Monday, June 9, 2014

My Fleeting Passion for Professional Cycling

As I've said, there's a story behind everything.  Here's my story why I don't watch professional cycling.

There was once a time where I felt passion for professional cycling.  It lasted 7 days.

It's the 20th of July of 2006.  I'm sitting in my assigned room in a secured compound in Kabul, Afghanistan.  I've ridden various Russian-built helicopters across the country 3 of the last 5 days, and I've been out of the relative safety of our compound every single day.

I've been in the region for a week.  I'm still a little jet lagged.  The air is thin, and full of dust and other crap (literally).  I'm tired, constant travel tired.  Constant threat tired; I'd been in dangerous parts of the world before, this was more just a constant wear rather than a new experience keeping me up at night.

At least it wasn't like Baghdad, where you could set your clocks to the morning bombings.  But, again, that's another story.

It's my first down day, if you can call it that.  We were supposed to travel today, but circumstances wouldn't allow; instead, I spent the morning meeting with the local staff, then met with our travel coordinator after lunch to plan the flight for my team the next day.

So, I'm sitting in my room.  After the constant buzz of activity and motion - the constant flip of attention between the road and the objects alongside the road - I can't focus without noise.  I need input.

I flip on the television.  Which, surprisingly, works; and more surprisingly even has English channels.

I start to flip.  Flip.  BBC News; nope, too close to my world.  Flip.  Indian daytime dramas (soaps, if you could call them that); nope.  Flip.  Middle-eastern music videos...

There's something a little surreal about watching a Middle-Eastern female in a westernized female lead-singer mixed with belly-dancer outfit shaking her rump to a large group of men in traditional solid-white middle-eastern garb.  Nope.

Flip, nope.  Flip, nope. Flip, nope.

Flip, Floyd.

A pair of British announcers are discussing the man on the screen, Team Phonak's Floyd Landis.  It took me a minute to realize: this is live.  I'm watching the Tour de France, live, and I'm watching possible history being made.

I take in just enough to realize the Landis, an American, was way out ahead, before the announcers cut back to the previous day's events that had put Landis on the ropes and effectively ended his TdF hopes for the year.  I watch as Landis crumbles mere miles from the finish, disintegrating in a way that was clearly psychologically crushing.

I had heard about Landis through my monthly reading of Bicycling Magazine, a habit I no longer keep.  He struck me as the kind of person we wanted to win the Tour, painted in such a good light, painted as truly different from Lance Armstrong's in-your-face, dare-you-to-accuse-me, hyper-aggressive way.

Floyd seemed to be a real person, down to earth rather than on a pedestal like Armstrong.   While I had little interest when I read the articles, I suddenly found myself glued to the screen.  America's boy was about to become a hero, and I was watching it happen.

I wanted to Floyd to win.  I wanted to be like Floyd.  I wanted him to win, because if he could, I could.

I watch the miles dwindle away.  I feel the relief every time the gap is put on the screen - it's holding.  I watch as he grabs water from the team car, pouring it on his head.

I feel a little more confident when Landis' coach says Floyd can hold 400w for an hour under these conditions, he's well within the his limits.

I start to worry when I learn Landis' radio had failed, likely shorted by all the water he was using to keep cool.

I watch as the lead begins to dwindle.  First, by seconds, little concern.  Then more seconds, piling up to minutes.  The gap has closes past the time he needed to take the lead.  I am on the edge of my bed, trying not to scream at the TV "THEY'RE CATCHING UP!  GO!  GO, DAMNIT!"

Finally, Landis crosses the line.  He's done everything he can, it's up to the chasing peloton.  I sit, counting the seconds, then the minutes.  A couple climbers finish, then the main peloton.  Landis puts 5'42" into the next finisher, jumping up to third place.  Lots of punditry - Landis could do it, just needs to hold on for the last couple stages before he could seal it all up in the Individual Time Trial.

As I travel around Afghanistan for the next few days, I'm constantly checking the results, looking for Landis, looking for our guy to come through.  I stay up late to see the replay of the ITT, watching the times as Landis makes 1'29" on first place GC Pereiro to claim the overall win.  I watch the procession into Paris, the yellow jersey on the back of a heroic American who overcame a cataclysmic failure to win the Tour in the closing days.

I'm a believer.  And I'm a pro-cycling fan.  The days of questionable victories by Lance and others are over, a new brand of winner has been crowned.

27 July 2006.  Landis' A test comes back positive for testosterone.  My faith is shaken, but I focus on his innocence and await a second test.

5 August 2006.  Landis' B test comes back positive for testosterone.  Landis is stripped of his win.

As quickly as I started to find a passion for professional cycling, I lose any faith in the sport or its participants.

So, today I have little interest in professional cycling.  Instead, I ride.  I race.  And I do everything I can to be honest about it.

I don't care about professional cycling.  I want to believe, but my faith has been crushed.  You can blame Floyd Landis for getting me interested, and you can blame the whole peloton for pushing me away.

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