Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Tears of Marty Nothstein

Early in his autobiography, "The Price of Gold," Marty Nothstein writes that growing up he was taught to never cry, as "tears are for the weak."  I feared this might be a warning to researchers such as myself, who seek instances of tears in the world of cycling, that we should set this book aside and look elsewhere.  I am glad that I didn't, as not only did tears flow here and there, but the book was also a most unflinching and quite well-written portrayal of racing on the track.

Though Nothstein only cites one crying episode of his own, when he fails to medal as an 18-year old at the 1989 Moscow junior world championships, he came very close to tears once again when he realized his all-consuming ambition to win the gold medal in the sprint at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  Before the podium ceremony he could feel his eyes welling, but he refuses to let himself cry, as he reminds himself that tears are a sign of weakness.  Tears do stream down his mother's face in the stands, not the only time she cries in the book.  Earlier he tells how tears would well up in her eyes when her husband would stay out late after work drinking, eventually resulting in their divorce.

For four years Nothstein devoted his life with a single-minded drive and determination to win gold in Sydney after finishing second in the Atlanta Olympics, failing to win gold on his home turf despite being the favorite.  He might have cried then, though he doesn't say so.  Instead, he physically punishes himself in the weight room and on the bike to get as strong as possible.  He trains and trains with hardly a break for four years, pausing only during the hunting season.  Nothing matters to him other than winning that medal.

The book's subtitle is "The toll and triumph of one man's Olympic dream."  The toll, he acknowledges, is allowing his narrow focus to transform him into an intolerable person to everyone around him.  He neglects his wife, a former elite track rider herself, and their two young children.  When he calls home during his long absences he can hear his children crying in the background, but his wife doesn't want to bother him with why.   He writes of her being in tears when she tells him she's pregnant before they have decided to marry two years before the Atlanta Olympics.  He's not upset, though he doesn't want it to disrupt his training.

He testifies that being at the birth of his son was the happiest day of his life, "a million times better than winning any bike race."  Only a few months before he had won his first world championship at the age of 23 and thought that was the happiest day of his life.

His compulsion to be number one, and with the number 1, so consumed him that whenever he pumped gas he would stop at $11.11.  When he traveled, he requested seats on airplanes and rooms in hotels rooms with the number 1.  Whenever he went on a training ride he made sure the mileage on his cycle computer ended with the number 1.  His wife caught him once circling around their driveway after a ride and asked him why.  He didn't tell her.  It was his own private motivational device.

Track racers, especially the sprinters, built up their chest muscles, unlike road racers.  They are big, tough guys, who show no weakness,thus is aversion to giving in to his emotions and crying.   He confesses to being a beast on the bike.  Before a match with an arch rival he writes, "We revert to our most hardened demeanors. I want to kill him.  He wants to kill me.  I ready myself for a cage match."  Riders are regularly disqualified for rough riding.  He once swerves a wheel into an opponent and shaves off a piece of his shoe with his bladed spokes.

He competed in more than 28 European six-day races, more than any American in the modern era.  He admits the results are always fixed, so only had one win in Moscow.  Matches are sometimes fixed too, or at least one rider bribes another to let him win. He once refused a pay-off from a German rival to let up at the 1995 World Championships even though he could have used the money as his long-time EDS sponsor had just withdrawn from the sport. The German initially offered him $8,000, then twelve and then fifteen just before the start.  The German won anyway.  It ended Nothstein's five year streak of winning at least one medal at the world championships.

But the world championships didn't matter as much to him as the Olympics.  He did not do any tapering to peak for the World Championships in that four year period between Atlanta and Sydney, using them as part of his Olympic training. And he has no regrets.  During his 15-year career as a cyclist he won 35 National Championships, four Pan-Am gold medals and three world championship titles and set numerous national, world and Olympic records.   He concludes that he would gladly trade them all for that lone Olympic gold medal, fulfilling a dream he had since he was a kid.

Drugs receive no mention in the book other than marijuana.  As a 17-year old he catches some of the older pro riders passing around a joint before a race at his home town Trexlertown, Pennsylvania track.  His mentor, former Olympian Mark "the Outlaw" Whitehead, was among them.  Whitehead grabs him and says, "Don't you ever fucking touch this stuff.  If I ever see you smoking this I'll fucking kill you."  He never does.

Nothstein and his co-writer, Ian Dille, a racer himself, offer a most honest portrayal of the sport, citing such incidents that a more rose-tinted biography might have skipped.  The book largely dwells on Nothstein's hard work and his triumphs, and only makes passing reference to his "neuroses," almost as if they felt they had to concoct some such thing to make his story more compelling.  This is not a book about a disorder, other than a deep commitment to being the best one can be.  He is not haunted by demons as are other cyclists in their autobiographies--Bradley Wiggins over his absent, alcoholic father, Graeme Obree by his suicidal tendencies, Davis Phinney and his Parkinson's disease.

The book hardly insults the intelligence of the well-versed cycling fan just explaining a few of the basics (a velodrome, BMX and rollers). But the editors there at Rodale Press manage to allow the spelling of this year's Tour de France winner as Wiggans.

The book also offers up a curiously paradoxical index.  It neglects Armstrong, but not LeMond.  Likewise, it overlooks Wiggins, but not Cavendish. Merckx makes the cut, but not Zabel.  But at least it does have an index, lending an extra degree of authenticity to the book.  It is a most worthwhile contribution to the literature on the sport.  It may have been late coming just published this year, six years after his retirement, but worth the wait.

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