tour hopes, after a series of miserable stages in 1959, he was asked why he kept riding when he knew he couldn’t win. He said, “I’d never climbed the Col de l’Iseran. It’s the highest road in Europe. I wanted to ride up there.” He quit on the descent of the Iseran, on his terms. What looked like indecision was actually a declaration of intent.
It’s only supposed to get hotter here in Beantown. This was the second day of our heat wave. The humidity will get worse. The mercury will rise. It’s supposed to break on Friday, when Hurricane Earl arrives with torrential rain. When I was finally convinced I wasn’t dying, I thought, “Screw that. I’m done riding for the week. It’s only going to be more misery.” But we’ll see what happens. Sometimes he who hesitates is lost. Sometimes he who hesitates is simply enduring, until better days come.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’m just like Lance Armstrong. We’re both 38, both have kids. True, I have both my nuts and never take a private jet to work, but other than that, we’re pretty much the same guy. Oh, and I don’t do Michelob Ultra commercials. Minor detail. Other than that…difficult to tell us apart.
Like Lance I’ve been sick too much in this early part of the season. I had a chest cold that put me off two wheels in the middle of January. I had the swine flu that cost me a couple weeks, and now I’m into another chest cold. I’d blame the kids, but I might just be that wildebeest at the back of the herd that wonders why everyone’s running away. Does anyone else smell lion?
My buddy Lance must be feeling the same way. Since THE COMEBACK®, things haven’t gone so well. Like me, he’s had some problems with illness. There was a rotovirus that forced him to pull out of Circuit de la Sarthe and then ran him down for Criterium International. His season’s not going so well. The lions are definitely circling. That Contador lion looks especially hungry.
If Lance was disappointed I would fully understand. I was in much better shape in 2005, too. Since then I’ve crossed that invisible border, the one that means you’re more sore the second day than the first, the one that sees your body stop responding quite so predictably to really, really hard work, the one that robs you of fast-twitch muscle fiber, but leaves your competitive brain intact.
Is Lance like a legion of boxing legends, Louis, Ali, Ray Leonard, Holyfield, whose lion hearts were betrayed by wobbly legs and dwindling strength. Is it the peculiar foible of some legends to stay on too long, believing they’ve still got it when they haven’t?
I haven’t got it anymore. Ask the guys I’ve been playing soccer with for the last ten years. Ask my mountain biking friends. Watch me sucking wind up hills I used to trounce. I have replaced power and panache with steadiness and a sense of humor.
After my kids were born, I started crashing more too. For no good reason. I was tired. I lacked concentration. I’ve come to call it ‘Menchov’s Syndrome.’ It’s a degenerative condition. Like life.
Last season, Lance targeted the Giro d’ Italia until a collar bone break (his first serious injury ever … if you don’t count testicular cancer) put off his build up, and he had to turn to the Tour, only to have a teammate demonstrate for him in no uncertain terms just who was the “strongest on the road.” Lance hasn’t won a race yet. This can’t feel good.
Going out on top has this effect. The retired athlete retains this memory of having been untouchable, a knowledge of the techniques that brought such overwhelming success, and the false confidence born of underestimating the growth of the sport in his absence.
“If I do what I used to do, I will succeed as I used to,” he thinks.
I can tell you from personal experience that things are not as they ever were. The last three times I’ve had both wheels of my mountain bike off the ground I’ve ended up in the bushes, picking gravel out of my elbows and wondering what went wrong. I’ve lost half a step, half a pedal stroke and quite possibly one of my lungs. And I’m only five months older than the Lance.
If I could sit with the former champ, he’d have a Michelob Ultra, and I’d have a tonic water with lime. I’d say, “Look champ, there’s nothing back there for you. You can ride. You can place, and you can show. But that top podium step ain’t there for you anymore. So ride as long as you enjoy it, but don’t ride to win. Don’t ride to win.”
A third place in the Tour de France is a great result for a 37-year-old rider just back from three years off. It’s amazing. Raymond Poulidor finished second at 40, but don’t compare results. Don’t do it. Because while it’s only two steps to the top from last year, the steps all lead down.
As I’ve learned over the last few months, there are whole vistas of suffering and disappointment I’ve yet to peer over. I could take this chest cold I have now and ride it into pneumonia based on the fact that I used to be able to ride through minor illnesses. Or, I can take the time off and come back next week. I can spend more time with my kids than my bikes. I could even ride bikes WITH my kids. Life is full of good shit to do, but you can seek the suffering if you want. Sometimes that’s noble suffering, and sometimes it’s vain suffering. The trick is knowing the difference.
I get it, Lance. I get it. Cause I’m just like you.
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.