Sunday, March 30, 2008

Pro racer style - from the early '90s

At the two rain-soaked Tours de Trump, sponsored by The Donald, I worked on a motorcycle carrying the race's official photographer Darcy Kiefel. When this country's biggest stage race became the Tour DuPont, I began working with Mavic, driving a yellow motorcycle, carrying their most experienced race mechanic, Greg Miller. Miller and I would follow the breakaways.

Here are a few of my observations from "the best seat in the house..."

The Attitude

Thinking about the Tour got me thinking about how exceptional it is: the Tour de France is never considered, even by veteran pros, as merely one more race in a long season.

Through the rest of the season, though, pro riders don't turn each race into a life-and-death saga. Here's what I mean.

On the Tour DuPont BMW tech motorcycle, mechanic Greg Miller and I follow Fabian Jecker (2nd place) up Wintergreen mountain and across the finish line. The sky's black, thunder cracks, lightning forks down through the clouds. Spitting rain; soon it will pour.

Miller hops off, I park the motor, drag my yellow Mavic slicker out of the tank bag and walk back to the finish area.

A few riders have crossed the line but most have not. The brutal four-mile climb (seemed farther to me) blew the field apart. I stand maybe 10 yards past the line and watch one totally wasted racer after another pedal across.

Steve Hegg, (Suburu-Montgomery) soaked with rain and sweat, rolls across the finish line. As he passes, he looks over, says, "Yo, Maynard. How're you doin'?"

Hegg's got the pro attitude. He takes his job seriously but doesn't act serious. He keeps a little distance. You begin to sense it if you're around these guys a while. The attitude.

Before each stage, guys would roll by, warming up. Some would stop a minute, say hi, maybe ask about the motor. "How do ya like that thing? Run good?" Or they'd ask if I liked working with my Mavic mechanic, Greg Miller, as much as I'd liked carrying photographer Darcy Kiefel the previous few years.

"Miller's not near as pretty," I'd say. Darcy, incidentally, was in Spain at the time shooting the Vuelta de Espana for Winning Magazine.

Or during races, riders would drop past us on the way back to their team car for water or to chat. Or we'd have some occasion to pass up through the group. Amazingly, to me at least, guys would notice us there and say hi by name, "Hi Greg," or "Hi Maynard," as if they weren't 80 hilly miles into a hard day in the most important stage race in the US.

Perhaps you saw this one on TV: a rider who'd been fooling around for a TV camera fell and took down maybe 50 guys. No one suggested finding a rope and a cottonwood tree. Guys shrugged it off, even Nate Reiss, who broke his arm and had to abandon. Reiss turned his palms up: what can you do?

"That's bike racing," guys said.

When we did wheel changes or helped racers who had problems, the guys we helped were always relaxed, cool. Miller would do the service and push the rider down the road. That was that. No high drama, no screaming. One guy calmly ate his food and watched the caravan go by while Miller laboriously unwrapped the cotton musette (food bag) strap tangled in his rear axle.

Just doing their jobs, those guys ride lots of races. The race organizers, announcers and press, also doing their jobs, will try to convince you that this race today is the most important, toughest, biggest-money race ever held.

But pros know, and "pro" amateurs, that (Tour de France excepted) today's race is another bike race, much like the one last week and the one they'll ride a week from now. Can't win all of 'em. The season's long.

All these guys chose, obviously, to make their living (or at least devote a period of their lives) to racing the bike. Just as obviously, they have to love it. It can't be just a job, just a thing to do - instead of trading securities or selling cars or delivering mail. It’s too hard.

But that commitment is a given among their peers. It goes without saying. And having to endure pain and frustration simply comes with their territory. Davis Phinney loses lots of sprints. Greg LeMond only wins a few races a year. Guys have bad days or bad luck at bad times.

If you ride 150 races and win 10 you're a superstar. You lost over 90% of the time but everyone wants your autograph.

Even though they’re devoted to bike racing on the most intense level, mostly, when you see them, pros don't much want to talk about the race. And when you do hear them talk about races, the descriptions sound different from ones you hear on club rides.

You don't hear guys talking about how much they suffered; they seem outside of it. They describe running out of steam and having to slow down - without mentioning, as mortals would, the pain of "blowing up."

"It was fast," you might hear, "I could hang" - or "I couldn't."

They do what they can. Maybe it's enough at the time to get the job done, maybe it's not. They recover and do it again. You hear it all described, as I've suggested, as if they observed it, not lived it. Minimum drama.

We impose the drama, you and I. It's in our eyes, I believe, the eyes of us fans. To the racers, after dozens or hundreds of races, each one's a task, part of the job, just "bike racing."

I watched Erik Breukink calmly win the DuPont at the last minute in the Wilmington Time Trial. Breukink, just doing his job, pedaled (by my Beemer speedo) 42mph on flat sections, 25 up short hills, seemingly as calm as my mailman, who just delivered the latest VeloNews.

Their descriptions of their respective work days might sound somewhat alike, at least in tone. Two men at work, Breukink and my mailman. I'd rather watch Breukink. However nonchalantly he might describe his job, it looks awfully dramatic to me.

No comments: