One of the ongoing themes of the infinite email thread between Padraig and me is how strange life can be. The older we get and the more our families grow, the more we find ourselves in unexpected situations, both positive and negative, an ongoing confluence of circumstance that serves up surreality like Dali on amphetamines.
And so it was that I found myself rolling through this New England countryside alongside Hennie Kuiper, on a bike I’d loaned him, and me somewhat dumbstruck as he spun tales of his many, many victories. 1972 Olympic road race winner, 1975 World Champion, winner of Paris Roubaix, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Lombardia. Twice second in the Tour de France. Rival of Bernard Hinault, and part of a dominating ’70s Dutch team. Directeur Sportif to Team Telekom and Motorola. One of the true Giants of the Road.
At 64, he is still every bit the physical marvel he was in his prime. Chiseled calves. Barrel thighs. A style on the bike that comes from living there. He could clearly have dropped any of the motley crew we’d assembled for our little tour of farms and orchards. But he didn’t. He just rolled along and chatted.
How we had come to be here is still a little mysterious to me. One of Hennie’s sons lives here, in the States. His son is not a cyclist. He works, tangentially, with my neighbor, that is to say, they are not co-workers, but they are somehow professionally affiliated. This part of the connection I don’t really understand, but when I was asked if I’d like to go for a spin with a former World Champion I thought, “Yeah. I’ll do that.”
Four weeks later, I show up in Concord center to meet Hennie Kuiper.
After riding with him, I understand more clearly what it is that separates schlubs like me from legends like him. His physiognomy marks him out, even at retirement age, as something of an outlier. His musculature is just not something you see at the grocery store, or even at your local crit.
Add on top of that his own statement, made later in the day, that his talent was to be able to attack one more time, after 150km, after 200km, always one more time, a thing few of his generation, or any generation could do.
Having said all that, what most impressed me was his generosity. He never failed to answer a question, and he patiently listened to every opinion offered. He didn’t once mention how badly wrenched his loaner bike was, nor that I’d forgotten to put water bottle cages on it. His best trick was simply being just one of the guys, albeit the one who had taken gold in Munich in 1972 after a 40km solo breakaway.
So there I was on a Saturday morning, having the tale of Paris-Roubaix 1983 spun out for me, not by some historian or commentator, not by someone who’d sat in the velodrome waiting for the riders to emerge from hell, but by the guy who won the race. As a cycling fan, I found it dizzying.
He laughed as he explained how hard a grand tour is, and why he’d finished twice in the Tour but never won, how angry one of his domestiques was with him one day when he’d ridden at the back and been caught behind a crash, the seconds slipping away and the yellow jersey with them.
He said that the hardest day of his career was a long time trial early on. He knew how to go hard before that, but he suffered so much that day that something inside him changed and afterwards he could always go harder than he’d ever thought possible.
Throughout the day I drifted in and out of earshot, and each time I got close I found myself in the middle of another story. He talked about being in the car behind Andy Hampsten in the Giro, about battling with Hinault in breakaways, and all the while he asked little questions about us, our jobs, our families.
We met up with the families at a folk festival north of the city, racked the bikes and shook hands. The ride dissolved into hand shakes and kids running in circles. It could have been any group ride anywhere, ending. We had ridden with a world champion, and it was just like riding with a friend, which was extraordinary to me and that little bit surreal.
And then, a week later, just when I’d finished boring people with the story, the autographed picture above appeared at my house. I am not one for autographs. I don’t ask for them, and I don’t really understand their value. But in this instance, I took it for what it was, a sincere thanks for a ride shared, from a fellow rider. And that meant a lot to me, as I’m sure you can imagine.
If I had been cynical/skeptical/jaded about this Tour de France over the first two weeks, yesterday’s stage with its double ascent of Alpe d’Huez cured me. With riders leaping off the front and dropping off the back, there was so much going on, so much chaos, that I found myself riveted. I have always been a fan of the epic climbing stages, and this one delivered enough thrills to qualify for the four-ticket bounty at the state fair.
And though Chris Froome and his Sky minions have controlled the race with well-calculated and muscular performances whenever and wherever it’s been necessary, so too have his rivals taken ample opportunity to attack. The race has been anything but a stately promenade to Paris.
I was wrong in my initial belief that the green jersey competition would be more interesting than the GC. Peter Sagan is riding away with the points competition, despite not dominating either in the intermediate or finishing sprints. On the other hand, once you look past Froome, the next four GC riders are within 47 seconds of each other. With one last mountain stage to ride, podium spots are anything but assured.
The preeminence of Team Sky in three-week races seems confirmed now, though Bradley Wiggins failed to impress (or finish) the Giro. Still, the short reign of Alberto Contador is clearly over, and it remains to be seen whether racers like Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez can translate Giro and Vuelta performances into French success.
Sagan has stolen Mark Cavendish’s thunder, and even Andre Greipel is finding ways to win stages. The lack of real dominance is good for the sport, both from a fan’s perspective and from a credibility standpoint. It says something powerful that Froome’s ride in France has drawn so many questions, while the seeming parity of his rivals speaks volumes about the possible cleanliness of the top tier competitors. Maybe, just maybe, this has been a good Tour de France for cycling.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what have you enjoyed about this 100th Tour de France? Did it live up to your expectations? What were the surprises? And what does it say about the current state of Grand Tour racing?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti