Friday, December 25, 2015

Rebecca Rusch--The Queen of Pain

There is no crown atop the head of Rebecca Rusch on the cover of her book "Rusch to Glory" signifying her as the "Queen of Pain," as she was anointed by "Adventure Racing" magazine, and as her publisher VeloPress identifies her in its ads for the book it regularly places in "Velo" magazine, its sister publication.  It's not a title that her modesty allows her to accept.  Even though she has won world championships in three different disciplines--adventure racing, mountain biking and cross country skiing--she maintains a strong humility and doesn't consider herself a queen of anything.  She regularly mentions her vulnerable side, even writing, "I still experience fear almost daily."  As impressive as a crown might be, even more so for her are the world champion rings on the cuff of the jersey she's wearing on the book's cover.

She managed to keep "Queen of Pain" off the cover of her book, but not the somewhat trite phrase "pain cave" on the back cover.  Pain had to be there some where, as overcoming the pain that all-out exertion inflicts upon endurance athletes figures prominently in her narrative.  It's a wonder she wasn't featured in the November "Why we love to suffer" issue of "Velo."  She writes, "You have to be willing to suffer...My biggest advantage is that I know how to suffer and persevere...I break down and feel pain like everyone else, but I just don't quit."  Despite the abundance of pain, she holds off addressing the "Queen of Pain" issue until halfway through her book, a title she balked at, but is willing to go along with to please her sponsors and supporters.

Her relationship with pain began when she ran cross country for her high school in Downers Grove outside of Chicago.  One of the defining moments of her life came when she quit a race in her senior year "to stop the pain," not from an injury, but from her struggles to keep up with the leaders.  It left such a bitter aftertaste that she never wanted to quit a race again. Even though she developed into a world champion, she was no prodigy.  She briefly competed for her college, the University of Illinois, but without encouragement or distinction, so left the team.

After college she was drawn to rock climbing, which introduced her to the world of adventurers.  That led to her being invited to join a team for the blossoming sport of adventure racing--navigating wildernesses for several days, sometimes having to repel down mountains and paddle down rivers. The four or five person teams required one female. She soon distinguished herself enough to put together a team of all women and one guy, upending the notion that women were "mandatory equipment."  Her first team competing in a race in Morocco was a disaster with both her female teammates reduced to crying fits before quitting.  She referred to their performance as a "shit show." But the next team she put together finished fourth in a race in Patagonia, winning the respect and accolades of all.

Her never-die spirit has served her well in all her endeavors, keeping her going during an 18-day paddle on a board through the Grand Canyon with two other women, a feat that had never been attempted before nor since, and on a several day first ascent of El Capitan.  Any one of her remarkable adventures and competitions, not the least of which was spending a year rebuilding a truck, could have filled an entire book.  The several pages she devotes to each is hardly enough.  She doesn't even have space to write about her skiing exploits other than an off-handed mention that among her world titles was one as a masters cross country skier.

The second half of her book is mostly devoted to her mountain biking.  She didn't take up bike racing until the age of 38 when the sport of adventure racing faded away.  She wasn't ready to retire from competition, especially since she had a year left on her Red Bull sponsorship.  A friend suggested she try 24-hour mountain bike racing, since she was so adapt at dealing with sleep deprivation.  Even though she had done a fair amount of biking in adventure racing, she never cared for it.  She hated it more than any other sport she tried, and in fact hadn't ridden a bike in years when it was included in one of her first events.  She was always happy when an event didn't have a biking segment.

But her tenacity and ability to push herself to her limits was particularly suited to the biking.  She won the 24-hour national championship in her first year of competition and then the world championship later that year in 2007.  It wasn't until 2009 that she attempted the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, the highest profile mountain bike competition in the US, if not the world.  It was much shorter than what she was accustomed to and preferred, not much more than eight hours for the leaders.  The longer the race the better for her, but she won it at the age of forty, sharing the podium with Lance Armstrong, the men's winner. It was the first of four straight wins, the most by any woman.  The next year she set a course record and shared the podium with Levi Leipheimer.  She called it the most painful day she ever had on a bike, but also one of the most rewarding.  

Her string of Leadville victories came to an end in 2013 when she finished third.  She was proud of her effort, as she had trouble finding the motivation for the "extra one per cent it takes to go as fast as possible and really make yourself hurt on race day," after learning that a good friend of hers was killed in a biking accident in Ketchum, Idaho, her adopted home town.  Only her boy friend convinced her to race, rather than going home.  She finished the race in tears, not for finishing third, but for the loss of her friend and the joy of competing.

She mentions crying almost as much as suffering.  Sometimes they are linked and sometimes not.  She cries over a death that she witnessed of a fellow competitor in an adventure race.  She cries when she has to back off on a pitch on El Capitan, when her team has to pull out of a race, as she feels tendinitis coming on. She cries when she sees the banner with her name on it across the start line for a 100-mile race she put considerable effort into organizing to celebrate her favorite trails around Ketchum. In 2013.  She cries regularly during a competition in Vietnam, as her father had died there, shot down during the Vietnam War.  She cries when she sells the truck she had rebuilt and lived out of in her nomadic days of subsisting on ramen and tuna.  

Her body is covered with scars, but her favorite is the one on her left thigh from a grinder that continued spinning after she turned it off while working on the truck.  As with all her exploits, including her present work as a fire-fighter in Ketchum, she makes no big deal of engaging in activities generally considered to be in the male domain.  She does point out that women should not feel limited or confined, but she is not preachy.  Hers is an inspiring story for anyone.  The biggest surprise is that it wasn't put into book form until after her 2013 campaign.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Biography of Bernard Hinault

After biographies on Tom Simpson, Fausto Coppi and Eddie Merckx, along with several other books on cycling, William Fotheringham tackles Bernard Himault in the simply named book "The Badger."  One might think it would have been the easiest of his books to write, since he'd been interviewing him for nearly twenty-five years ever since he began covering The Tour de France in 1990, including once at his home in 1993.  He had a further connection to Hinault, having raced himself in the early 1980s with a French club in the north of France near where Hinault grew up.  He had additional insight into Hinault having translated the autobiography of his nemesis Laurent Fignon, "We Were Young and Carefree," that had much commentary on Hinault.  But Fotheringham lamented on his acknowledgements page that writing the book wasn't all that easy, as "the stresses and strains mount" with each book.  I hope that doesn't mean this could be his last book, as they have all been worthy contributions to the writing on bike racing.

Fotheringham could have made the thrust of his book that Hinault was the greatest cyclist of all time, the honor that is generally bestowed upon Eddie Merckx, who he aggrandized  in "Half Man, Half Bike."  But instead of making any judgemental, Fotheringham chooses to give a straightforward biography with some additional commentary on the state of French cycling.  Hinault certainly is one of the all-time greats--one of only four to win The Tour de France five times along with Merckx, Jacques Anqutiil and Miguel Indurain.  He wasn't as voracious for wins as Merckx, but he was as ardent a competitor. Tour winner Lucien Van Impe, who raced against them both, said of Hinault, "I've never seen inner anger like his," which fueled his racing.  When he fully committed himself to winning a race, he generally did.  When he didn't win The Tour, he finished second (twice) or abandoned, which he did once when he was in the lead. Whenever he lined up in the two other Grand Tours, he won them--the Vuelta d'Espagne twice and  the Giro d'Italia three times--an incomparable record.  Only he and Alberto Contador have won all three Grand Tours more than once.

Hinault was such a steely competitor, Fotheringham couldn't find a single case of him being reduced to tears (whether in exaltation or disappointment), as he has in all the others he has written about.  Merckx was such an emotional sort he cried when he learned Santa Claus didn't exist.  One of the most legendary photos of Merckx is of him laying in bed in tears after his eviction from the Giro for testing positive for drugs.  Merckx would no doubt have been shedding tears if he had had to quit The Tour in the lead due to injury, as did Hinault in 1980 after having won it the previous two years, making him the youngest ever to have won it twice.  

Hinault left The Tour under cover of darkness just before the Pyrenees with a painful knee, avoiding the press, not because he was afraid that he would break down in tears, but because he feared he would turn violent, upset with the questions.  He has always been a man prone to strongly and defiantly asserting himself.  One of the photos most synonymous with Hinault is of him leading a rider's strike in his very first Tour in 1978, standing at the forefront of the peloton with his chin thrust forward.  He was one of the youngest riders in The Race, but already had a take-charge, take-no-prisoners mentality.  On another occasion he barreled headlong into striking workers barring the road and then started pummeling them with his fists.  He's hardly mellowed with age, once shoving an intruder off The Tour de France stage during the awards ceremony.

He had the audacity to win the final stage of the 1979 Tour in a breakaway, even though he had The Race all wrapped up, the first Tour winner to a pull off such a stunt since 1935, something that Merckx, The Cannibal, never accomplished.  Ordinarily, the Yellow Jersey concedes the glory of winning that final stage to someone else.

So it should have come as no surprise that Hinault wouldn't defer to Greg LeMond, his teammate, in the 1986 Tour, Hinault's last, even though he had promised he would help him win it after LeMond didn't challenge him in 1985 when Hinault struggled with an injury, as he held on to win his fifth Tour.
An entire book, "Slaying the Badger," was written about their rivalry in the 1986 Tour.  Fotheringham doesn't offer any new perspective or speculation on what Hinault's intent or motivation was, as he sticks to his by-the-numbers rendering of his life.  Most of his research comes from other books and the coverage of "L'Equipe," which he quotes over forty times, often citing the writer of the article.  Many are figures of renown and peers of Fotheringham, such as Jean-Marie LeBlanc, who went on to be the director of The Tour.  

Besides its superb analysis, "L'Equipe" is noted for it's headlines.  Among those he cites is "Now, let's love him."  It came in the 1984 Tour when he was overwhelmed by Fignon, finishing ten minutes behind him on L'Alpe d'Huez, showing his vulnerability for the first time.  Even though he was a four-time winner of The Tour at the time, the French had never fully embraced him.  He was too brash and arrogant and made the winning look too easy.  When he staggered on L'Alpe d'Huez and showed his human side, the public and the press felt a soft spot for him.  His team owner, who happened to be rooming with him, revealed that Hinault acknowledged he had reached his crisis point and was close to tears.

Fotheringham doesn't quote many of his teammates, as did Richard Moore in his Slaying book.  Moore found an array of riders who raved about what a great teammate he could be, despite his treatment of LeMond.  Fotheringham does reveal that he was a rare team leader who would wash his own clothes.

Throughout his career there haven't been enough such glimpses of his humanity to endear him to the French. He is certainly held in high esteem, having been inducted into the French Legion of Honor in  January of1986 even before he retired, but he is not revered, as are many lesser riders.  In my twelve years of riding The Tour route I have never seen a banner or road graffiti honoring him, as are common for Raymond Poulidor and Laurent Jalabert, two other retired champion French cyclists who are part of The Tour entourage and remain fan favorites.  The French prefer those who struggle and show strain.  Hinault won in a ferocious, domineering manner.  He never complained or waxed on about the suffering inherent to the sport, as many riders glorify.  He did acknowledge, "It can be painful, but it hurts because I want to hurt myself.  If I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't."

The final chapter of the book is devoted to the present state of French cycling and the possibility of the French breaking their dry spell of thirty years since their last Tour win--Hinault in 1985.  Fotheringham points out that 1984 was the last year the French dominated their national Tour.  They won the bulk of the stages. Seven of the seventeen teams were French and 54 of the 170 starters.  It was shortly after Hinalt's retirement that high octane drugs took over the sport, which the French riders were less inclined to resort to than others, thus spelling their doom.  He offers a chart in his appendix of how few French riders and riders on French teams have tested positive since the 1998 Featina Affair.  With drug-taking on the wane both Fotheringham and Hinault believe the French can reassert themselves.  But to do it they must be aggressive and abide by the Law of Hinault--"Attack."