Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cyclists are Warriors

Bob Roll is beloved for his witty cycling commentary and enlightening insider perspective on the pro peloton. Like any great storyteller, Bob's commentary shares elements of fact, embellishment, absurdity, and flat-out falsehood and where the line is drawn between fact and fiction is downright difficult to tell. Reading Bob or listening to him tell a story is akin to reading Jorge Luis Borge or Hunter S. Thompson; it's up to the reader to decipher where absurdity trumps reality (or vice versa).

When I was a 20 year-old going to Ft. Lewis College in Durango, CO all of us members of the local cycling club, the Durango Wheel Club, would get abuzz and excited when rumor spread that "Bobke" was coming to town. At that time, Bob had transitioned from 7-11 to Motorola, and he would sometimes show up on our Sunday morning rides. Bob had made Durango his home along with Ned Overend, John Tomac, Greg Herbold, and a number of other pros who bridged between road and mountain bike racing. But Bob was the one who got everyone excited: his stories of the peloton were notorious even then.

Eighteen years later I heard Bob give a talk on the East Coast to a cycling club in Delaware. Amid raucous laughter causing a steady stream of hands wiping tears from eyes, Bob said something that struck me as particularly profound. He said, "I'd put 200 cyclists against the best army in the world." He then paused, reflected with a rubbing of his chin, and revised: "Nah, that's not right. I'd only need 100!"

I recall this comment because today I sit at my computer instead of getting out for my usual Sunday 4 to 5 hour training ride. Yesterday, after a 75 mile ride, I was all but 3 miles from home when, negotiating a twisty descent I've ridden two hundred times before, my front wheel washed out and I went down hard and fast. When my front wheel slipped I thought to myself, "There's no way you're going to right this ship." In a flash I went from an upright 25 mph to the ground and was sent sliding along moist, snot-slick pavement towards the roadside berm. During what seemed like an interminable chute the thoughts "this isn't going to end well" and "the longer I slide the more damage I'm doing" kept churning over in my shock-addled skull. I hit the dirt, rolled a few times in what I hoped wasn't poison ivy, and came to a ruined rest on my right side: the side opposite that hit the road.

At that point a kind of out-of-body experience took place, and this seems always the same after crashes. I took a mental inventory of my body by looking down on myself in a kind of "view from nowhere" sort of way. At just shy of 6'0" and all of 140 odd pounds I thought, man, you look really delicate lying there covered in dirt, road grime, and everything else clinging to your sweat-sticky flesh. I noticed the top ratchet on my Sidi shoe had been shorn off from friction, and that there were a few live worms stuck to my surprisingly skinny legs. But, nothing broken. Everything accounted for. Right, get yourself up.

Ouch. Already my left hip is three times its normal size and it's straining at my bibshorts. Above my waist, where the iliac crest of the pelvis protrudes, I noticed that swelling is protruding my jersey. My arms are wrapped around my chest because it hurts to breath, and in my hunched-over, stinging state I note that something is indeed missing: a good bit of skin from my from my fore- and upper-arm. But what can one do but right their steed, mount it, and head home for the inevitably curse-filled shower and scrub.

Three weeks earlier while traveling this same stretch of road a souped-up SUV full of teenagers revved behind me and roared to pass. As this multi-ton death wagon raged past I was suddenly pelted with hands full of coinage: pennies, nickels, dimes, and even quarters were hurled at me from this rapidly advancing steel encased tonnage. The final "insult" was an extended middle finger on a skinny white arm which contrasted appropriately against the menacing black body of the SUV. Rage broiled inside of me. What cowardice! What ignorance!

As cyclists, we've all know the insult of ignorant, bullying motorists, and we've all known the injury of the unforgiving macadam. Nonetheless, we trundle on: day after day, year after year, we ride. There's some inner calling, some atavistic drive, that makes us march on like soldiers in a trancelike state following orders. But most of us are just weekend warriors, and even if we're Cat 1 or Cat 2 of even Cat 5 competitors, we have but a fraction of the tenacity and truly warrior-like mentality of the pros who daily do battle in the Grand Tours or over the cobbles of northern Europe often times with broken bones and large percentages of their bodies covered in road rash (a euphemism for burnt flesh). Those guys are the real warriors.

So, okay, I'm back to Bob Roll. And a few years after hearing the above referenced speech, I'm again struck by his comment. Maybe it would only take 100 pro cyclists to stave the world's greatest armies. 100 pros and maybe, just maybe, a few of us regular guys, too.

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