While I was riding I thought a lot about the last TdF and the doping. It's good that cycling is at least trying to fix the doping problem - but dammit, you get a sense that the inmates have taken over the asylum. As a racer, you are a natural fanboy of great racers and want to believe the racers are telling the truth. But the ones that get caught doping sound like prisoners - you know that nobody in prison ever did anything, right? Just ask them. We want to believe, and it seems like a lot of us need to believe to keep the fantasy alive. But it makes us act like an abused spouse or significant other - 'oh, it's alright. He didn't cheat on me... it's WADA and UCI. They're the bad guys. This black eye on the sport? No big deal. Um, it was an accident, really. They'll change. They won't do it again."
Honestly, it's embarassing the way we crawl back to these guys and keep looking up to them, even in spite of their cheating and lying. Ordinarily I'd find the abusive spouse comparison pretty lame, facile or even offensive, but let's remember that these guys are often accused of committing felonies. It's not domestic violence, but it is serious crime, so I don't think the comparison is too out of line, especially when you consider the fraud they perpetrate on the fans, on whose back and wallets this sport rests. Yeah, they're cheating the sport, they're cheating us, breaking our hearts, but most of all breaking the law.
Even with all that, I think the competition this year in the TdF was magnificent, exciting and great cycling in so many stages, and still a great event. But the pain of knowing that a lot of those riders wouldn't be where they are but for law breaking and cheating, does not go away.
While I was riding today I thought about why I ride. I ride because my first road bike, a Ross, let me go 20 miles per hour regularly. I got it after I fell in love my with swim coach's bike - I think it was a Peugot or a Motobecane. He used to ride that bike from Fayetteville to Chittenango (you have to be from Syracuse to know these names) in 20 minutes. I was stunned - 20 minutes? He must have ridden like a rocket to do that! (Of course it was only 8 miles, but it seemed like forever to a 15 or 16 year-old kid, and I was in love with the bike. So my parents got me the blue Ross. It was so much nicer than the cast iron little Schwinns and fat tire old recycled bikes I had as a kid. I took it to my first time trial, a weekly ten miler that Onondaga Cycling used to host. I rode something like 29 minutes, no great shakes. I fell over in the grass at the end, spent. In spite of being a pretty fair high school athlete, the riding took more aerobic engine than I had developed in soccer, hoops and track, and competitive swimming during the summer. The big folks - the grown ups with their exotic Italian machines with Campy Athena gruppos - were mostly solicitous. I remember one girl who was really nice to me, this six foot tall brunette, with long hair and *amazing* curves, apparently imported from Italy or some other country that lacked bra manufacturing technology. She was there with her boyfriend but her kindness to a 16 year-old boy who was easily impressed by 6 foot tall beauties with great legs and big... um... eyes... dude, that was awesome! They invited me back out again, and I went a few times. A local nuclear physicist who had been a hell of a racer, apparently - "Movin' Manfred" - loaned me his custom made Follis, which improved my speed by a couple minutes - I wasn't any fitter, but I felt like I needed to ride a lot faster to be worthy of that bike from exotic France. I was hooked. A couple years later I tried hooking up with a local road club in Germany when I was in the Army but that didn't work so well - they all raced and were pretty serious about it, and if you couldn't hang doing 24-25 on the easy club ride, they didn't really want to know you. So I did some triathlons on a nice Canondale Criterium, and enjoyed the feeling of speed and grace that was fast enough for me. Lacking a mentor, I didn't really know how to suffer, but rode well enough to do nicely in the bike leg of triathlons, and to be the fastest guy on a bike among my non-racing friends. I put the bike up for a long time when I got out of the Army, trading in the Canondale on a Kona MTB, and only got back on a road bike a couple years ago. Then it all came back to me - the grace, the wind, the speed, the hot chick on the Italian bike with the Campy Athena gruppo...
I ride my road bike because I love the feel of it, I love bike culture and the road bike aesthetic. No, I don't look good on a bike. I probably look like a rhino humping a field mouse. (Believe me, I felt empathy with young Mr. Soler, who looks like a spider climbing on a pebble when he rides his bike). But I feel damned good on a bike - I feel fast, and graceful. I freely admit I am a large man not well suited aesthetically for riding. Even so, I have always had a good turn of speed. As a big fellow, it was speed, not quick - that means it always took a while to get up to speed, and I was hard to deflect off course, a big hitter in rugby, which was my drug of choice for nearly 20 years. But fast as I could get moving, I was not graceful, nor did it feel good to go fast wearing aluminum spikes and churning through thick grass, looking for some defender to bowl over, or some hapless ball carrier to crush. There was no beauty to the sport, nothing you could muse on. Oh, it was a fine time alright... just that except for an occasional string of lovely passes, or some magic involving a golden kicking boot, there was nothing in it that regularly stirred my higher instincts. The road bike... that's a bit different. At times the speed is effortless; when I have to work and it hurts, if it's not too hilly, I can go faster than a lot of people who look like they should be faster. I don't know how it looks, but it feels beautiful, and that's what matters.
None of this has anything to do with the Tour de France, and that's the point. I love the Tour, and especially love the Giro. The Northern Classics, and especially Paris Roubaix, are the pinnacle of racing in my mind. But those races are just gravy, as far as I'm concerned. I race and I ride because a road bike moves me. Swooping through a set of curves, slingshotting out of a traffic circle, catching the perfect spot in the draft in a hard paceline... these things strike a chord in me. And that moment in a race where the pack pulls out and first hits racing speed, 75 riders elbow-to-elbow, a sea of colors, shoulders and helmets dense enough so that a cat thrown on the lanterne rouge could hop and skip up to the front, if the jet engine noise of the pack didn't bother it... I just love that. That's why I ride. It has nothing to do with the dopers, they can't damage the aesthetic of the sport. Sometimes I sit and watch the TdF with the sound down, even if it's just Liggett and Paul Sherwen commenting. It's that gorgeous that I can just sit there and watch the fearful symmetry of the bikes, the teams at the front with an agenda, the riders in the break, the sunflowers, the chateauxes, the tifosi, the team cars, the grabbass in the peloton. It has nothing to do with who wins or loses, and contrary to what Lance says, it's *all* about the bike. Yes, the other stuff matters on some level, but not on the level of the human heart. I think if we understood that better, the doping scandals would be less upsetting, we'd feel less betrayed, and we'd be able to keep it in perspective. We bend over backwards to excuse the artists, the riders, because to us they are so intertwined with the bike that we cannot separate bike and rider in our mind, race from racer. No, the scandals aren't going to destroy the sport, unless you are one of the people who doesn't really love bikes all that much in the first place.
What put me in mind of this was an email that regular reader and riding buddy James sent me about why he rides. It reminded me about why I ride, why I love racing and watching racing, and why, with particularly beautiful bikes, I can just sit there and look at them sometimes. With James' permission, here's his story - it's the best part of this loooong blog entry, so I'll leave it with you to mull over for a week or so.
I grew up just up the road from where I live now, in Loch Haven. When I started high school my parent began sponsoring midshipmen. I thought it was great. I've always had an affinity for the military. I liked how my father, uncles, and their friends called it "the service." When they said that I saw it in capital letters in my head. It was/is a special calling. One of the midshipmen we sponsored, Robert McMillan, was a few years older than the typical, straight out of high school, plebe. He was an enlistee for a few years prior and worked his way up and into an Academy slot. I recognize now that he had a different swagger than the rest. It was more of an authenticity than an affectation or overt confidence.
I remember when he rode out to the house one Saturday (he rode everywhere). He rolled up on a Peugeot I think. It was the first real road bike I remember seeing (toe clips, down tube shifting, drilled Campagnolo brake levers and derailleur). It was 1984 and my head was filled with Nelson Vails, Connie Carpenter, Alexi Greywal, Eric Heiden, etc. I was hooked. He left the bike at the house for the weekend and said I could take it out for a spin. I was on that over sized bike before he was out of the driveway.
That bike was a completely different sensation from every riding before. It wasn't the tooling around I had done on my BMX. It wasn't the overloaded wobbling I had done on my Ross, on my way to crabbing the days away during the summer. This was smooth, quiet, fast. This was aero, toe clipped adrenaline. I remember progressing through the gears and feeling the load on my legs. Robert and my mother had to track me down with the car the next day.
I rode quite a bit after that. I saved up and went to Capital Bikes with my father. We picked out a Raleigh touring bike that was too big. I stripped it down to get as close to the Robert's Peugeot and the bikes I had seen in Cycling magazine. I did a lot of the Annapolis Bicycle Club rides. I came across a newspaper ad for a crit at University of Maryland. No training, no equipment a total Cutter. It was a disaster. I didn't I even know enough to know if they pulled me or not.
Man, isn't that a great story? If you are one of the regular readers but you don't blog yourself and you have a story to tell about why you ride, let me know, I'll be happy to print it. I find that it refreshes me to find out about how others found their enthusiasm for this most beautiful of sports.