Comrades : Friends
Bike racing just doesn’t seem very friendly.” I was talking to a friend of mine: a fast young guy who races junior triathlons. “It’s true.” The topic came up a couple of days later with another friend. With this guy, I have traded 35 km/hr turns into a headwind for 400 km. He is one of the strongest bike riders I have ever met, and now has more Strava records than you can count, but he quit racing after a couple years, because he didn’t like it. “It’s different in mountain biking. There, everyone is excited for each other. Afterwards, they all have a beer together in the parking lot.”
Now, I have made some good friends in bike racing, but I have to agree with them. It was brutal when I started in this sport. If you took a turn too wide, you would be told that you were fucking useless. Your bike had to be clean every time you went training. If you took too long to change a flat, you might be left behind. One time, a couple of teammates sent me racing blind into a gravel corner in the hopes that I would crash, so one of them could take my spot for an upcoming stage race.
Real kindness was rare. I’ll never forget Tyler Hamilton coming up to me every morning at the breakfast table at the Tour of Mexico to see how I was surviving. Or Guy East, offering me a handshake and forgiving me, after I’d apologised to him for crashing our whole breakaway out of a Nations’ Cup. It’s not that everyone was a jerk.
You were just expected to be good. And if you weren’t, no one thought you deserved to be there. I remember one year at the Airforce Cycling Classic in D.C, I was going too slow through the turns. Martin Gilbert roared up from behind me, grabbed me by the hip and slung me backwards. Don’t get me wrong; Martin is one of the nicest dudes you will ever meet. We were teammates later on. But then, his race was in danger, and this damn kid in front of him was going around corners like a refrigerator on roller skates. I don’t blame him for a moment; I might have lost him the race. In fact, I often used his trick later in Belgium and Holland when guys were letting gaps go in crosswinds.
That’s the thing about road racing: you depend so much on other racers, just to stay safe and stay in the race, that you need them to be good. It’s hard to accept when they’re not. So, everyone who does earn a place in the peloton takes a lot of pride in it.
Racing down a wet descent in the Ardennes, knowing that the guy behind you, who is a damned good bike racer himself, trusts you to take the right line—there’s real camaraderie in that. And there’s camaraderie in knowing that when a race breaks on a dyke, you’ll find yourself in an echelon with fifteen other guys and you will all roll through too fast to say word, only flicking elbows, and none of you will waste a pedal stroke. Or, on a final climb, when you look into your rivals’ eyes—they are your comrades, and you each know how hard it is going to get.
Still, we should ask ourselves if we have to make it so hard to become a comrade.
And we should always remind ourselves that we don’t need to make comrades of our friends.