– Do you remember where you were standing when you heard that Dale Earnhardt died? I wouldn’t have either, except that about 5 minutes after the news flash a friend said there was a life-size cardboard cutout of Earnhardt down at a close-by convenience store we frequented. Cardboard Dale had a mini-shelf built into him to hold boxes of Snickers or M&M’s and an thick-bound stack of entry forms for some sort of ‘Drive with Dale’ contest.
It was 2001. At that point we were your standard small LBS -- 1,500 sq ft with maybe 3 employees + a high school intern. And we weren’t the only nascent business with ideas for growth on the internet. 2001 was Ebay’s salad days where sellers still had the upper hand due to the illusion of lack of supply of everything (70’s-era Super Record groups, Colnago Arabeque frames, Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards, etc) and we had the bright idea to offer the cashier at the convenience store $20 for the cutout and get it listed on Ebay right now. It was a cold act of bereavement arbitrage and we expected to get a nice ROI in 3 days when the auction ended. The cashier turned down our $20 and said ‘just take it’ about Cardboard Dale and we sold it for $100+. It was money for nothing and we were stoked at being flush with a week’s worth of lunch & beer money.
When I heard that Frank Vandenbroucke died, I can’t say my sympathetic emotions were any stronger -- surprising since I don’t give a flip about NASCAR but have had a lifelong love affair with pro bike racing. His death was cause to reminisce about the most memorable moments of his racing career e.g. (big-ring up La Redoute in the ’99 LBL); it was cause to email regrettable remarks to distant friends (e.g. ‘tonight’s theatrical tribute to VDB will be doing 3 lines of crushed-up hydrocodone off my wife’s bare ass’); it was cause to learn that in the last few years he got surpassed on the global stage by a more famous VDB. But cognizance of VDB’s humanity? Never happened. Recognition that someone with feelings, a family, etc, was now gone forever? Negative. Then on a peaceful solo spin this weekend I felt self-conscious, flawed really, that the sadness expressed by others never entered my mind.
I asked myself whether any of us ever viewed VDB as a human? I’m not so certain. Part of reason, I suppose, is his unique Peter Pan-ness: He started winning so young that his career could take its Act II nosedive with Act III’s decade of ill-fated comebacks and he still hadn’t reached the age of 35. And part of it is pure Lou Reed, a.k.a. the life of a star-crossed rock star: Their performances, appetites and fuck-ups are on a monumental scale as to be inhuman. If you’ve read The Death of Marco Pantani the parallels To VDB are eerie. The hero-worship; the impossible weight of a country’s expectations; the seamless transition from performance-enhancing drugs to recreational ones. If I feel sadness for something, it’s not for VDB’s death. It’s for the predilections he couldn’t resist and for the decision-making that sent him on his fatal trajectory beginning back in ’99. If I feel sadness it’s because there’s now a clearly-identifiable archetype in pro cycling, with the best-known examples being Pantani, then Jose Maria Jimenez, and now VDB and inevitably there will be more: Slow deaths that are always tragic but never a surprise.
– Lousy luck at Lombardy. And in case you didn’t see the finish, here you are. You’ve gotta wonder: Would Phillipe Gilbert give up his 4-for-4 (wins in Paris-Tours, Sabbatini, Piemonte, then Lombardy) for a chance to re-race the World Championships? It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a streak of winning like his.
– Cycling is a sport where, physically-speaking, symmetry would seem to rule. Each leg tracks more-or-less along the same pedaling pathway. Heels dip the same. Knees open up to the same angle. Hands mirror each other in their brake hood grip. Each elbow bends with the same obliquity. And then I took my first-ever yoga class, which shattered the illusion that a lifetime of riding gives your body balanced strength & flexibility. ‘Hatha yoga’, I think, translates to ‘make your whole body feel like Fernando Escartin’s face.’ It’s unimaginable that there’s a profounder means to show how a cyclist’s body is a balkanized one, with like muscle groups existing in complete dissimilarity. My right lower back? Its tightness is akin to an over-boiled corned beef. My left lower back? It has looseness so free that I worry that it isn’t flexible, but rather it’s unmoored -- its floppy twistiness proof that it’s incapable of providing support or strength. And so forth across every complementary major muscle group I’ve got.
In my 90 minutes there I know I didn’t make the tiniest scratch on the surface of the massive Yoga universe. But it was time enough to peek a fleeting glance of how others breathe and balance and capably use their spine as the center of alignment. It was a mighty juxtaposition to the constant losing negotiation cyclists have with their bodies: Riding is an act of creeping left & right, up & down, craning arching pulling due to tiredness, fitness, power output, and/or grade of the road. The Yoga body is an elegant catamaran, gliding with refined efficiency & speed across the water. The cycling body is bomb-blasted, salt-corroded destroyer just come back from the wars. Do yourself a favor and take an intro Yoga class or two during the off-season to assess the fullness of your dysfunction. It’s a startling-yet-pleasurable experience.
– Other early-off-season realizations: (1) Except on race day, riding with no gloves is PRO. But cool temps mandate glove usage. If you ride with your levers angled up high & Belgian-style, you might need to angle them down a bit during glove season. It seems that this is true more with 7900 & Campy-11 than SRAM, since the hump at the peak of the brake hoods is least severe with SRAM. (2) Does anybody else get saddle discomfort in the winter that you don’t get during the race season? I attribute it to the fact that (a) I’ve put on my customary wintertime 5 kilos (ahead of schedule!), so my saddle has to support more weight, and/or (b) easygoing small-chainring riding causes you to bear more weight on the saddle because you’re not bearing down on the pedals as hard.
– Doug Ullman, CEO of the Livestrong Foundation was in town to give a talk last week. It had nothing to do with bikes or bike racing. Rather, he was both thoughtful and articulate about the Foundation’s single-minded goal: Prevention, education, and research in the fight against cancer, with nary a shred of evidence, as the haters would accuse, that Livestrong is a means for Lance to stroke his ego. I left the talk impressed by one fact more than any other: If you look at the current generation of today’s sport mega-stars (e.g. Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning) they all have one thing in common: In public they appear lobotomized. They know better (or have been trained better) than to stir up controversy by saying anything remotely resembling a polarizing opinion. Their commercial marketability trumps all.
By contrast, Ullman’s talk suggested the exact opposite about Lance. Ullman stated that the leading way to immediately & dramatically reduce cancer deaths in the US is for all Americans to have access to high-quality health care. He didn’t utter the phrase ‘at any cost’, but it’s apparent that the foundation advocates a massive overhaul to the US health care system where every American gets access to the same quality of world-class cancer treatment Lance was fortunate to receive at Indiana U. It was a political statement, but it’s a passionately heartfelt one. It puts Lance and his foundation squarely in one faction in the current healthcare
bloodbath debate. It’s rare to see a sports mega-star take such a vocal position on a thorny political issue, and we give Ullman & Lance a mighty chapeau for taking a stand regardless of the impact to Lance’s marketability.
– More Lance: Am I the only one who thinks le Tour dropped the TTT for 2010 out of acknowledgment that Radio Shack will be stacked with talent, while Contador’s team will be comparatively bush league? It’s a pro-Contador move from the ASO, saving him what would otherwise be a 2 minute loss in the TTT.