Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bicycle Racing, The Sport of Tears

Laurent Fignon begins his memoirs, "We Were Young and Carefree," recounting his devastating eight-second loss to Greg LeMond in the 1989 Tour de France, when LeMond accomplished the unthinkable, overcoming a fifty-second deficit on the last stage, a fifteen-mile time trial from Versailles to Paris. Fignon, finishing just after LeMond, collapsed to the pavement at the finish line in total disbelief. He was in shock. After he gathered himself together and headed to the doping control he encountered his teammate Thierry Maire.

"Without thinking," Fignon writes, "He threw himself at me and burst into tears. In those welcoming arms I wailed like a child. Long, long sobs. It had never happened in public before."

One of the singular aspects of bicycle racing is the deep emotional investment, unlike any other sport, of the riders to win a race, often an investment of months and years of concerted effort and great deprivation. Succeeding or failing to win a race a rider has put so much effort into can lead to a spontaneous burst of tears--either tears of jubilation or tears of utter despair. It is a sport of "want-to," of how single-mindedly one can focus and devote oneself to getting something they really, really want, and how hard one can willingly push oneself, or "hurt oneself," as Fignon regularly phrases it.

A rider can cultivate an extraordinary depth of motivation by dwelling on the storied history of a race, wishing to join its pantheon of conquerors, finding inspiration in their heroic exploits that time has elevated to legend. The length of a race, the time spent in combat, further heightens one's desire to succeed, to conquer, to justify all the time and effort, all the pain and suffering one has committed to winning. Every moment on the bike increases one's hunger. A race can be six or seven hours long, two or three times as long as most sporting competitions. And a stage race like the Tour de France, going on for three weeks, with all that extra effort and focused attention, truly maxes the thrill of victory or agony of defeat, resulting in volcanic eruptions of emotion.

At times it can be a delayed reaction. Christian Vande Velde, at his recent appearance at the Chicago Garmin store, said that after his Garmin team won the team time trial at last year's Tour de France, when he retreated to the team bus, the full impact of what they had accomplished finally hit him and he was overcome with tears, something he wasn't embarrassed to acknowledge. He knows it is a reflection of how much it meant to him. Tears are something racers are proud to earn, knowing from experience, whether their own or witnessing it in a teammate or fellow competitor, that it is the ultimate emotion.

Laurent Jalabert, a prominent French rider a decade ago who in ten Tours de France won five stages, twice on Bastille Day, and twice won the points jersey and twice the king of the mountain jersey, but never the yellow jersey felt unfulfilled when it came to The Tour. He said, "In the Tour, I never shed tears of joy." Winning the race was his ultimate goal. Though his other successes in The Tour would have thrilled many another rider, he had a higher aspiration. Only that would give him that great joy of tears.

Some riders prefer to keep their tears private, regarding a public display as a chink in their toughness. Jacques Anquetil, the first five-time winner of The Tour, was a man who tried to express a minimum of emotion. His wife revealed though that he gushed tears in the privacy of their car after his monumental achievement of winning the Bordeaux-Paris race a day after winning the nine-day Dauphine-Libere race, an accomplishment that "L'Equipe" called the greatest sporting feat of the 20th century.

Fignon too tried to go about his business with a stoic detachment, admitting his outburst after that 1989 loss was the only time he cried in public in his career. If he were truly embarrassed by the tears, he might have blamed them on his teammate crying first, but he didn't need to do that. Tears are so intrinsic to bicycle racing, they are hard to avoid. Fignon knew, though, he had a special toughness to resist them, as he said he never cried when he was spanked as a kid. He knew nothing about bicycle racing at the time, but looking back, his resistance to spanking revealed he "knew how to hurt," an essential quality for a cyclist. He was not entirely resistant to tears though. He admits that after he was offered his first professional contract by Cyrille Guimard, the preeminent team director at the time, he was so thrilled that he "may have had furtive little tears in my eyes." Tears are an indication one really cares about something, and he truly cared about his cycling.

Twice he mentions other cyclists who shed tears at climactic moments--Pascal Simon, when he had to abandon the 1983 Tour after having clung to the yellow jersey for several stages with a broken shoulder, and also Jean-Francois Bernard after winning the Mont Ventoux stage in the l987 Tour. Fignon went on to win that 1983 Tour, his first of two. And like Bernard he too had tears on Ventoux in 1987, but of a different type. He suffered greatly on the climb, and had to begrudgingly acknowledge he would not be a contender to win The Race. After he climbed into the team bus "well a way from prying eyes, I wept for a long time."

The uber-emotional Mark Cavendish isn't bashful at all about acknowledging his tears, almost flaunting them. His autobiography, "Boy Racer," abounds with mentions of tears of many strains--after winning sprints, over a coach's criticism, over not medaling at the Beijing Olympics, when he proposes to his girl friend and then when he breaks up with her, when he learns his parents are divorcing, for being disqualified in a Tour de France sprint, when he is dropped by the peloton on the first stage of his first Tour de France in 2007, in the hospital at the bedside of a friend in a coma.

Davis Phinney, another emotionally-charged sprinter a couple decades Cavendish's senior, who twice won stages of The Tour de France, also regularly mentions giving vent to tears in his autobiography "The Happiness of Pursuit," even once referring to "squirting some tears," when he had bad luck as a 17-year old in the junior nationals. His book is as much about his battle with Parkinson's Disease as it is about racing. He also writes considerably about his father's fight with cancer, not letting it prevent him from going to France many times to ride the legendary climbs of The Tour de France. The touring company he went with liked him so much that it erected a plaque in his honor at the summit of the Col de Fer. The book culminates with Davis and his daughter Kelsey bicycling to the summit of the Col de Fer to watch his son Taylor, now a prominent young rider, pass in a race. Seeing the memorial and seeing his son he "wept tears of joy and sorrow."

The book also recounts his courtship of Connie Carpenter, a l984 Olympic gold medal winner, who achieved prominence before he did. Phinney repeatedly says she was "out of my league." He drove her to tears once when she visited him in France early in his career, and he was too exhausted to give her enough attention. But that story had a happy ending, as do most of those in the book, one way or another. Davis mentions tears of a type not often described in cycling books--tears over a movie, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a French movie about a distinguished French magazine editor who becomes paralyzed after a car accident and can only communicate with the wink of one eye. Davis could very much relate to him in his battles to fully function.

My recent rampage through cycling biographies also included the memoirs of Bernard Hinault--"Memories of the Peloton" written in 1988. I didn't expect much crying from this hard man and there wasn't. His motto was, "As long as I live and breath, I attack." Attack is his constant refrain, appearing on just about every other page of his book. Such a man makes others cry. One of those he made cry, though tears of joy, was France's national team director when Hinault won the World Championship in 1980 in France. Though Hinault called that day the "greatest day of my life, by far," he acknowledged no tears of joy in his celebration. Calling that his greatest victory is quite a statement, as he won the Tour de France five times, the Giro d'Italia three times and the Vuelta d'Espagne twice. Only Eddie Merckx, with eleven, won more Grand Tours. But it was a victory he had targeted for years. It had been 19 years since the last French winner, Jean Stablinksi, one of his early mentors.

He does admit to crying once on his bike, during his final Tour de France, that legendary 1986 Tour that is considered perhaps the greatest Tour of all time, when he waged psychological war fare with his teammate Greg LeMond, trying to make him a worthy winner, he maintains. He was brought to tears as he climbed the Col de Vars lagging behind LeMond, relinquishing the yellow jersey, that he claims he was only keeping warm for LeMond. It wasn't losing the jersey that had him weeping, but rather a pain in his knee and the comment of a photographer who told his motorbike driver to slow down and stick with Hinault as he looked as if he was going to abandon. "I might have given up but for that photographer's words," he says. But he recovered and the next day he attacked once again and then led LeMond up L'Alpe d'Huez to their triumphant shoulder-to-shoulder finish.

Besides all these biographies there have also been several histories amongst my recent submersion in the world of books on bicycle racing. They too recount instances of racers being brought to tears. Marguerite Lazell's "Illustrated History of the Tour de France," one of a veritable peloton of books written about The Tour in 2003 to commemorate its 100th anniversary, claims Hinault climbed off his bike in tears at the finish of the 9th stage of the 1979 Tour at the Roubaix velodrome, when he finished three minutes and 45 seconds behind Joop Zoetemelk and lost the yellow jersey. He regained it a few stages later, going on to win the second of his five Tours. This incident of tears though was one of a number of questionable assertions she makes.

One of the most egregious was claiming that when the yellow jersey was introduced to The Tour in 1919 midway through its 13th edition it was meant to spur on the racers, as they were lagging. It was the first Tour after a four year hiatus due to World War One and the racers weren't so fit. To think the yellow jersey was immediately a coveted object that would inspire the riders to super-human efforts is ridiculous. Race director Henri Desgrange forced the jersey on the leading rider Eugene Christophe so spectators could more easily identify who was in the lead.

The jersey was at first an object of embarrassment. Christophe said that spectators shouted at him that he looked like a canary and would chirp at him. Subsequent wearers thought it made it too easy for other riders to keep track of them. There is even debate whether 1919 was the first year of the yellow jersey. Three-time winner Philippe Thys claims he was made to wear a yellow jersey in 1913, though no papers from the time can confirm this. There is much to the fascinating story of the yellow jersey that Lazell overlooked.

She does get right another of the oft-recounted episodes in the history of The Tour--the legendary stage in the 1934 Tour when rookie Rene Vietto, who was looking like a new climbing sensation, had to give up his wheel to his team leader Antonin Magne in the mountains and sat on a ledge weeping, waiting for a replacement wheel, watching his chances evaporate. The photo of the forlorn Vietto is one of the Top Ten images in the history of The Tour. Her book includes two other photos of crying cyclists, both of the high-strung French rider Richard Virenque. The first shows tears of shame after he had to abandon the 1998 Tour when his Festina team was caught with a car load of doping products. The second captures Virenque glowing with tears of exaltation after winning the Mont Ventoux stage in 2002.

Both "Pedalare! Pedalare!" a history of Italian cycling by John Foot and Lazell tell the story of two-time Tour winner Italian Ottavio Bottecchia abandoning the 1926 Tour in tears. Foote describes tears of a different sort from a long-time popular Italian broadcaster who would "burst into tears with very little prompting" during his broadcast of the Giro d'Italia. When Eddie Merckx was ejected from the Giro in 1969 with a huge lead for failing a drug test, a charge he heatedly disputed, the next day's newspaper featured a huge front page photo of a sobbing Merckx. Two years later when Gianna Motta tested positive for drugs, he too was photographed in tears in his hotel room. The greatest Italian crier though was Marco Pantani. After he was ejected for having an excessive hematocrit level from the 1999 Giro with only a couple of stages to go holding a comfortable lead, he went home and cried for days, according to his girl friend.

Since Foote's book was largely focused on Italian racers, it ignored the 1988 Giro that Davis Phinney's 7-Eleven teammate Andy Hampsten won. The climatic stage in the snow over the Gavia pass that won the race for Hampsten was so brutal it was known as "The Day That Grown Men Cried." Among those brought to tears of pain were former Giro champions Roberto Visentini and Giusepppe Saronni. Phinney gives a very detailed description of that stage, one that was more a matter of survival than racing.

I can fully relate to tales of tears on the bicycle, as I, as a touring cyclist have had personal experience with them. The effort and full commitment a touring cyclist puts into achieving a goal can effect him in a similar, though milder, manner as it does the racing cyclist. I was shocked that when I began to tell people about that glorious moment when I arrived in Alaska after bicycling over 3,000 miles from Chicago, the last 1.000 on a dirt road, that I would choke on tears and couldn't continue. I had no idea that my efforts had had such an effect on me. I felt triumphant when I reached Alaska and the end of the unpaved stretch of the road, but there were no tears or great celebration at that point. I still had 300 miles to Fairbanks and the end of the road, though the worst was over, and I knew I had essentially achieved my goal. I laid my bike down on the ground, half on the dirt and half on the pavement, for a photo.

I made that ride in 198l, over thirty years ago, but it still has a lingering effect on me. If I'm not careful, I can be overcome by emotion and can't continue when I'm tellinganother about reaching Alaska. No other of my many trips has had such an effect on me, not even my 7,000 mile ride the length of South America battling head winds and banditos and long stretches without food and water, or my ride across Australia including the 750 mile stretch of no towns across the Nullarbor, or my ride across India where I was descended upon by dozens of people whenever I stopped and was blasted by horns by every passing vehicle almost to the point of deafness for thousands of miles, knowing my limits of tolerance were being tested.

The challenges of the Alaskan Highway had me continually on edge--rough roads, clouds of dust, swarms of mosquitoes and flies, prowling bears, long stretches without food and water and motorists continually telling me that they thought they were brave to be driving the road and couldn't imagine attempting it on a bike. Books were written for motorists on how to survive the road. I couldn't have imagined how deeply satisfying completing that ride would be. That welling of emotion always lets me know. They are a badge of honor unlike any other.

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