My love for the ride
The peloton stretched in a long single line, thrashed through the valley, with Dolomites towering around. Soon we would be deep within them, attacking them, then trying to find a rhythm that would get us to the finish. The commissaires’ car had just pulled ahead of the bunch, with its whistle blowing and flag dropping to signal the official start of the stage. Tucked on the wheel, I dug in.
I didn’t want to be there. We were fifteen days into three weeks of the Giro d’Italia, and the toughest days were yet to come. With a long day of racing ahead, I no longer knew if I wanted to race a bike. A veteran in the peloton, I was old enough to handle the workload. My fitness was near a peak, but my mind was uncertain.
After several serious crashes I had questioned whether to pursue my chosen life. But after the pain receded I climbed back on the bike. Cycling was too deep within me to stop.
This time, as we sped along the valley floor at the start of the stage, something ached more profoundly. Was I a bike racer or a father? Could I be both? This morning I had said goodbye to my children, one too young to understand why I was saying goodbye and for how long I would be gone, and the other understanding it all and wanting nothing more than to be with his father. During the long racing season, I was gone more than I was home. Soon after the flag had dropped and we were speeding along, in pursuit of a finish line, I saw them standing in a crowd of spectators with my wife and parents, dressed in pink Giro T-shirts, cheering fervently at the roadside. The pit of my stomach felt hollow, but I tried to swallow it deeper. I knew I had a job to do. We had over 200 kilometres to race and a range of mountains to climb.
That night, alone in my room, I reflected on where I was going, where my life on a bike had taken me, and what cycling meant to me. After spending my life on a bike, I was now looking back, and seeing it with a richer perspective.
From the day I started reading the European cycling magazines that were piled on the side table in our living room, my goal had been to win bike races. I was a young boy then, and I wanted to be in those pages. I wanted to see a photo of me, snapped in action, as I sped over the Poggio with my face covered in grime, the tifosi animating the scene with their encouragement, their air horns and their fireworks. The desire to win and to race at the highest level on a continent an ocean away from my home in Canada incited me to ride everywhere I could; I rode to school, I rode to the shops, and my parents drove me to races across North America. I believed cycling was all about the race, training for it, and winning. It took a long career as a professional to make me realize how wrong I was; the job and the win were secondary to everything else that the sport gave me.
The most memorable moments were not determined by a result but by the experience, whether on the team bus after racing over cobbles or climbs, out on a quiet country road alone, or on a seven-hour ride with friends. To pursue finish lines for decades, through rain, muck, searing heat, or injury, the cyclist — even the one who is racing to get off the farm, out of the mill and into the limelight — is driven by something deeper. Pro cycling is more than just a job.
Deeper into the mountains, we had settled into a fierce rhythm, the race leader’s team chasing the breakaway at a tempo that had the rest of us, tucked tightly in their slipstream, sitting uncomfortably in our saddles. David Millar rode beside me and moaned about the speed. I asked him what climb we were ascending. It seemed we had been going up for several kilometres but according to the little card with the day’s altimetry printed on it, we weren’t supposed to be climbing a mountain.
He pointed to a little blip in the profile. “That’s the climb,” he said. “It’s five kilometres long. It is so fucking small on the profile that you can barely see it in comparison to the other climbs. And,” he continued, “we are riding at 445 watts. It’s going to a be a long bloody day.” I bitched about the stage’s difficulty with him for a bit and then we spoke briefly about my family, how I missed them, and how being away from them was the toughest part of the job. Those thoughts rolled through my head over the next eight hours of racing. At the end of the stage, I had made a decision: I would race for one more year and then retire.
Over the last years of my career, during the off-season, David and I had spent hours together, training for the season in the Catalan countryside. On those rides we came to know each other well. I spent some memorable days on my bike with him and Jez Hunt, the three of us in the twilight of our careers, still riding like the juniors we once were, joking, racing each other for imaginary finish lines and stopping for one too many coffees and pastries.
The pressure to be fit and ready for the races incited us to get out and ride for hours, but once we were out there, deep in the hills or behind the motorbike, the races became a distant thought and we were just a bunch of kids out on a long adventure, pushing ourselves and each other. They were rides that could have gone on forever, and this had become the cycling I loved most, with no painted finish line, but a good route and some friends. With a veteran professional’s perspective, training no longer felt like the job it once did when I lived in an insular world, where the result was all that mattered.
Cycling has given me some of the finest adventures of my life. Through my career, the riders who enjoyed it the most, who truly lived to ride, were always seeking new roads and a novel experience, where they could push themselves to achieve more and see more. During my time with US Postal and Discovery Channel, I was amazed at how some riders could ride the same loops repeatedly for years, as if they were punching a ticket at the start of the work day and punching out at the end, with no desire to experience anything greater than what their coaches had mapped out on their training program. We were in a foreign land with an abundance of tiny roads and scenic routes along the coast or into the mountains, yet they repeated the same dozen routes for years. Lance Armstrong was different.
When he retired, leaving behind his furnished Girona apartment, my friend found a large Michelin map book of France on Lance’s bedside table. Many of the maps had been highlighted with notes in the margins. Some were Tour stages, others were training routes or climbs and some were just roads to discover.
On occasion, Lance would ask if I had discovered any new roads. “Does the gravel on the backside of Sant Martí de Sacalm go through?” he might ask. He had no desire to repeat the same routes but to seek out something new, turning a training ride into an adventure by going deeper into the mountains or by winding his way through a farm. Unlike the rest of us, Lance had the fortune to have a follow car with him on his training rides. The driver would carry some food, drinks, spare wheels and a mountain bike. If the pavement turned to gravel and then to trail he could push on by swapping bikes, the little Mercedes following until it could no longer handle the terrain. A rider who was meticulous in every sense, who analysed his performance and his rivals’ with detail, was still driven to the unknown, to find new training routes and new places. He was like a kid with a new bike setting out to discover his neighbourhood alleys. This is one reason why, despite everything, I think he still rides today, and why he loves being on a bike. It is the novel experience, shared or alone, that ultimately makes us happiest.
Like Lance, Juan Antonio Flecha was always in search of something greater. Flecha lives in a Barcelona suburb, and has a second home in the Spanish Pyrenees. While up in the mountains during the winter, he would ride in the falling snow while his girlfriend went snowboarding on the mountain. He would give up the warmth of his seaside home to ride alone in the serenity of the falling snow on a mountain road.
After my last season of racing in 2012, my wife and I drove to Andorra to take our children skiing. As we ascended the mountain pass, from Puigcerda towards the Col de Puymorens, a climb often on the Tour de France route, I saw a cyclist in the distance. Snow was falling and dusting the road. Farther up, the mountain was white. As we neared the cyclist, I recognized the position and pedal stroke.
It was Flecha, bundled up, his breath creating billows of vapour in the cold air. We rolled down the window, spoke for a minute and moved on so as not to hold up the traffic. Further up the mountain, the road was barricaded and the police were only allowing cars with chains or snow tires to continue on. Stopped in the line of cars and waiting our turn, Flecha caught up. I asked him if he was going to continue on up. “Sure, no problem,” he answered, a smile and a grin on his face, assuring us we’d also be fine in our car. The cold air gusting off the mountain bit as it rushed through the car window.
Saying goodbye, he passed the police and pressed on up the snow-covered mountain road. A few switchbacks up, we passed him once again, my children cheering him on from behind the window, inspired by his courage and stamina.
Riding alone, moving through the landscape, especially when it provides a challenge, can bring focus, peace and sense of escape. Pushing to attain new levels, the cyclist feels the rhythm of the pedal stroke, the spinning wheels, his or her breath and the ticking chain. A focused mind brings clarity and contentment. I’m sure Flecha sensed that. As we drove by him, a large part of me wanted to be out there as well. I knew what he must be feeling as he fed his effort, a lone cyclist on a mountain road in conditions that would challenge him but ultimately bring satisfaction.
Five years have passed since I last pinned a number on my jersey pockets. Now, after a ride, there are no more massages to rub the pain out of my legs or mechanics to fix my bike. The speeds of my rides are slower than they once were and my power output is likely three-quarters of what it was. There is no podium. But still, some of the greatest rides of my life, and certainly the most memorable, have been in the last five years, alone or with my wife, my children, and good friends.
Michael Barry is a former pro turned author. He has written several books about his life as a domestique inside the peloton. His family runs Mariposa bicycles in Canada.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.