Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Variations on a Theme

Fourty-three nineteen. My gear lever feels like a scab on a wound. During our reconnaissance ride I was using forty-three twenty here. Now I’m sticking to the nineteen, a matter of willpower. My twenty was still as clean as a whistle. Shifting is a kind of painkiller, and therefore the same as giving up. After all, if I wanted to kill my pain, why not choose the most effective method? Road racing is all about generating pain.1

Le Tour idéal serait un Tour où un seul coureur réussirait à terminer l'epreuve.2
Heroism is a word that gets thrown around a lot in reference to athletes. Timely plays, modest philanthropy, hanging out with a terminally ill fan and avoiding getting caught with weed will all get you casually labeled "a hero". But this is facile pulp journalism, a lazy elision of physical and moral feats. I'm not suggesting there's no overlap, and I don't mean to deride the character of top athletes: skill-based sports often demand ascetic, life-consuming amounts of work as a basic prerequisite to a professional career, after all. But for all the hustle and heartbreak games scatter in their wake, how often do we see athletes not merely accept risk, but actually choose to suffer for the sake of an abstract principle? That is: how often do we see heroism?3
1: From The Rider, by Tim Krabbé,a lyrical, digressive telling of the one-day Tour de Mont Aigoual. It is the most beautiful sports book I've yet read, and since in four tries I can't match Donald Antrim, I might as well quote him: "The Rider is a great read—a great ride. Krabbé's half-day race, delivered kilometer by kilometer onto the page, shows the sport for what it is: painful, exhilarating, tactical, relational, fast, slow, dangerous, consuming, prone to mechanical failure, heroic, futile. The race—and the book about the race—becomes a raining and cold history of the rider's life. But to say that the race is the metaphor for the life is to miss the point. The race is everything. It obliterates whatever isn't racing. Life is the metaphor for the race."

2: "The ideal Tour would be a Tour where only a single rider would manage to finish the race." -Henri Desgrange, inventor of the Tour de France

3: There are lots and lots of variously valid definitions of heroism kicking around. Henri-Frederic Amiel, in his Journal of 1849, defined it as "the brilliant triumph of the soul over the flesh—that is to say, over fear.... Heroism is the dazzling and glorious concentration of courage." (When did it go out of fashion to be so rousingly earnest about ideals? World War I?) It seems to me that, in diagnosing heroism, the two important bits are facing the prospect of material or spiritual suffering and choosing to accept it teleologically. Suffering disappointment at a loss is not heroic. Getting hurt is not heroic, though playing hurt might well be, and so on. I should also probably acknowledge that by the terms I'm setting here, heroism is, strictly speaking, very common in sports, but I'm interested in what is extraordinary; nothing reducible to professionalism qualifies.
Let's take a philological detour here. A lot of the vocabulary of sports actually stands in opposition to heroism: "makes the game easy"; "lets the game come to him/her"; "a natural"; or "the genetic lottery", which reduces elite performance to a function of luck.4 Nearly all sports are games, and quite explicitly designed to be fun. But there's a reason you don't see too many cyclists nicknamed "Kid". Cycling is all about generating pain. Take, for example, the 1910 account of Victor Breyer, as he stood at the top of the Aubisque with his colleague Alphonse Steinès:
His body heaved at the pedals, like an automaton, on two wheels. He wasn't going fast but he was at least moving. I trotted alongside him and asked 'Who are you? What's going on? Where are the others?' Bent over his handlebars, his eyes riveted on the road, the man never turned his head nor uttered one sole word. He continued and disappeared round a turn. Steinès had read his number and consulted the riders' list. Steinès was dumfounded. 'The man is François Lafourcade, a nobody. He has caught and passed all the cracks' ... Another quarter-hour passed before the second rider appeared, whom we immediately recognized as Octave Lapize. Unlike Lafourcade, Lapize was walking, half leaning on, half pushing his machine. But unlike his predecessor, Lapize spoke, and in abundance. 'You are assassins, yes, assassins!' To discuss matters with a man in this condition would have been cruel and stupid.

Breyer was the assistant organizer of the Tour de France; Steinès, the man who had proposed racing over the Pyrenees. The next year, not only did they return, they decided to include the fucking Alps. The hundredth anniversary of that second decision wrapped up Sunday on the Champs-Elysées. Fittingly, it was a race designed for climbers, featuring seven days in the mountains, with four hors-catégorie summit finishes (including the highest finish in race history atop the 8,678' Col du Galibier), and just a single, hilly individual time trial.5 For only the second time since 1967, the Tour began with a mass start instead of a prologue.6 Something to bear in mind: when two riders of equal talent race up a mountain, the one who can suffer more without his or her legs giving out will be the first to the summit. Barring a mechanical failure, it is exactly that simple.
4: And there's truth to that. Do you really believe that with a body as large, athletic, coordinated and durable as Shaquille O'Neill's, you couldn't make an NBA roster? A Turkish league one? One in Australia's NBL? Bet I could.

5: Since riders who finish in a group all receive the same time and since, with a constantly revolving set of fresh legs to break the air up front, a group can nearly always catch outliers given enough flat distance, the two main opportunities for riders to set some distance between themselves in the overall standings are in the climbs, where small differences in how fresh your legs are and how deep you're willing to dig can quickly balloon into hard-to-close gaps, and time trials, where everyone races against the clock and drafting isn't allowed. Those shots of riders in teardrop helmets and skinsuits that make them look like aliens? That's time trialing. But where climbing is typically ruled by whippets of men with gaudy power-to-weight ratios, the greater pure power output of a large rider will often translate into very quick time trials. Some, like Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, are very good at both; some, like the Schleck brothers or Fabian Cancellara, only one. It is not coincidence that, while all three stand 6'1", Spartacus is listed at a full 30 lbs heavier than the Schlecks.

6: A Prologue is a short individual time trial at the very start of a stage race. It provides a level of pageantry with its dramatic starting gate and individual aero jerseys for every standing national and world champion, as well as, for the Tour anyway, the defending race champion. It also provides a pecking order of sorts, as contenders get a chance to establish a time gap in the standings from the very start.
The Tour is comprised of perhaps the 21 most high-profile bike races in the world; four individual jersey competitions, each contested by a different set of riders over the three weeks; an award for the most aggressive rider; and a team competition. To try to encompass the narrative density and sprawl that follows from all that in a single recap would be such an oversimplification as to be disingenuous: I could no more pull that off than play part of the Brandenburg Concertos on the harmonica. Over the next several days, there will be a series of posts giving the story of the Tour for a single rider. Hopefully, taken together, they will give some approximation of the spirit of the greatest single sporting event there is.

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