Real, big-time bike racing was descending on my town. Barriers lined the sidewalks and minivans festooned with roof racks filled the available parking. A door slid open and there were the two stars of the Panasonic-Sportlife team: Viatcheslav Ekimov and Olaf Ludwig, both Olympic Gold Medalists.
While crowds mobbed Greg LeMond just 100 feet away, just a few people stood around the Panasonic-Sportlife van—bike racers and Winning subscribers all. The Panasonic-Sportlife team was to our select audience the ultimate Belgian PRO team. Ekimov and Ludwig signed a few autographs before sitting down on the tail of the van. What happened next was a revelation to me.
I had read that pro cyclists got their legs massaged and had even seen a short clip of a post-race massage on Tour de France coverage, but the pre-race massage was news to me. Further, the experience was my first with a warming embrocation. I watched as the soigneur applied the cream to the pros legs, watched as his thumbs and fingers moved through their hamstrings as if he were pushing through pudding; bread doesn’t knead this easily.
Suddenly, the aroma hit me. It was distinctly European, heady and exotic, as if it were the smell of bicycle racing itself. I had no idea that the massage was helping to warm their muscles in anticipation of the day’s stage. It took talking to a Cat. II teammate of mine to explain how a proper pre-race massage with a warming “liniment,” as he called it, could help prepare a cyclist for the day’s demands.
That I’d been exposed to something I hadn’t read about in any of the magazines made me feel like I had been let in on a secret. I was hooked. That there could be a wealth of hidden knowledge not even hinted at in the magazines gave the sport a new depth for me. As much as I loved the straightforward simplicity of my impression of bike racing, the idea that your success might depend on your pre-race knowledge and ability to prepare made bike racing alluringly complicated.
Before my next race I went out and bought a tub of Icy Hot. It didn’t have the impressive Euro scent but I was amazed at its ability to shut out the cold. More than anything, what stayed with me from that day was the smell of the embrocation and the way their muscles, especially their hamstrings, drooped from their legs as if they were wet cloth. I couldn’t yet reconcile how something so relaxed, so without tension, could contain such explosive and controlled power.
Without which there cannot be. It’s a Latin legal term for what is indispensable, essential— the body that denotes the crime. More recently it has come to stand, in a broader social context, for the thing that gives meaning to life.
That we think of cycling as sine qua non is no surprise. Anything that adds meaning to life with each rising sun cannot be otherwise. For us, cycling is a beloved part of any meaningful day.
This spring a friend had a crash—his second this year—which left him sore for weeks. It was enough to shake his faith in cycling. He admitted some weeks later that he considered getting off the bike.
His statement got me to thinking about the cyclists I’ve known over the years who have given up the sport. Some drifted away, appearing on group rides less and less over a succession of months until one day someone asks, “Hey, whatever happened to…?” Others seem to vanish, disappearing as suddenly as if they had moved to another city. And then others moved on to the next fad when Lance retired. Ten years ago they were into fly fishing, and now it’s golf or something. No matter which way, I’m always mystified by their turn away from the sport. How someone can log hundreds of miles per week for years at a time and then suddenly turn it off like a light switch at bedtime is a bigger mystery than the fall of Rome.
Notwithstanding the incredible demands that family and career can place on our lives, some cyclists simply move away from the sport. That anyone can decide, “I’ve had enough of this,” has caused me to wonder just what it is so many of us find so requisite. We may think cycling’s draw is to obvious what Michael Jackson is to freak show, but we also know we’re in the minority on this. Frankly, it’s easier to understand those who never come to appreciate cycling’s draw than it is to comprehend those who wander from the light.
Cycling’s place in the lives of the lifers isn’t at the pinnacle; it only seems so. It’s easy to think that because cycling is often the most enjoyable thing we do in a day, it must be the best part of our lives, but you’d never say such words aloud. The truth is, cycling can be the glue that holds the fragile bits of our lives together. It’s the release that makes paying the bills, taking out the trash and the unfinished action item possible.
Back in the good ole days when Greg LeMond was wearing the yellow jersey, he made a statement that gets at the heart of the matter. Alluding to his family he said (and I paraphrase), ‘Without them none of this would have been possible. I’d never have won the Tour; I wouldn’t be in yellow now.’
And maybe that’s the secret. Cycling gives us the ability to achieve more than we could without it. Our relationship to cycling is a sort of marriage. But it’s married to more than us—we’ve wedded it to our lives. When it works, it can teach us not the value of sticking with something, but how walking away from anything robs us of more than the thing itself.
I wrote this in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The piece never found a home but the attacks and the piece came to mind recently as I watched a preview of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. As this is the season for vacations, I thought it might be an appropriate time to see the light.
It’s no secret that I believe time off from work spent away from home isn’t a vacation unless you have a bike with you. I’m realizing that I just don’t believe it’s a good idea to travel without a bike. By day I write for a trade publication that covers the electronic security industry. I spend my time interviewing the people you pay to make your home and your business safe. As I write this it is the 24th of September, 2001 and most of America is trying to come to grips with the aftermath of what are now being termed the Sept. 11th attacks. Less than two weeks prior to the attacks I was in New York city for a trade show at the Jacob Javits center. Using one of those great little passes you get from the USCF for travel on United, I loaded up my bike carrier and headed for the city that never sleeps (and trust me, it doesn’t).
I had but two specific goals for my bike while in NYC. I wanted to go for a ride with writer J.P. Partland, and I wanted to ride in Central Park, the latter being a quintessentially New York-roadie activity in my imagination.
My Times Square hotel gave me close proximity to the park and I rose early to go spin around the loop. Years of VeloNews reading gave me an appreciation of the course’s few features, so when I rounded the loop’s north end and hit the road’s one real hill—a hill insignificant to racers at 20 mph, but known for breaking big men when hit at 30 miles per hour—I felt like I was walking from the desert into Mecca.
For those of you who remember the name Jackson Lynch, former PR honch for Polo Sports and Trek, and before that an editor for Mountain Biker and Bicycle Guide, he was the one guy on a road bike I saw that morning. You might think that mention to be an aside, but it is part of my point: The bicycle has the ability to make the big world seem small.
After my ride the next day with J.P., I got brave. I decided to take my bike downtown and play in traffic. I figured if I was going to go on record and claim that the best way to see the world was from the seat of a bicycle, I better back it up by riding in a less idyllic setting. I headed straight down Broadway for the financial center. Once, a few years back, a girlfriend completely enamored of America’s financial center had driven me through the district late at night. Even at two in the morning it seemed to pulse with an unseen ingenuity.
I rode several loops around the World Trade Center. At the time, the event seemed significant only on a personal level: I was in the presence of one of the world’s most significant structures. I knew most of my friends would think me crazy. Maybe not now. On the same ride I made sure to pass the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. I marveled at each of those landmarks, ever in awe of the New York commerce machine.
Sitting here, those buildings, and the people who worked in them, are present tense for me. The smells of the diesel, the deli I passed, the way my eyes teared at the exhaust, the angle I craned my neck to peer through the shadows cast on everyone below, and the reverberations of the trucks, buses, cars and honking taxis off the surrounding concrete captivated me with its raw energy. I’d leap off the line, dodge the traffic, only to pause for the light and a look at the changing skyline.
I was visiting the folks at Specialized for a writing project unrelated to BKW last fall when I got the invitation to join Mike Sinyard and some Specialized staffers for Mike’s weekly abuse session called the Big Easy. To the degree that one can reasonably expect truth in advertising I think the Big Easy strikes the right balance. It was certainly “big” but it was anything but “easy.” Starting in Morgan Hill at Sinyard’s home, the ride takes in a clockwise loop that heads over the mountains for the coast through Aptos and Soquel, and then back over the mountains before dropping back into Morgan Hill.
No one had a GPS unit on their bike, so my route notes are limited to estimations by those present. I’m told the loop was 80-85 miles and had 10,000-11,000 feet of climbing. We were gone roughly five hours.
I’ve been hearing about this ride for some years and have been very curious about it. I knew if I ever had the chance I would move heaven and earth to attend. Sinyard rides a Roubaix exclusively; I suspected that the roads used in this ride might have something to do with it.
Our route took us over three significant climbs and by significant I mean they were all long enough to make a Cat. V cry. The first climb turned to dirt less than half way up and demanded steady power, careful steering and a light touch through the loosest of the gravel. The descent down the other side was steep, narrow, occasionally rutted and as twisty as the plot of a Hollywood thriller. It was, in short, hairy enough to take the edge off the fun.
We rolled into the hamlet of Corralitos and stopped at the tiny market to refill on water. Sinyard has an utterly charming habit of referring to everything that’s not water as juice. It reminds me of something my dad would say, but his habit of looking after all those present had a warmth and caring that was more maternal than paternal. Andrew Hammond, one of the instructors for SBCU (and a very strong rider) said with forboding tone of finality, “Well, that’s it; no matter which way we go, we have to climb to get home.” His voice rang with horror picture doom. I was delighted.
Our route took us through Aptos, Capitola and to a small market on the old San Jose-Santa Cruz Highway that Sinyard said he’d been visiting on his rides for 30 years. He told me of how the market recently sold and the new owners had taken down the old sign; he was genuinely sad about the loss of the little piece of local history. Leaving the market we ground our way up a long, shallow grade toward our rendezvous with Los Gatos. After topping out on the climb we had a short descent to a detour that forced onto a gravel path descent.
On the edge of town the group faced a decision. Or rather, it would have been a decision any other day, but this time, with a guest present, there was no choice. We would do Hicks, a road that skirts Almaden Quicksilver Park and an ascent of such ferocity that Andrew told me he had no idea how long or steep it was, only that after the first 100 meters he goes to his personal happy place and waits for the torture to end. Turns out, I went to my happy place as well, which was a bit back down the road from his.
As we spun back to our start point, Sinyard’s home, I played back the day’s events as much as I could in my head. I wanted to make permanent as many of the day’s features as I could. The upshot of my mental replay was that I was filled with a sense of mortal envy. I couldn’t believe how lucky these folks were to have such extraordinary riding so close to home.
Leadership works best when it is credible and has the ability to inspire. Sinyard wasn’t the fastest on each of the climbs, but he was rather conspicuously not last, either. It was evident from attitudes of the employees present that each had brought his A-game that day. Perhaps what was most impressive is what didn’t happen: Sinyard didn’t race the course. He rode at his own pace, enjoying himself and didn’t try to prove that he was still alpha dog at the top of each climb or in getting to the bottom of each descent.
Sinyard has a peculiar habit whenever he flies back from Asia; he meets a van driver at the airport who has his bike and a change of clothes for him. He then, despite the jet lag, rides the nearly 100 miles home.
It would be foolhardy and inaccurate to suggest that for a bike company to find success its CEO should be a serious cyclist. But it was evident in talking with Sinyard that being a rider and having products that made each ride more enjoyable was clearly no less a priority in 2008 than they were in 1974. He rides a Roubaix; that’s his road bike of choice, rather than the company’s flagship Tarmac SL2, which bolsters the argument that the bike isn’t just a hybrid with drop bar.
Back at his home at the end of the ride he made us smoothies, salad and spaghetti. It would be easy to take the cynical view and chalk his hospitality to a CEO turning on the charm for the media, but I can’t accept that idea. His charm was too natural, his hospitality too genuine, his love of hard roads too real to improvise.