Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Heroes of cycling

When I was a young spud, just barely into my teens, I was introduced to the romantic world of professional road racing in Europe. I quickly fell in love with the images of the matched colorful jerseys, fast paced sprint finishes that ended in ecstatic victory salutes, the strained faces of riders torturing each other with attack after attack in the high mountains. It did not take long before I began to emulate the PROs. In fact. almost immediately I understood the importance of white bar tape, a clean bike, and matching kits (although, much of this took some time before I could afford such elegance).

One thing that does not have a true monetary value but is earned over many miles and time on the bike, is your style. There are many names you can put to it: form, fit, PRO, euro. How you attain it takes time. In some cases, it takes a lot of time and effort but the unique thing about it is that once you have it, it will never leave you. It is this same style that no matter how out of shape you feel, you still manage to hang onto the group ride or still teach the younger riders a lesson or two.

While getting to this point takes some patience, there are many riders that have raced before you that serve as examples in your quest to become PRO. These can be past or present riders that have a unique and recognizable style that you can emulate and build off of. While there are many riders that I have watched or raced against that I admire, there are only a few riders that, growing up, I called heroes.

My first was Marco Pantani. I remember the Cycle Sport magazine back in 1999 that had him on the front cover. The title, "From Hero to Zero" was undoubtedly about his victories in both the Giro and Tour de France the previous year, only later to be overshadowed by doping allegations the next. His is a story of great highs and sad lows. I was very saddened to hear of his death in 2004 when just a year earlier, I had such joy watching him in the Giro when he attacked on the Colle Fauniera, giving us a shining glimpse that the man was indeed returning to the top of the sport. In fact, that same climb was later dedicated in his memory during the 2005 Giro. Still, this was a climber unlike anyone before him. His ability to attack while in the drops on the steepest of grades can only be described as elegant. Marco even considered himself more of a poet than a bike racer. While he was not exactly the prettiest man, no one else in cycling has ever come close to looking as Euro with a shaved head. (Yes, even Steffano Garzelli. Come on, even he shaved his head because Pantani was his hero and friend.) PRO.

The next hero of mine was also an italian. He even shared the similar style of attacking steep climbs in the drops of the handlebars, although these climbs where much shorter than the epic "beyond categorie" mountains of the grand tours. No, Michelle Bartoli was more of an all-rounder. A classics specialist with the ability to leap very quickly off the front of a group while racing over the steep cols of such classics as the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liege Bastogne Liege, and Amstel Gold. He earned the nicknames of "il gatto" and "the warrior." The way he attacked was always the same; sprinting out the saddle while in the drops, leaning low on the machine while the fluid motion of his lengthy legs sped off leaving other riders struggling for wheels. It was simple but heroic. Smooth but forceful. I could only do but smile with excitement watching it.

The last, competed at the same time as both these riders. His past, like Pantani, was riddled with drug problems, doping allegations, family problems, and the like. But he was a hero to many. Despite Frank Vandenbroucke's history, he was on his way back to being healthy and competitive at the top end of cycling before he passed away late last year. As well as a good climber, he, like Bartoli, was more of a classics specialist. He attacked with such confidence and panache that he amassed 51 wins over his career. His style was truly PRO and a picture of the Belgian hard-man style. Legs covered in embrocation and the arm warmers pushed down to his wrists. He was great to watch. His attack over the La Redoute in the 1999 L-B-L was nothing short of amazing. Watch him and Bartoli duke it out.


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