September 5, 2012

At the Gate

Froome is in this race.

Oh, they’re catching them fast now. The gap is only one minute twenty-three.

Hey Dad. You know Froome is the guy that was second in the time trial in London. And was second in the Tour.

He’s pretty tall. Taller than his teammates.

Oh that guy in blue from Spain is attacking now. Look how steep the hill is. Sky is chasing.

The commentary continued as passengers formed a line, waiting to board the plane. Dressed in Barcelona Football Club shirts, flip-flops, and dark with tans, most were summer tourists at the end of their vacation in Spain. Now, they were going home to Canada. I was on the same flight as I am scheduled to race in the GP Quebec and Montreal, two one day races which would mark my return after a month away from racing due to another broken arm and another surgery.

Sitting in a row of grey chairs, I listened to the boys who were sitting behind me with their parents. They gave a play-by-play commentary about the race that was being broadcast on the muted Samsung flat screen television. I already knew the outcome. It was a rerun of the Vuelta stage I had seen fifteen hours earlier. While packing my suitcase, I had watched it at home, folding my jerseys and rolling up my cycling shorts. As the splintered peloton raced the last five kilometers up the steep ascent, attacking each other, I screwed a new pair of shoe plates on my cycling shoes and then packed them in my carry-on bag for the trip.

Of course, the racers I watched were friends, rivals and teammates. Mine is a biased view of a bike race. Sitting at the gate, watching the race again with a different commentary, my perspective shifted: it was now an enthusiastic child’s.  And, through their eyes it became a far more interesting race to watch.

A boarding announcement was made and slowly the line shuffled forward down the bridge and into the plane. The boys, who I now realized were from two families, made no move to get in line. They were fixed on the race as were their fathers. One, who was about my son’s age, seven, knew more about the riders and racing than the others. Occasionally, one of the fathers pointed out the riders’ gearing or explained who was in which group. But, it was the boys who animated the action we watched.

Their voices had a naïve purity that was lovely.  The essence of our sport is often clouded and lost.

In the middle of the peloton we are focused on the goal and our attention is to the details that will get us to the line first. The profession eclipses the purity of sport. From a child’s perspective there is little on the screen but bike racers sprinting up mountains. Very likely, the boys didn’t know two of the four riders they were watching had been suspended for doping. They didn’t know about the internal dynamic within the breakaway, which teams were likely to lose their sponsors, which directors were dishonest, which riders rode dangerously, or even, who would be the likely victor. At home, the boys would ride through their neighbourhoods pedaling like madmen on their far-too-heavy mountain bikes as if they were Froome spinning away in a time trial.

When the broken bone took me away from the bike, a surgeon said that I could race six weeks later. In the hospital bed, sipping on tea and eating cookies, I poked at my iPhone, and studied my race calendar. Eneco was out. San Sebastian out. Denmark out. But in seven weeks I could race in Quebec and Montreal. I had a goal.  Experience had taught me that a plan and a goal help me heal.

The crash, the surgery, blood loss and forced time off my bicycle would consume most of the fine form I had developed in the previous two months. My rehabilitation had to be gauged and progressive. First, I went for short hikes with my wife. Then longer hikes up a mountain. Then I began running and riding on the trainer but without holding the handlebars. As the pain in my armed abated I was able to push myself on the bike, feeling a different pain that would bring back my fitness.

Watching the stage at the airport gate, I massaged my arm in the way a dog licks a wound or a child plays with his loose tooth. The ache was almost gone but it still somehow felt soothing. I smiled to myself, as the boys commentary continued, as their voices rose with each attack.

It isn’t the job that drives my desire to get back up from each crash to race again but the sport, the fans and the youthful feeling of freedom we all experience when pedaling like madmen.