So Far at the Vuelta

If the Tour de France is an eldest son who is a successful brain surgeon, the Vuelta is his younger brother who runs a well-respected nonprofit but is inevitably overshadowed, ignored at family gatherings while his big brother steals the spotlight. Or something like that.

It’s been an exciting first few days of racing at Spain’s grand tour. Some observations:

  • The course is not flat. This fact scared away lots of big-name sprinters from even showing up and also has made for more interesting racing, with breakaways having a chance or succeeding on every stage so far and Chris Froome launching a big attack on Stage Three. Personally, I find sprint stages to be far less interesting than lumpy ones, and I’ve enjoyed seeing these stages play out in surprising, tactically diverse ways.
  • Speaking of Froome, he’s crushing everyone again, and–bold prediction!–I think he will win it all.
  • Chaves is back! So far, the little Colombian with the best smile in pro sports has been one of the few GC contenders with the fitness to stay on Froome’s wheel during attacks that have blown apart the rest of the field. After such a poor performance at the Tour (and more importantly, on my fantasy team), it’s great to see him riding strong.
  • Thomas “Off the Front” de Gendt is at it again. Color me not at all surprised. This dude is a beast and it’s a shame that he didn’t win the Most Aggressive Rider jersey at the Tour. Hopefully local biases in Spain don’t screw him over like they did in France.
  • Spain looks nice. I’d like to go there sometime. Maybe not in August though.
  • I don’t know what’s more hilarious about the Eurosport broadcasts: Carlton Kirby’s unwavering frustration with shoddy camera work, or Sean Kelly’s monotone brogue as he describes lung-busting efforts and riveting racing with an startling lack of enthusiasm. They make a great pair.

Man Outside the Arena

Yesterday I rode upriver to watch the Tour de Millersburg, a classic race around here that is known for good racing and local hospitality. It’s a stage race, with a time trial on Saturday morning, crit on Saturday afternoon, and road race on Sunday. I did it last year; it was my first race in Pennsylvania. I did okay (especially since I raced the TT Eddy Merckx style, and there was no Merckx category). Thought I would be doing it this year for sure.

But things change, and this year I found myself on the sidelines (sidewalk, in this case) watching as riders flew around the crit course. I was there by choice, having paused racing indefinitely earlier this summer because it was becoming not fun. I thought it might make me miss racing, might ¬†spur a return to grueling intervals and putting my health in the hands of strangers with compensation issues. Well, it didn’t. Not at all. Not by a long shot. It’s not often that I have been perfectly content in life, but I was there, sitting in the sun eating a peach while watching the peloton flash past in a blur of silent, suffering color. The figurative grass didn’t look greener. It looked like a lot less fun.

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I didn’t want to trade places with these dudes.
Since quitting racing, I haven’t watched any races up close. At Millersburg, I was struck by how different the spectator experience is. From the outside it’s just a pack of people on bikes within a broader canvas: tidy streets, top-40 radio from the announcer’s tent, mothers pushing strollers. Three-quarters of the time the course is empty and quiet and even idyllic. Then the motorbike comes through honking and the people crane their necks and the riders sweep by, increasingly fragmented into groups and individuals but still basically a collective, separated from the spectators by the reality of their experience in that very same time and place. Then the silence returns. On the outside, there is no stress or consequences. No danger, no pain.

On the inside, it is all stress and heartbeats and clenched nerves and ambition. There is no quiet–there are grunts and spinning hubs and shifting derailleurs, fuck-yous between ragged gasps of breath. The narrow focus a race demands pushes everything else to the periphery, sensed but not acknowledged. Birds chirping, a blue sky, the smell of animals roasting on a backyard grill.

It’s remarkable, how these starkly different worlds occupy the same few city blocks for an hour at a time on a Saturday afternoon. And it’s remarkable how easily I’ve traded my citizenship, swapped one for the other, and how I feel no regrets about it.

One of my favorite speeches is “The Man in the Arena,” delivered by Theodore Roosevelt. Here’s part of it:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I love that. I agree with the premise: it’s one thing to analyze and criticize from a distance, and quite another to actually be out there trying. But I think there’s an addendum. Credit also belongs to the man (or woman) who has been in the arena chasing happiness or fulfillment or self-worth and has found, after the struggle, that those things exist somewhere else.

Tour Retrospective

The Tour de France ended yesterday with the traditional sprint on the Champs Elysee. Froome coasted in wearing yellow, surrounded by his loyal domestiques, receiving pats on the back from the other riders. It was his fourth Tour victory, and his third in a row. He didn’t win a stage this year, didn’t really have any big attacks or memorable moments (no running either). Whether because of the menacing machine that is Team Sky, or their own lack of fitness, the other GC contenders never came close to putting Froome on his heels. He just rode each stage without losing lots of time, and he had two great time trials, and that was it. Put that way, it sounds simple. Easy even. Obviously none of it is easy.

I read a Youtube comment criticizing his approach, saying that whether you like Armstrong or not, he didn’t win his Tours this way, from the safety of his team, riding conservatively. When he raced, he made a statement. Tried to crush his opponents rather than merely beat them, attacked when he felt like it even if it wasn’t the best tactical move. It was more fun to watch, more exciting. That’s probably true.

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You gotta hand it to him. The race, I mean. And the baby, apparently. 

But Armstrong had (has) a massive ego; Froome appears pretty humble, competitive and focused but not obsessed. I would hazard to guess that he races a bike for different reasons than Armstrong raced one. The end result, in terms of Tour wins, is increasingly similar. Seven might be out of reach for Froome, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t win next year, and maybe the year after. Quintana, Porte, and the other challengers haven’t seriously threatened his reign yet.

In the end, I can’t begrudge Froome, no matter that I was rooting against him. I watched him smile, kiss his wife, hold his baby. He isn’t a villain. He’s just a skinny British dude who can ride a bike fast up hills. There’s no denying he was the strongest rider. No denying he’s earned his place atop the sport.

Certainly, dominance can be less exciting. You could call it boring, if unpredictability is what draws you to sports. But you really can’t argue with it.

On Watching le Tour in a Sports Bar in Pennsylvania

Last night I was in a sports bar for trivia. Our team lost in a sudden-death rock/paper/scissors tiebreaker. I learned that Reggie Watts and Questlove have strikingly similar head silhouettes. Weird category, long story.

Anyways.

There was the usual blizzard of color flashing on flat screen TVs mounted seemingly everywhere (even small ones at each table–when did that become a thing?). The offerings were a bit thin, in the middle of summer. A couple baseball games, D-league basketball (I’m assuming it was D-league; one of the teams was the “Ghost Ballers”), and…cycling. Cycling? In a sports bar? Definitely a first for me.

Sure enough, NBC Sports was replaying the stage from earlier in the day. I don’t know how many more viewers the delayed feed pulls in–the American’s who are weird/cultured enough to watch are probably just as likely to tune in live. I doubt non-cycling fans are scanning the channels at home after dinner and think, “oh, I’ll watch these emaciated Europeans ride bikes up a mountain, even though I have no clue who they are or what’s happening.”

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Future cycling fans? Nope.

Of course, I glanced to the screen to watch from time to time, in between listening to trivia questions and offering helpful insight to me team like “I’ve never heard of that movie” and “I’ve never heard of that band” and “I’m actually not sure what substance makes up 85% of the human brain.” (It’s water, apparently.) I had seen the highlights earlier in the day, but still, it felt cool to be watching such a fringe sport in such a mainstream American way. So this is what football fans feel like all the time, I thought.

I didn’t see anybody else watching though. What is already a difficult sport for new viewers to understand must be pretty much unintelligible when muted and at a distance. Probably the only observation people who glimpsed a few seconds of the peloton grinding up the Alps made was that those guys looked miserable, and that eating overpriced wings was a far more preferable activity.

I’ll admit, the whole night I had a secret desire for someone to ask what was happening in the race, to show genuine interest, so I could explain what a beautiful sport it is and how there are races within the race and how the yellow jersey wearer isn’t trying to win the stage and how fucking hard it is to ride a bike up a steep mountain. Of course, nobody did.

But for two hours, my sport was right there alongside shitty offseason basketball and baseball games between teams out of contention, an equal offering for the beer-drinking, finger-licking sports fans of central Pennsylvania.

Epilogue

With most sports, the viewing fans don’t actually participate in the sport themselves, and may never have. They just like watching other people do it. Cycling seems totally different to me, at least in America. The only people I know who follow pro cycling are cyclists. A general rule seems to be that not all cyclists follow pro racing, but everyone who follows pro racing is a cyclist. That’s probably different in Europe, and I’m sure there are a few weirdos here who don’t ride bikes but for whatever reason enjoy watching others do it. Still, it strikes me as noteworthy. I suspect running and swimming are similar. Maybe it has to do with the fact that they are endurance sports rather than ball-oriented team sports and it takes a kind of empathy, an appreciation of the unique suffering and challenges, to enjoy watching? Add it to the list of unresolved questions, also known as this blog.