Sunday, January 20, 2013

Thoughts on Cycling

Somewhere in the deep recesses of our basement sits a small white, yellow and black cycling cap with 'Renault' on the side and the bill. Honestly I don't remember how I acquired it back in those early '80's, but it is a token of the inception of my affinity and sometimes downright fandom of (racing) cycling. Just as I love riding, commuting, and mixed-terraining now, I've loved all sorts of cycling these many years since I found this Renault-Gitane hat from the early '80's. I know Doug knows, but in case you don't, it is from Greg Lemond's first team, on which he won a world championship and finished on the podium in his first Tour de France in I believe '84. That lead to scouring the newspaper for snippets information from the '86 Tour which Lemond won, and then scouring even more in '87 when Lemond was hurt but Andy Hampsten would make an impact after his 4th place; he didn't make too much of an impact. That led to out-and-out enthusiasm in the late '80's during Lemond's reign. Before his dramatic '89 victory, I had the good fortune of my parents living outside Philadelphia at the time. My dad had some business connections and we were able to watch the '89 Core States Classic, hosted by one of the corporate tents. Greg raced in a Coors Light jersey, as his post-shooting/knee contract led him to a two-bit Belgium team in Europe, but under the Coors Light banner around here. He didn't win (teammate Greg Oravetz did) but it was thrilling to see a Tour WINNER in the flesh. Little did I realize that a month later he would win the most dramatic victory of all. I watched his  '90 Tour win while studying in Spain for the summer. I can remember sitting in the lounge TV room of our hostel watching Lemond and Indurain drop Lejarreta and duke it out up Luz Ardidan, the site of an Indurain victory, one earned while wheel-sucking Lemond the entire climb. An elegant rider, he was, though, to his credit. In Spain, too, I remember coming over the Navacerrada climb from Segovia to Madrid , excited at the hundreds of painted names on the route, all from the recent Vuelta a Espana, at that time a Spring race won by Marco Giovanetti, certainly the highlight of his palmares.

Those Tours created a bit of a demand in the States and soon thereafter, the US media began offering a bit more of a glimpse of Tour stages, as well as the yearly 'Hell of the North' with Paris-Roubaix. Lemond faltered in '91, losing time here and there like a mortal cyclist, but soldiering on to 7th. Age does that. 1992 ushered in a new era of my cycling fandom. The (new) wife and I, young and full of pluck and sans children, began making annual sojourns to see the big boys race in the Tour DuPont, conveniently held along the central East Coast, within a day's drive of Louisville. Most excitingly, we saw Lemond take his final yellow jersey at the top of the Wintergreen climb in VA. Photos of that day include those of two-time winner Laurent Fignon, future two-time world champion Gianni Bugno and wife favorite Phil Anderson of Motorolo. My memory fails a bit, but I think we saw three straight editions of the Tour DuPont, with Lemond, Alcala, and a certain Lance Armstrong winning respectively in '92, '93, and '94. Coming home from one of those editions, we lost an oil plug while descending a huge mountain. To our absurd luck, a state trooper was sitting on the exit ramp and called for help- this in the era sans cell phones, or at least sans cellphone for us. Another '93 trip had me and two friends heading north to outside Bloomington, IN for a NORBA moutain bike race, at the time a significant racing series for the sport that had come to prominence in the states. The course was a soupy mess, but to my delight,  the winner was none other than John Tomac, at the time the star of the circuit in both XC and downhill, and a rider too that spent time in Europe riding roads for Motorola. Who else rode for Motorola? One Lance Armstrong. Lance was a star in the making. His world championship in '93 created THE next American cycling star and provided a softening elixir for US fans given the waning of Lemond. They couldn't be more different, Lemond in general the gentleman, calm, steady (of character), Lance the loudmouth from the South (TX, as it were). I have numerous photos (not yet scanned, to my chagrin) of Lance, George, Frankie, Raul, Phil (Anderson) and the many other American riders of the day, in addition to a certain Gianni Bugno in his Rainbow jersey and me, a goofy-looking American with a cheesy grin. He wasn't smiling, but my wife said we were going to get the picture, and we did.

The Tour DuPont ceased being, and at that point my cycling fandom became one of TV viewing, Pay-per-minute cycling results phone lines during the Spring classics, and god-bless them World Cycling Production videos. It became a early tradition to ask for and receive a highlighted race of the season: '94 Flanders with Bugno, '95 San Sebastian with Armstrong, '96 Fleche-Walloone with Armstrong (sandwiched between two wins by Jalabert, the greatest all-rounder of the day), various Paris-Roubaixs because, well, it is P-R, historic videos of Eddy, L'enfer du Nord-ASunday in Hell, still the best cycling video and one to watch every year. And then in '98 the amazing happened. Armstrong post-cancer finished 4th in the Vuelta and had some encouraging results in the Fall. 1999 brought more encouraging results, and by that time- I believe- the Tour was being broadcast daily, and absurd notion back in '87 when I might or might not find out how Hampsten did in the Tour based on whether he finished top-5 for the little results box. Teaching has its benefits, one of which being the opportunity to watch live Tour stages in the mornings in July. 1999 began it all. Lance's run. USPostal's domination of stage racing rarely- if ever- seen in such a dramatic strength of team-riding force (except that, of course, of the '86 La Vie Claire team of Lemond, Hinault and Hampsten finishing 1,2,4. That was a good team). They looked like Cipollini's train in the last 2k of a sprinters' race, except that they did it day-after-day in the mountains.

I sort of watch the Lance interview p.1, but I also slept through part of it (the early part). My takeaway is that Lance is a narcissist, sociopath, megalomaniac, and highly deluded individual. What needs to be said is that occasionally I've found myself  meeting highly successful people, and also working under bosses whom I would describe comparably. My 2 cents is that highly successful people are are often that: tenacious, driven, focused, bloodthirsty, egotistical. Many aren't. Most are. Perhaps I'm jaded by some life experiences. The second night I found more interesting with the discussion of his family because, personally, I found him to be more real, genuine. Many have asked how much he practiced his acting. I found his demeanor more strained, because the strain of lying to your kids in such a way would be incredible. He is flawed. He is bad. He did cheat. And at the same time, he is a winner. At what price I guess we'll see publicly  and he will have to live with privately. He is the financier caught stealing from the retirement funds, the politician caught taking kickbacks or canoodling with men in the bathroom, the priest(s) caught abusing boys. Liars and Rogues, all.

The 1990s generation of cyclists have diminished my fandom. I watch soccer now to get my Euro fix. Lance and his foolishness ruined the Tour for me, Museeuw the classics, much less the litanies of Rebellin, Di Luca, Contador..Hell, just name an Italian or Spanish cyclist from the '90s/'00s and how can you trust their results? Their hard work, yes. Lance did outwork everyone else. He was more focused, more disciplined, more addicted. In general, though, the sport is sort of gross. I didn't watch much of Wiggens' victory this year. Ironically, I found the racing boring, the cast of characters more "character role" than "protagonist". Where is the drama? And how can you get excited for Boonen's domination, Museeuw's spiritual son, his torch-bearer.

That's where my fandom is, etched along the roads of rural western VA, in the grainy creases of Spanish TV sets and in the pages of 'Winning' magazine, by-gone eras. Perhaps Taylor or Tejay can rekindle the spark. Certainly I could get excited for a Taylor Phinney Paris-Roubaix victory. That said, it will be an excitement mixed with regret or apathy. It was a hell of a run, that '99-'05 streak, but at what cost? That is Lance's legacy.

3 comments:

Kentucky Philosopher said...

I remember that 99 tour. I was working in North Carolina for the summer (wife and kids stayed in Kentucky) and I had an internet connection in my office. I followed the tour on velonews.com and I was super psyched.

In 1991 I had just graduated from college and I was working as a dishwasher at a guest ranch in Meeker Park, Colorado. I was pulling for Lemond but had to follow via the newspaper blurbs. Much less exciting.

Pondero said...

Cycling is such a beautiful sport. The simple machines, the elements, the visual dynamics of the peloton, the tension of the breakaway, and the transition of the relationship between ally and foe with breakaway companions all make cycling a spectacle. When I followed it closely, I thought only a few bad guys doped. When I perceived otherwise, I walked away. If it becomes more pure, I might be back.

Tex69 said...

@Pondero, eloquent as ever. As to "pure", I find it unlikely. $$ corrupts, you know. More salary means buying more goodies to enhance winning odds.

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