There is a chance that I will regret admitting this, and I think that there is a good chance that some of you might hate me for it, but to tell you what I want to tell you I need to admit that I am not what most would consider a “fan of road bike racing.” Fucked up right? I mean my job is to observe and report on the sport of road bicycling and I should be over the moon mad about it, but I’m not. It’s not like I have an axe to grind, in like a “my-dad-was-killed-by-a-rogue-professional-road-racer” kind of way, it’s more that I am just not that interested in the nuts and bolts, the facts and stats of road racing—of sport in general, really—it’s just not my thing. I don’t make time to watch every race, every game, to listen to the endless anecdotes and insights of sportscasters, to always know the score.
Fortunately I don’t have to, and you should also know that if you are reading this here, on this blog called Manual for Speed, that factual accurate reporting on road racing isn’t exactly what we do.
So here I am at stage 7, the weather has been down all week. The ubiquitous California sun has abandoned us, my sweatshirt has been in constant use. Emiliano has already photographed the peloton as it climbed up and past us on Glendora Mountain Road, and the riders won’t be to the finish for another two hours so we drive our little rig to the end of the stage and park. It’s cold, an inversion has set in and a chilling fog makes the setting perfect for a pirate attack. The cold keeps body comfort at bay; in a quest for warmth we ride the world’s slowest oldest chairlift up to the Baldy Mountain Lodge.
The lodge is well past its prime, the architectural equivalent of a ’70s ski bum with a coke blown septum, mogul busted knees, and two kids on the other side of the country who are trying hard to forget that he exists. Still, if you meet him at a bar on just the right night at just the right time a little bit of the old hot dogger can still shine through, and he will get to telling you stories about the good old days, like the time Steve Alman invited him down to his Malibu beach house to cut up mondo lines skiing down a mountain of pure Columbian gold. The lodge has thisgood for a storyeffect on us, plus with a fire going in the central wood stove that is working so, so well, we decide to brave a burger and watch the race unfold on the small screen over the bar.
During the past week I have spent a ton of time around the race, but watching it on TV like this is the first time I have seen long stretches of the race unfold. It does all those verbs and adjectives that cycling does, and a couple of the dudes I have gotten to know are in a break, so now I have investment in their success. Mostly though, we eat our passably mediocre burgers and shoot the shit about projects, travel, andMad Max: Fury Road. Time passes, and as the race approaches the finish line we once again mount the chairlift and slowly descend into the cloud veiled depths, the cable overhead towing us towards the growling wail of Dave Towle and Brad Sohner.
Emiliano goes off to take more pictures and I watch the big screen. Julian Alaphillipe has just gone clear of the break. I watch him push, I watch him drive his body onwards, I watch as saliva hangs in long arcs, like spider’s silk, from his chin; here, in front of a world of fans, the man is drooling on himself. The section of road that he is riding on is so steep that it is not classified, it is above category. Once a few years ago I rode it, stopping at every corner to catch strength and breath. Julian does no such thing, he just flies. He is small, young, and unexpected. And he is doing exactly what I came here to see, he is doing something that I would consider to be transcendent. This has nothing to do with what food he likes, or the bike he rides, or the shoes he is wearing. It has nothing to do with stats or the facts.
He is in a moment of grace, pushing beyond all known limits. You can see it as it happens, because for few yards he lightens up, his cranks turn slower and it appears that the chase group is going to catch him, but then he turns it back on, accelerating to the finish.
This is what I love about sport. The ability to see someone rise above their abilities, become more than they are. This isn’t easily achieved, these experiences are rare, brought about by the perfect balance of character, pressure and competition, fueled by drive, desire, and dedication. These are human fundamentals, ingrained operations, and sport allows such a beautiful expression of these abilities, an expression that can be immediately and viscerally recognized and understood. This is something, something important. This is something to search for, to root for, and this is the kind of fan that I am.