You Can Draft Off Me if You Want
I have a confession to make. I’m kind of fascinated by road cycling.
I know, I know, as a non-triathlete runner, this is blasphemy. Cyclists are those other people on the roads. For about 97% of the year, I tend to think of cyclists as our slightly odd, gear-obsessed cousins with a bizarre penchant for wearing spandex and heading for a workout during the absolute hottest part of day.
The other 3% is Tour de France time, and I get a little obsessed.
Okay, I’m not that obsessed. I don’t keep the live blog of updates open in the bottom corner of my computer screen like some people who shall remain nameless. And I certainly don’t miss a run to watch coverage. But I have been known to be a tad late to work on account of a particular exciting mountain stage.
I learn names, too. Not every guy on the tour, but you know, a few of the big ones. Bradley Wiggins (this year’s winner), Ryder Hesjedal (Canadian superstar who was taken out in that huge crash in Stage 3), George Hincapie (Lance’s longtime #2 who retired this year after 17(!!!) tours), Fabian Cancellara (dropped out), Mark Cavendish (speedster who won the very last stage), Cadel Evans (defending champ who barely clung to the top 10), Christopher Froome (would be the #1 rider on any team other than his own — because Wiggins is on it), Levi Leipheimer (sponsored by Clif Bar, shout out to Jeanine!), Tejay van Garderen (punk kid who ditched Cadel when he flatted and went on to win the “Best Young Rider” jersey)…I could go on, but suffice it to say that I can legitimately be called a fan.
Which inevitably begs the question: Why? Why do I get so obsessed with this 3-week long ordeal where men who weigh less and shave more than I do hurtle down mountains faster than I drive on the highway? How can I so love a sport where doping is only slightly less rampant than prima donna attitudes?
Honestly? I think it’s the drama. Coming into work after a good stage is like coming into work after a particularly good episode of The Bachelor. (“Can you believe what happened to Garmin-Sharp?? The WHOLE team, wiped out!”)
And then there’s the politics. Spend a few days watching the dynamics of a road racing team and you’ll be praying for your own familiar office politics.
Here’s how it works:
The Tour is contested by several large, corporate-sponsored teams, often representing European behemoths most Americans have never heard of. They have names like Sky Procycling, Liquigas-Cannondale, Euskadel-Euskadi, and Team Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank.
Each of these conglomerates sends 9 of their best riders to contest the Tour. Of those 9, typically only one is expected to have any chance at “winning”, or competing well in the overall. Another one or two might be “specialists”, time trial speedsters or hugely-muscled climbers who’s purpose is to win a few stages and garner team points, but for the most part, the team picks their #1 guy well before race day and the rest of the crew is supposed to sacrifice everything to make sure he wins.
Inevitably, this leads to some truly fantastic drama. For example, this year’s Tour was set up largely as a showdown between defending champion Cadel Evans (Australia/BMC Racing) and the long under-appreciated Bradley Wiggins (Great Britain/Team Sky) who had been on fire all year. It became clear pretty early on that Wiggins had the advantage, and with each day Evans would slip further and further back.
Meanwhile, a 24-year-old American on Evans’ team, Tejay van Garderen, was having the tour of his life. Magically avoiding the worst crashes, he went from a relative unknown (outside cycling circles) to a contender for the White Jersey for best young rider.
Well, that’s great and all, but presumably his job was to support Evans. (At least until it became clear that Evans was probably not going to be a contender.)
Enter Stage 14, with the first big climb of the Tour. Most of the top contenders hit the summit together. Then, disaster. Evans gets a flat. He shouts at van Garderen ahead, “Puncture! Puncture!”
At this point, cycling protocol would dictate that the junior rider stop and give his bike to the #1 guy, then wait for the team car to bring him a replacement. van Garderen looks right, looks left, and keeps right on going. Evans is left standing at the top of the hill for almost two minutes before the next BMC rider comes along and hands off his bike.
After the stage, van Garderen would admit that he knew Evans was in trouble, but that he thought the rest of the team was closer, and that someone else would stop.
Is he telling the truth, or did he just have his eyes on that White Jersey? Who knows? But don’t you see what’s so great about the Tour?? More drama than a high school lunch table!
Of course if the tour was all kids with bad attitudes, it would quickly devolve into the Jersey Shore of professional sports. And just when you think that’s about to happen, the cyclists do something so gentlemanly, so, so, honorable, that all you can do is sit back and be amazed.
You see, in that Stage 14, Evans was just the first of many to flat. In fact, 30 (3-0!) more riders would flat within 5 kilometers. Someone had thrown tacks on the road
. Tacks! (In my head I hear Samuel L. Jackson saying, “Tacks in the mother-effin road!!”)
Obviously that wasn’t honorable or admirable. What was amazing was the act of sportsmanship it engendered. Bradley Wiggins, who managed to escape the tacks unscathed, becomes aware of the situation and rather than take advantage, slows the entire peleton down until Evans can claw his way back to the front. Why? Because in cycling, beating your top rival due to a flat tire isn’t really winning.
It’s the kind of moment that makes me tear up a little.
Do we have anything like this in running? Sure we have lots of exciting, nail-biting races to watch, but rarely do we work in such a team environment. (At least post-high school cross country meets.) When Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima was pushed off course by a crazed fan in the 2004 Olympic marathon, no one slowed and waited for him to get his stride back. Heck, 2 of the 3 men on the 2012 US Olympic Marathon team are infamous for training all by themselves (Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman). And need I even mention the drama of the women’s 100 meter tie?
For better or worse, running is largely a sport of the individual. We romanticize the notion of the solitary runner, ticking off miles like the great Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. Well, we all know what happened to Pheidippides, don’t we? (If you don’t, I’m not going to spoil it for you.)
Cycling, on the other hand, is almost inherently a team sport. One of its most basic elements, the peleton (several riders traveling at breakneck speeds mere inches from each others wheels), is a way to share work. The people in the front fight the wind and pull the people in the back along in their draft. Periodically, riders trade off leading so as to maximize the speed of the entire group.
I’m not saying that cycling is better than running. Remember, 97% of the year I make fun of their spandex. But if the greatest of the greats in road racing can sacrifice all in the name of the team, maybe those of us who have no hope of ever winning anything could be a little more willing to stop and offer a hand to a fellow runner struggling through the final miles of a long run?
Unless it’s a race, of course. Then you can just eat my GU.