It IS about the bike

10 10 2012

I wanted to believe Lance.

Even in the face of mounting numbers of riders – many of them Lance’s former teammates – reportedly breaking cycling’s code of silence, I wanted to believe his declarations of innocence.

After Lance threw up his hands and said he’d no longer fight the USADA’s case against him, I wanted to believe he still had another card to play, a way to trump all the accusations. He’s just too smart, too politically shrewd to allow his carefully crafted reputation be dismantled without a back-up plan.

I wanted to believe he was tougher than everyone else, more focused, more determined. I wanted to believe his seven Yellow Jerseys were earned by better preparation, steely resolve, a ruthless desire to win.

My love for professional bike racing dates to the Greg Lemond era. I was enthralled by the weekend coverage of the Tour de France, the highlight shows of great races like Paris-Roubaix. But before 24-hour sports networks on TV, before the Internet, it wasn’t an easy sport to follow.

Then along came Lance, with his incredible story of cancer survival, and the sport was electrified. For the first time I could watch the Tour live. Every day. For the first time I could view races like the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, Milan-San Remo, the Giro live on my computer screen.

Lance popularized pro cycling in North America and his allure brought me to France to see him join the sport’s greats as he rode to his fifth Tour victory in 2003.

Lance’s “look back” at his rival Jan Ullrich on the Alpe d’Huez in the 2001 Tour is still one of my most scintillating sports memories. It inspired me to travel to France to witness the spectacle first hand. To be standing in the driving rain at the finish line in Nantes as Lance clinched his fifth straight Tour in 2003 is one of my greatest sporting thrills.

Lance (yellow jersey, center) rides in the shadow of a couple of USPS teammates, as his main rival, Jan Ullrich (green jersey, left) hangs on his wheel on the way up Ax les Thermes at the 2003 Tour.

But this afternoon, when I read George Hincapie’s confession statement on his website, I felt betrayed, disappointed, dismayed. I felt sad.

When Lance’s oldest friend, most loyal lieutenant who ushered him through many of his greatest triumphs owns up to the sham that was pro cycling through the early 2000s, any remaining shred of hope that Lance would prevail vanished.

Sure, it’s easy to justify the doping practices of Lance, Hincapie, Hamilton, Leipheimer, Ullrich, et al as levelling the field when everyone in the peloton was dirty, but that doesn’t excuse the years of bald-faced lying.

Spot the dopers in this photo, at the start of the climb to Luz Ardiden.

It’s also tempting to cut him some slack for all the work he’s done to raise money for cancer research and the hopes of those suffering from the disease. But that would be a disservice to all those who took inspiration from his seemingly heroic conquests, who bought into the mythology of Lance.

It turns out we were all suckered by a charlatan

Let’s move on and not allow Lance’s deceit to diminish the beauty and glory of professional cycling. It will take years for cycling to undo the damage the Lance era has done, to rejig the record books and restore confidence in the people who are supposed to safeguard the sport.

But I won’t stop watching. The French countryside is still as beautiful. The Dolomite mountains are still as majestic. The Belgian cobbles are still as jarring. And when the colourful peloton bisects those landscapes, my heart still soars.

Roadside reminders

2 10 2012

We’ve all see them, the poignant roadside memorials to loved ones snatched to soon by accidents.

Sometimes it’s just a simple cross.

Others are more elaborate, adorned with photos, tokens and mementos, flowers, messages of love, sorrow, pain, heartache.

In the car we zip past them, just another piece of the urban landscape we barely notice.

On the bike we have time to read the names, study the faces in the photos, ponder the lives lost, the circumstances of that loss. The care given to some of those memorials can be astonishing, heartwrenching, as flowers are changed regularly, birthdays and anniversaries marked with balloons, gifts, even years after the accident.

The mystery of these memorials is heightened because rarely does our passing seem to coincide with visits from the people who tend to them so lovingly. It’s as if the balloons and photos and messages appear by magic, placed by some unseen presence.

One of the most touching memorials along my regular routes escaped my notice for the longest time; it’s on a flat straight section of road along which I’m usually pedalling hard, head down, pushing for the home stretch.

A roadside memorial that’s also a library.

At first glance it looks like an oversized roadside mailbox. But on a more leisurely ride I saw it’s significance; it’s a little library, filled with books, hardcovers and paperbacks. A sign above the front door invites visitors to take a book to their liking, and leave another behind, all in memory of the man for whom the little roadside library shrine is named. A tribute to someone who obviously loved books, and his community.