Bicycle racers freely admit to being caffeine fiends. Training rides frequently begin at or are interrupted by stops at coffee shops. When I ride stages of The Tour de France just after the riders, the first couple of miles beyond the feed zone are littered with mini-cans of Coca-Cola. The same is true in the final miles of a stage.
Ex-doper David Millar mentioned his use of caffeine and its side effects in the September issue of the British magazine "Cycle Sport." He said that if he takes a caffeine gel too late in a stage, before he can fully work it off, he'll be "gibbering nonsense."
So prevalent and matter-of-fact is caffeine, it was quite startling to read at cyclingnews.com the other day that Taylor Phinney refuses to take caffeine. That was so earth-shaking I conducted a google search to learn more. I discovered the original interview where Phinney made that comment at velonation.com. What Phinney said was that he refuses to take caffeine pills that are quite common in the peloton. He still drinks Coca-Cola and will take caffeine gels, whose wrappers are another common site along the race route. But he even has qualms about that.
For the past month it seems as if everything written about cycling has been drug-related thanks to the revelations about Armstrong's doping. Thus it was refreshing to read a book about cycling that largely avoided the subject, when a friend loaned me Robbie McEwen's autobiography "One Way Road." At last, a current biography that wasn't a confession, such as Tyler Hamilton's "The Secret Race," and David Millar's "Racing Through the Dark."
He doesn't bring up drugs until page 78. I had been so lost in reading about his successes, first as a kid BMXer and then beginning as a professional in 1996 winning ten races in his first year, that the mention of drugs suddenly brought me back to reality. I took a quick look at the index to see how much of it I was in for. There were only five citations listed. When he did bring up the subject, it was pretty much just in passing. One of the trials of being a professional, he said, is people always asking if everyone is on drugs. His response is, "No, apart from a few idiots."
He too has an intimate relationship with caffeine. He owns a coffee bar in Australia. Towards the end of one Tour stage he was becoming delirious from fatigue and forcibly demanded a can of Coke from his team car even though it was beyond the 20 kilometers to go sign when racers are prohibited from getting food or drink from their team car as the intensity of the race heats up. A faltering Miguel Indurain was once penalized for doing the same on a Tour stage.
Caffeine isn't the only benign drug that McEwen mentions. He reveals that a Swedish version of snuff, known as "snus," is also popular in the peloton, though he doesn't admit to using it himself. One puts a tea bag of it under one's lip. Tyler Hamilton's ghost writer, Daniel Coyle, mentioned that Hamilton had taken up chewing tobacco. That was the first time I had come across a mention of present-day professional cyclists indulging in tobacco. Now this. What next, I thought?
I soon learned from the same "Cycle Sport" issue that reported on David Millar's caffeine use that Bradley Wiggins can occasionally be seen with a cigarette in his mouth. Nothing new there. Gino Bartali was known to indulge in a cigarette before he went to bed. There is a well circulated photograph, turned into a popular poster, of racers in the '20s on a Tour stage riding side by side passing a cigarette. Smoking was thought to open the lungs and make breathing easier.
McEwen's and Hamilton's books also shared some very penetrating descriptions of the pain racers endure, not only from pushing one's self to his limits to keep up, but also riding with injuries. McEwen said that he early learned the "first and foremost lesson of cycling--that everyone suffers." He says at one point that the suffering is such a daily occurrence that no one day stands out. But later on he recalls going to such an extreme in a sprint at the 1999 Tour of Holland that he began "to see little pinpricks of light in my increasingly blurred vision...I could feel myself starting to black out."
Hamilton claims he can taste blood in his mouth when he is at his limit. He says pain comes in different flavors. He describes feeling flashes of pain all over his body like "so many strings of Christmas lights." One learns to embrace the pain. It becomes meaningful. "It can even feel great," Hamilton says. All their time on the bike gives racers ample opportunity to ponder their pain and articulate metaphors explaining it. McEwen referred to a "three-course meal of pain" and being in the "hurtbag."
A racer's prime attribute is his ability to endure pain. It would be impossible to measure who can suffer the best. Hamilton rode a Tour de France with a cracked collarbone and ground down eleven teeth. McEwen was in such pain after a Tour crash that it was painful for his chiropractor to touch him. Still he rode on.
McEwen's was a rare cycling biography without the admission of being brought to tears by a great triumph or extreme emotional moment. Hamilton's is more typical with several mentions of tears. Twice he shares a cry with Bjarne Riis, the first after he broke his collarbone on the first stage of the 2003 Tour, when he went into The Race in fine form and a threat to Armstrong. They both cried again a year later when he told Riis he was leaving the team to go to Phonak. Twice he brought his parents to tears.
McEwen does admit to being near tears on the podium after the first of his twelve Tour de France stage wins in 1999 on the Champs Elysees. In 2002 he won on the Champs again and also won the green jersey. He said his team manager was crying. But not him. He was too "knackered."
The book is thick with Australian and English idioms--blokes, bollocks, blagged, chancers, once the duck has been broken, good on ya, took the piss, bag of spanners, really feel crook... His favorite adjective is "bloody." He is light on the f-word compared to Cavendish's book and even Hamilton's. He claims that Cavendish once called him his idol, but not any more. In Cavendish's rookie season as a pro he was intent on winning more races that year than McEwen had in his and managed to do it by one.
McEwen makes frequent mention of his "mates" and emphasizes the importance of "mateship" among the Aussies, a quality he hasn't seen among other nationalities. He is certainly a proud Australian. "Aussies are battlers and underdogs," he writes. "We roll up our sleeves, get stuck in and do what we have to do. Being Australian means being prepared to fight and work hard for the good cause."
He rode for several years with his fellow countryman Cadel Evans on the Belgian Lotto team before Evans went on to win The Tour with BMC. He thought Evans could have won The Tour one of those years if he had been a more economical rider. He accused him of wasting vast amounts of energy for not being able to ride tighter in the pack. He'd be out on the fringes, fearful of crashing, riding into the wind and having to make constant minor accelerations to keep up. If he'd been conserving energy he would have been able to overcome Carlos Sastre's lead in the final time trail, but fell short, finishing second. He was also upset with Evans for once keeping his eight teammates waiting for half an hour on a rest day ride, something he said he would never have done.
McEwen also has criticism for Garmin's David Zabriskie for going out strong from the very start on a Tour stage in the Pyrenees. He was tired and was dropped 100 meters into the stage, forcing him to struggle and suffer the whole day. "I had a name for him at that point," he confesses, "And it started with an 'F.'"
The book is full of such juicy tidbits. He is open and frank about deal-making in the peloton, offering riders as much as $50,000 dollars to let him win a race, knowing that the publicity from the win would earn him much more in appearance fees on the criterium circuit. He could earn a 100,000 euro bonus from his team for winning five major races a year other than the Grand Tours, and he usually did. He once was awarded a cow for winning a race. He didn't know what to do with it so he sold it to Bernard Hinault for 1,000 euros, knowing that Hinault had a farm.
The friend who loaned me the book said she enjoyed it so much she had read it twice. I could understand why.