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Michael Barry: Snow, Spain, and Flecha

In much of North America, snow is continuing to fall. We ride indoors, ski, skate, run, and workout in the gym in order to maintain some level of fitness, while elevating our endorphins to keep the mental balance that we’ve become accustomed to with daily exercise. However, there are those who embrace the extremes and head outdoors to ride, turning what could be a lousy day into an adventure.

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Somewhere, decades ago, I read a story about Andy Hampsten, Davis Phinney, and Ron Kiefel riding on the dirt mountain roads in Colorado. On their long training rides, up and over 10,000 feet, they discovered roads that they didn’t know existed and places that they’d never seen. When I lived in Boulder, I got to experience that sense of adventure with Andy. On our mountain bikes, we rode on the snow-covered dirt roads to a ski station at 9,000 feet, where my wife met us with our cross-country skis. Some cyclists choose to stay on roads that they know, sticking to a routine. Others seek adventure and are constantly in search of new and novel experiences to test their limits.

In the winter of 2012, I was driving up to Andorra from Girona with my family to ski. As we ascended the Puymorens, a long and steady climb the Tour de France has been over numerous times, we passed a cyclist bundled in winter clothing. He was pushing hard, digging into an effort, and swaying slightly on his bike with each pedal stroke. Snow was falling; the roads were wet. Car tracks formed in the slushy snow. Higher up the mountain, the clouds were low and white. Even though visibility was bad, his pedaling style and position looked familiar. It had the potency of an experienced cyclist, comfortable and powerful. And because of the cars behind, as we passed the rider, I couldn’t slow to take a close look. But I wondered if it was Juan Antonio Flecha, my former Sky teammate who was the team leader in the tough cobbled Classics.

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Further up the mountain, the traffic came to a halt. The road ahead was barricaded because of heavy snow. Some drivers were putting on chains to attempt the ascent up and over the summit, while others were turning around to head back down. As we contemplated another route, the cyclist caught up to us. It was indeed Flecha.

We had spent the last three years together at Team Sky. I was his domestique in the Classics, and we both worked together for other leaders during the balance of the season. While not at the races, he spent most of his time in his home in Castelldefels, a suburb of Barcelona. But, on weekends, he and his girlfriend often drove up to his apartment in Puigcerda — a small town in the Spanish Pyrenees. He rode while she snowboarded. Flecha didn’t only train harder than almost any other cyclist, but he also didn’t fear foul weather.

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After giving him a quick hug, we chatted for a few minutes and then I asked him whether or not we could make it over the pass without chains. He said, “yeah, no problem, I’m going to ride up it.” I smiled and wished that I had had my bike to ride it with him. We said our goodbyes. He picked his way through the parked cars and carried on, snaking his way up the mountain on the snow covered road. We followed his lead.

Under falling snow, he developed resilience that so often determines the protagonists in the Classic. His tolerance for extremes helped him perform in icy rain and blowing gales, which so often impact the early season races.

As the road opened up near the summit of the Puymorens, we passed him, tooted the horn, and gave him a wave. Our children rolled down their windows and cheered him on. His smile was broad and big.

Flecha loves riding. Some riders train to race, while others race to ride. He’s now retired but still rides often. And I bet he’ll continue to embrace the extremes even when he’s old and grey.

Photos: Walter Lai, Michael Barry

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