August 23, 2010

Bite The Dust, Then Reach For The Stars

In the moment everything seems lost. I skidded along the ground, sliding on the tarmac as if I were seated on a sled but with only a thin layer of Lycra between skin and rock. The initial impact was brusque and jarring — similar to what a driver feels when rear-ended by another car. Then came the impacts every professional rider expects: Riders crashed into me from behind, colliding with my torso as if a thug was kicking it with fury. The riders whom I had crashed into, who were on the tarmac before me, would have felt the same impact.

For months, we had all trained meticulously, sacrificed, dieted and focused to be ready. A slick road, a nervous rider, a careless maneuver can end a dozen riders’ goals. Seeing riders fall in front of me, I feared it could be over. The fear is momentary.

On the ground, I feel the burn of torn skin. But before I look at the damage my body has sustained, I am looking for my bike. I get up, realize it is broken, look for the mechanic who is running towards me with my spare bike, adjust my torn jersey and prepare to climb back on. A dozen riders around me do the same.

The team cars have stopped in the middle of the road, unable to pass due to the crash, as the directors and mechanics look through the bodies and bikes to find their riders. A few lay on the ground holding their arms or shoulders while bleeding profusely. Their faces grimace with pain. From past experience I know that I will see most of them back in the peloton in half an hour. Riders will continue with broken, pummeled, bleeding bodies. Their will is too formidable to give. The sacrifice to prepare for the race has been too concentrated to resign to the pain of injury.

As I begin to pedal again, chasing the peloton, I slowly begin to feel the injuries, which I know will only feel worse once the race is over. Adrenaline masks pain. For now, the finish line is the objective. Over the radio, which is plugged into my ear, the director encourages my teammates who are up front. I know I need to try to get back to them, to help them in the pursuit of victory. I want to be up there, in front. The scrapes from the pavement burn with each pedal stroke as the grit from the wet road slowly works its way into the wounds.

Dozens of riders will cross the finish line covered in blood. After scrubbing the wounds with brushes and antiseptics the team doctors will patch us up. Some riders will go to hospital for X-rays.  Others, knowing they may have broken bones, will continue regardless. Knowing a bone is broken will not change their decision to start again. Few want to quit the Tour de France, or any major event, unless forced. The race is too grand and our desire too intense.

As Lance Armstrong came crashing down at the foot of the first major Alpine ascent in this year’s Tour de France his race changed, as did his public personae in France. He fell at speed, his body sliding across the tarmac before coming to a stop on a curb. Ragged, he pursued the peloton and remained in the race, after crashing a second time. Days later, having forgotten about the injuries he had sustained, his critics said he no longer had his pre-comeback winning legs as he was unable to follow the best in the mountains.

It is impossible to know from media reports how much a rider might suffer through the night, or even going down a flight of stairs. We fall, we climb on, we continue without complaint — yet that doesn’t mean every movement isn’t painful. We focus on the future with hope. That hope helps us overcome. Armstrong, like the dozens of others who didn’t meet expectations due to injury rode on committed to his team, the public and the race. To him, like the rest of us, the gravity of the injury was secondary to the importance of the race.

The day after the Tour finished in Paris, I glanced at a hotel-lobby television, which was tuned to a 24-hour French news channel. The news team was in the midst of summarizing and analyzing the race. They lauded Armstrong’s performance, saying he had finally gained the respect of the French for being approachable and for persisting despite his injuries and after losing hope of an overall victory. Prior to this year’s Tour he was thought of as someone who cared little about the sport and thought only about winning. If his comeback has revealed something about his personality it is that he is not only a fierce competitor but also that he simply loves being on his bike and racing.

The grimaces of the riders on the mountainside, struggling to finish, color the race as much as the images of the leaders crossing the line with apparent ease. Each rider’s unique story gives the race its flavor even if the public is unaware as it is relayed through the emotions of the race. On some level, everyone can comprehend and even identify with that emotion, as we all endure it in our daily lives. We fall, we get up, and we persist.

As Laurent Fignon wrote in his book, “A true cyclist sometimes has to bite the dust before he can reach the stars. Win. Survive. Hang in there. It’s a race against oblivion, a race against time, a race against yourself: a career, a life. Can a man’s character be represented in the way he rides a bike?”