America’s first sporting superstar

March 1, 2014 § 21 Comments

I was pedaling along, talking to a pair of Cat 5′s about racing. A dude on a fancy bike passed us like we were tied to a stump. “Damn,” I said, “who does he think he is? Major Taylor?”

Stringbean looked at me. “Who’s Major Taylor?” he asked.

I didn’t know what to say, so I thought about it. “Ever heard of Eddy Merckx?” I asked.

Stringbean laughed. “Uh, yeah.”

Stumpy chipped in. “Merckx was the greatest ever. The Cannibal.”

“Why do you think he was the greatest ever?” I asked.

“Dude,” said Stumpy. “He fuggin won it all. He was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I heard you the first time. So you reckon he was better than Major Taylor?”

“Who’s he?” Stringbean repeated. “Was he better than Merckx?”

“Couldn’t have been,” said Stumpy. “Merckx was The Cannibal.”

“Yeah,” said Stringbean. “Who was Major Taylor? I bet he wasn’t no cannibal.”

Der Sieger schreibt die Geschichte

Among black cyclists, Major Taylor needs no introduction. But for many whites, he’s an ancient name at best, a blank at worst. This is weird because you don’t have to race bikes for long before you hear his name. Although I knew, or thought I knew, the rough outlines of his story, it wasn’t until I read “Major” by Todd Balf that I got an appreciation for the man who was unquestionably America’s first sporting superstar and who, judged by his accomplishments, remains one of the greatest American athletes ever.

Had Taylor been white, his palmares would have been incredible. But dominating the domestic and international competition as a black man in the late 1800′s who faced threats of violence, blatant discrimination, and machinations to keep him from even entering races testifies to a stony will and indomitable competitive lust that makes the accomplishments of Eddy Merckx pale in comparison.

In his prime, Merckx was the undisputed patron of the peloton with a powerful team that protected him and worked tirelessly for his victories. Just as crucially, very little happened without Merckx’s consent. In his prime, Taylor had to fight for every position in every single race, and could look forward to racial epithets and overt discrimination wherever he traveled in the United States.

I thought about all this as I pedaled along with Stumpy and Stringbean. “Boys,” I said, “if you want to know what it means to be a champion, a real one, get yourself a bio of Major Taylor. He wasn’t The Cannibal. He was far tougher than that.”

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All pro cyclists everywhere admit doping

November 5, 2013 § 19 Comments

The latest stick-and-tell exposé about drugs and cycling by Michael Rasmussen, “Charging While Charged,” has unexpectedly caused all pro cyclists, past and present, to admit to the use of performance enhancing drugs.

“When I read that Chicken had implicated everyone on the entire Rabobank team, my first reaction, you know, was to demand  a retraction and a public apology and threaten litigation,” said three-time world road champion Oscar Freire. “But then I was like, fuck it. Who am I fuggin kidding?”

When asked if this was an admission to doping, Freire said, “Only when I cycled.”

Ryder Hesjedal, winner of the Giro d’Italia who had never stood on a grand tour podium in fifteen attempts, concurred. “Drugs, brah. Every fuggin day.”

The next domino to fall was Chris Horner, the first 75-year-old to win a grand tour, and the first winner of a grand tour to ever be booted off his team for winning one. “Yeah, man,” said Horner. “Only so long you can keep up the ‘cheeseburgers complete me’ bullshit. I fuggin doped from Monday to Sunday.”

But it wasn’t until the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, confessed to a life of cheating that the rest of the peloton also confessed. “Look,” said Merckx. “It’s just not my fault that everyone is stupid. I did what I had to do.”

When asked what he “had to do,” Merckx said this: “Drugs. A merde-load of drugs. Drugs up my ass. Drugs up my nose. Drugs in my coffee. Drugs down the pie-hole. Drugs in my drugs. Drugs in the baby food. Why you fuggin think Axel turned into a top Belgian pro? Wasn’t the fuggin famous Belgian food.”

When asked about his lifelong denial of drug use, Merckx said this: “I was lying.”

Cascade of confessions

With Merckx’s public confession, the rest of the pro peloton quickly fell into line. First to step up was 2013 Tour winner Chrissy Froome. “Volcano doping. Like Eddy, up the ass.”

Retired pro Greg LeMond, long a champion of the anti-doping movement, likewise threw in the towel. “I’m tired of this fuggin charade,” he said. “Yeah, I doped. Now can I have a beer and will you please go away?”

Jonathan Vaughters, owner of Team Garmin and Prancing Pricks Who are Holier Than Everyone, Especially Thou, gave up the ghost as well. “Yeah, we’re fuggin filthy,” he confessed. “Drugs. It’s what’s for fuggin dinner. Not to mention breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea.”

David Brailsford, another proponent of clean cycling through Team Sky, hung his head in shame, frustration, and disgust. “We. Fuggin. Dope. What about that do you not understand?”

Bryan Cookson, UCI president and sponsor of the “Can’t We Just Get Along Reconciliation and Handholding Mission to Restore Faith and Trust in Something That Never Had Either,” convened a meeting in which all cyclists in the history of the sport attended and confessed their sins. In a gigantic auditorium they all chanted in unison, “We fuggin doped. We are fuggin dopers. Now leave us the fugg alone, especially Steve Tilford you whiny little bitch.”

Time for change

At a press conference following the mass confession, which was presided over by the Pope and Pat McQuaid, who was forced to additionally confess that he was “a doper AND an asshole,” Cookson explained the reason for the unified admission.

“The whole thing became undeniable. ‘Breaking the Chain,’ by Voet, ‘Rough Ride,’ by Kimmage, ‘We Were Young and Carefree,’ by Fignon, ‘Seven Deadly Sins,’ ‘Cycle of Lies,’ ‘Wheelmen,’ ‘The Secret Race,’ ‘Dog in a Hat,’ ‘From Lance to Landis,’ ‘L.A. Confidential,’ and of course everything ever written about Coppi, Bartali, Anquetil, or anyone who’s ever set foot in Belgium … we all just decided to say ‘Enough. We’re a bunch of lousy, doped up, cheatfuggs.’

In order to make the confessions as thorough as possible, numerous deceased cycling stars were exhumed and had placards hung on their remains. “Dopey Coppi,” and “Tranqui-til” were two of the most popular exhibits set up around the bones of Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil.

Cookson was optimistic that a corner had been turned. “Now that we’ve admitted what everyone knows, there’s no one left to punish, except, of course the fans. We’re going to be asking fans to voluntarily confess to drug use as well, and masturbation. We will clean this sport up once and for all.”

The ugliest sport

August 18, 2013 § 30 Comments

I am an ugly rider. I bob up and down. I weave back and forth. I make unpleasant gasping sounds when going hard. My thin arms stick out at odd angles like a praying mantis. I have been called “Twigman,” “Mantis,” “The Human Loom,” and of course plain old “Wanker.”

But you know what? I’m an amateur, and not a particularly good one. My ugly riding style is just one more check-mark in the long list of qualities that define me as a weekend hacker.

What’s more than passing strange, though, is the ugliness of the professionals. Because you know, it didn’t always used to be that way.

The most beautiful sport

If you look at any of the classic cycling videos — A Sunday in Hell, or the 1973 World Championships in Spain — it’s impossible not to be struck with the smoothness of the riders. Of course each one is idiosyncratic; funny motions and unique pedaling styles make each rider as distinct as a thumbprint. But despite each rider’s individual style, the grace and smoothness of the riding is incredible, even over the rough and ragged paving stones to Roubaix.

Then, to see how far we’ve fallen, look at the Tour of 2013.

The winner is perhaps the worst example of ugly cycling to ever appear in the pro peloton. Froome’s ungainly, awkward, uncomfortable, and erratic pedaling make his riding ugly beyond belief, and the hilarious photo essay of “Chris Froome Looking at Stems” only proves the point: The head-droop that causes experienced racers to shout, “Keep your head up, dumbshit!” is emblematic of a man who just won the Tour de France. Yet he’s hardly alone. Jerky, forced, unnatural, uncomfortable riding styles abound. How did the beauty of 1973 become the unbearable ugliness of 2013?

Saddle time

The  biggest difference between then and now is that pro cyclists don’t race their bikes very much. In 1975, the year that Eddy Merckx lost the tour, he entered a staggering 195 races, everything from classics to grand tours to local criteriums. Nor was he the exception, because in those days pro riders made their money at the smaller events. Merckx has said that if he had been paid better, he would have raced less.

Chris Froome’s racing schedule in 2013 was comprised of the Tour of Oman (6 races), Tirreno-Adriatico (7 stages), Criterium Internationale (3 stages), Tour of Romandie (6 races), Criterium du Dauphine (8 races), and the Tour de France (21 races). His total race calendar for the year was a meager 51 races, and when you lop out the time trials and prologues it was even less.

From the perspective of developing good riding skills, the generation of racers who became professionals by racing their bikes rather than by doing specific lab, heart rate, or power-based workouts had countless more racing miles than modern Pro Tour racers. It’s my opinion that the huge number of races over so much different terrain — riders would often do track and cyclocross after the road season ended, in addition to muddy spring classics and summertime tours — made them smoother, more fluid, more skilled, and better riders.

Equipment and training miles

In addition to huge miles in training and racing, Ol’ Backintheday rode equipment that required skills. You had to reach the down tube to shift. You had fewer gears to choose from. Your bike was heavier. Your wheels were slower. Your feet weren’t very firmly bound to your pedals. Your shoe soles were soft.

Professionals had to be able to pedal and operate machinery that was more finicky than today’s push-button, wrist-flicking technology. The best example I can think of that shows how degenerate the pro peloton’s skills generally are is by comparing them with modern track racers, who still have the same bike handling limitations that they had fifty years ago.

The track is narrow and unforgiving. The speeds are high. The equipment tolerates little if any jerky, quirky, ugly riding, especially at the level of world class competition. The result? Elite track racers remain beautiful to watch, their efficient, measured, and controlled movements in complete harmony with the bike.

I’ll always ride ugly. But Chris Frooome and his cohorts could stand for a beauty makeover. It might make me forget about their volcano doping, if only for a little while.

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