On Cobblestones

Tomorrow is the Paris-Roubaix race – The Hell of the North. Admittedly, I have never seen a professional bike race, start to finish. Unlike swimming, rugby, or water polo, I had never engaged the sport in any personal way, and had nothing to keep my interest in the game. How could I have understood strategy, or the psychology of the thing? Not all components of being an athlete are universal. But today, I saw a post about it on Facebook (where all the magic and information gathering happens these days) and decided to see for myself what this was all about. So I watched all 2.5 hours of last year’s race, including commentary and interviews with people I had never heard of. But by the end, as with so many amazing athletic events, I was yelling and cheering for the man, Johan Van Summeren, who pulled ahead of the lead group and won the race by 40 seconds.

I like an underdog. Van Summeren, who surprised everyone including himself with his epic and outstanding win was, according to the commentators, a teammate of several people who were all thought to be favorites in this race. He was consistently the man who pulled the line to help other men win – in fact, he had only ever won two races in his entire career, one of which was so small the announcers didn’t even know its name. Even though it was a year late, it was an amazing feeling to watch someone stamp their name firmly into the annals of cycling history, turning all the previous versions of this story on their head.

But the man who has captured my imagination and the imagination of my quads is Fabian Cancellara. The man is undoubtedly a brilliant cyclist in terms of both endurance and strategy. Watching him accelerate into his attack was like watching a fright train gather speed out of the station. I was open-mouthed and speechless. But my favorite thing about Cancellara has nothing to do with his cycling ability. I watched several interviews with him once the race was finished, and was hugely impressed by his demeanor and humility. As a favorite to win, he was of course interviewed as part of the race coverage, the commentators asking him aggressively worded questions about going out and attacking the race or dominating the field. To all these, Cancellara answered that he was just going to ride his bike. Which is sort of the whole idea, isnt it? Even now, I hear myself talking about cycling in very specific ways, not many of which are just about my enjoyment of it. Instead I talk about miles logged, and how sore I am after a long ride. But really, no matter who we are or why we ride, we do it because we love it. We aren’t getting graded, our parents don’t make us get up early on a Saturday to go ride with our friends, in most cases this is not our job. I remember that after years of competing as a swimmer, I realized I had lost my ability to just enjoy being in a pool, feeling instead like I needed to be training, swimming laps and practicing my flip-turns. Somehow, I had allowed regimen to completely overshadow fun. The rhetoric of sport is no help either. Its so rarely about the fun or the joy of what brought us to play in the first place.

Regardless of how far I’m going – to the grocery store or on a 20 mile ride with lots of hills – there is always a thrill as I set my bike down in front of my apartment building, tighten my helmet into place, and push off for the first time. I’m going on a bike ride. How sore I might be when I get back, or how many traffic lights and car doors I will encounter are both meaningless – I’m going to ride my bike and in the moment, that’s all I care about. Cancellara, it has been commented, strives to bring some element of romance back to the sport of cycling – to offset the  common discourse of performance tires with something a little more nostalgic. Something I am already starting to miss in my own experience of cycling.

So, tomorrow morning at 3am, I will get myself up, turn my computer on, and watch the Paris-Roubaix. Cancellara will not be competing, but there are other amazing humans who will be, many of whom will be the underdogs I love to support. I will cheer quietly, so as not to wake my roommate, and feel the excitement of those two or three hours. Sleep will claim me again, and when I wake up, I will go on my own bike ride. But not a long, grueling bike ride. A ride to the water that will be slow and calm, with good music and maybe a sandwich or a friend or both. I won’t have the ancient cobblestones of northern France beneath me, so the potholes of Oakland will have to do as I re-imbue my own experience with a little nostalgia and romance.

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