Racing the Worlds
In a small hotel, up on the hillside outside of Lugano, the team director, Denis Roux, knocked on my room door with jerseys and shorts for my roommate and me. Outside, the sun was setting. He handed me the folded blue-and-red jersey emblazoned with an artistic impression of a maple leaf. He said a few words about the next day’s race, the weather, and the tactic, and walked out. Excitement and angst swirled from my mind to my gut. The race could form my future. Picking up a novel to distract my thoughts, I read a few pages, but my mind returned to the race, the climbs, the descents, and the finish. This wasn’t my first time competing for the Canadian team, and it wasn’t even my first world championships. That was back when I was 18 in Perth, Australia, and the experience had been dismal. I was ill and quit the road race. We started the team time trial under-geared, jetlagged, worn out and we floundered throughout the test. Dismayed at the difficultly of the race, the level of the competition, and the support we had, few of my teammates raced again. This time, three years later, it wasn’t the fear of failure that instilled the anxiety but the possibility of success.
A helicopter chopped overhead. Throughout the week, we had become accustomed to the thwack of its blades, as the races unfolded below the cameras. The autumn air on the start line was brisk. Chestnuts were falling from the trees, dead leaves collected at the roadside, and scarves kept away the chill. Throughout the week, the buzz around the world championships built. The roads were painted with names, shrouded with flags and banners, and lined with spectators. They pounded drums, blew trombones, blasted air horns, and chanted songs in their native languages. We raced the Under-23 worlds on a Saturday, and the ebullience of the crowd rose to a crescendo on Sunday, late in the day, when the sun was low in the sky, and Johan Museeuw beat the hometown star, Mauro Gianetti, in a two-up sprint to win the professional title. The week was a spectacle. As I was not only a racer but also a fan who idolised the pros, it was like a week at a carnival where everything was new, exciting, thrilling, and inspiring.
The world championships lie in a unique place in cycling as they are the one time, other than the Olympics, when riders compete for their countries rather than in the name of sponsors. The potency of competing nations is stark both in numbers and financial terms. The dominant cycling nations, such as France, Italy, and Spain, will usually qualify the maximum number of riders (eight this year), while some nations will only qualify one spot. As a Canadian, we never qualified more than four riders in the years I raced, but we were nevertheless up near the front in the finales. While the top teams bickered over who would be the leader, and the press documented each move the teams made in the lead up to the race, our lives were quiet and our tactic was simple: we followed, helped each other the best we could, and worked to be near the front at the end.
The inequities between teams are great: the top nations stay at the finest hotels, have their own chefs to prepare ideal race food, and a staff of dozens to support their campaign. Others pull the team together with the slightest of resources. I’ve seen riders out buying food at the local shop the night before the race to fill the pockets of their race jerseys for the following day, as the team didn’t supply bars or gels. Others packed up bread and jam sandwiches from the hotel buffet. When I was younger, we were asked to return our jerseys and shorts, so they could be washed and reused by another rider. When budgets are tight, riders are often asked to pay their flight to the race.
At the professional level, nationalism doesn’t always trump commercialism. Theoretically, and ethically, the contestants should all race for their national team teammates and for the victory. Because the professional team sponsors pay the riders’ salaries, allegiances can shift. As is often the case in professional cycling, money influences outcomes, making race tactics unclear, especially when lesser known riders riding for less dominant countries can help their professional teammates win a title.
Wearing a national team jersey, I felt a sense of pride. On race day at the worlds, the pressures that drove me to perform changed. Intrinsic pressures were the fuel that made me want to race, helped me push my body to uncomfortable levels of pain, and got me out the door to train for hours in miserable weather. But extrinsic pressures were also present in every race. Sponsors wanted results, and fans cheered on performances. At the world championships, the extrinsic pressure shifted. I was there representing the country that had supported me since I was a boy riding in the streets of Toronto. As I lapped around the course, I felt I was racing for all those who had influenced my career since my childhood and all those entering the sport who I may never have met, who might be inspired by a performance, as I had been by my idol, Steve Bauer. Throughout the season, that pressure was only present when in the national colours. And, it was always a privilege.
In Lugano, as I was 20 years old, I was racing the Under-23 worlds, which are principally an amateur event. Young and inexperienced, I was still somewhat naïve to the complexities of professional sport. I sat nervously on the start line, with a radio in my pocket, which the Canadian coach could use to relay time splits and encouragement. It was my first time using such technology. As the world championships are always held on a circuit, I would pass through the start/finish line, numerous times during the 160-km race. Viewing the race from a television near the start/finish line, Denis would tell me to move up, to stay near the front, to eat and drink over the radio. These were directives I heard in almost every race I rode for the following 16 years. And, they made a difference. The peloton whittled down with each climb; the pace increased, but with fewer riders it became easier to position near the front. On the final lap, the peloton had completely splintered under the weight of the course and speed of the race. It was then, on the final run into the finish line, along the shores of Lake Lugano, where I placed eighth, that I knew I could make a career as a bike racer.
Cover Photo: Cor Vos