Thursday, March 02, 2006

Crazy race

Ok. I admit it. I never really "followed" racing. I don't even actually understand what those guys do in the Tour de France. I know I see a lot of cyclists and they're going really fast. But the actual strategy the event escapes me. (Yellow, polka dotted jerseys? Does it ever strike avid pro cycling fans that some of the revered traditions of the TdF may seem a little, well, kooky to the untrained eye?)

Now, having admitted that embarrassing fact for all of the bicycle-blogging world to see, I also have to admit that I have become absolutely captivated by the Iditarod Trail Invitational. With nothing more to watch than spare, often long-delayed reports on racers' current placement on the trail, I have been caught up in a whirlwind of imagination about their trail conditions, method of movement, weather, and just what exactly they might be thinking about as they gaze across endless dunes of windswept snow over the treeless tundra.

The three leaders in the race took nearly 40 hours to pedal/walk/trudge the 90 miles between Rohn and Nikolai. They're pushing five days now to make it the McGrath, a very respectable time in which to finish the race. Five days. 350 miles. Those TdF guys do 350 miles in, what, like three hours?

But I can't help but feel awestruck respect for the racers struggling toward McGrath. Here they are, in their physical prime, clawing through blowing snow and temperatures plummeting to negative-double-digits with 15 mph headwinds. They're living on power bars, jerky, disgusting trail food, the occasional hamburger at a checkpoint. They're relying on human-powered transportation in one of the few places left in this overpopulated world where you can travel 100 miles between a human settlement of any kind. They're doing it all as fast as they can, as hard as they can, and all for this blurry-eyed, sleep-deprived slump over the finish line. Then they can return to their homes in Anchorage, London and South Africa, read their name in the massive scrunch of small gray type in the Anchorage Daily News, and tell their friends that they completed the "world's longest winter ultra race" - which, of course, none of their friends will have ever heard of.

This isn't the Tour de France. It's not even the Iditarod dogsled race. There aren't any television cameras, news reports or big payouts at the end. Whatever these racers do out there, they're doing entirely for themselves. You gotta respect that.


  1. I suspect that your awe and amazement stems from knowing that you have been there and could do that.

    I can't imagine how much greater my interest in the TdF would be if I actually believed that I could contend.

  2. Jill, I tried commenting earlier, but apparently, blogspot ate it! Nice post here, and especially valid after your experience in the Susitna! I think it gives you a perspective that helps us lower 48 cyclists experience the idea of Ice Biking esoterically, from the standpoint of an Arctic Cyclist, at least esoterically. Keep it up and I'll keep reading!

  3. It's still a stretch for me to enjoy pro cycling. For one thing, trying to learn enough back story & stats seems like way too much work. I just don't care that much. And I agree that their fashion sense is totally whack. I admit, I often end up wanting the team with the best color/design scheme to win.

  4. I always thought a yellow jersey would be cool to wear -- I didn't know there was a polka dot one. That changes things.

  5. You really hit the nail on the head. The athletes you are watching and rooting for are out there to test themselves, to push themselves to the limits of their abilities. That's what gets my kudos. They're not courting fame and glory, sponsorship packages and rock star girlfriends. That's why I think they are truly awesome athletes.

    Just found your blog, but I'll be returning regularly. Keep up the good work!

  6. I actually like the online updates on for race coverage. During the Tour, I'll give occasional glances during the stage and then hit refresh like crazy as they come down to the line. For some reason that adds to the suspense.

  7. long live the tour!!

  8. The tour is fun. Of course it's goofy. Sometimes even the racers are goofy. It's astounding how laid back parts of the race are. You see guys playing on their bikes, swapping bikes, chatting, eating, joking...they're still having fun, which is something that's nice to see.

    The polka dot jersey is the climber's jersey. The 'King of the Mountains'. It's so garish and terrible, it's utterly desirable.
    The green jersey is the sprinter's jersey. The rocket at the end of the race.
    The white jersey is the best under-23 rider.
    The yellow jersey -- the 'maillot jaune' -- is the leader's jersey.

    The stages to watch are the ones in the terrible mountains where everybody cracks, and only the real champions make good time. I know exactly what it's like to crack on a climb, so I'm fascinated by people that don't.

    The history of the tour is really interesting, too. They used to do 400 miles a day, and even ride while it was dark. They'd sleep by the side of the road, and because there was a lot of money riding on bets, riders would be kidnapped in the middle of the race! You were responsible for all your own equipment and there were no team cars or extra bikes back then. There's a story of a Tour de France rider being penalized because he asked a blacksmith to work the bellows while he RE-FORGED his fork.

    Teamwork is now key to the Tour. Nobody does it solo, even if it looks like it. There's another story about just prior to WWII where a rider -- a team leader -- broke his bike on a downhill. The closest teammate of his was actually in front of him, and would have been on his way to win the Tour. His sense of teamwork was so strong that when a motorcycle caught up with him to tell him that his captain had a broken bike, he RODE BACK up the hill, and handed his bike over. Then he sat at the side of the road and cried. I don't think he ever rode another Tour, because of the war.

    With a race as big as the Tour, there's a lot of history and dynamic. The race is much different today than it used to be, but in some places you can still see glimpses of the same spirit of the original Tour.

  9. Jill,

    While I see your point-of-view... I am currently living here in Colorado with two professional road racers as roommates... and I can assure you that they are doing it for themselves.

    They have the combination of talent and hard work that got them to the pro ranks, but they still got into the sport simply for the love of cycling.

    At least here in the US, the sport is still small enough that it is not exactly something kids get groomed and pressured to do from an early age. Although this is changing, but still nowhere near other sports, obviously.

    The payouts, news reports, etc... is all icing on the cake. These guys would be racing bikes with or without a fancy pro contract. To label people as sell-outs or only doing a sport for ulterior motives is generalizing and short-sighted.

    Athletes are athletes, the love has got to be there.

    Let me know if I am off base with this rant? Because you know I respect and admire you.

    I just love the sport of cycling, simply put! All aspects!

  10. CAL - thanks for the Tour breakdown and history. I think I'll have a lot more appreciation of the event this time around, especially, like you said, because the mountains are such a compelling stage. And, well, those guys are just fast.

    Daniel - Did my post read that way? Because I didn't mean it in that context at all. I wasen't trying to minimalize professional athletes in any way. I've read magazine articles. I know they work harder than anyone out there. And it's great when you can get paid for it. I was just saying that I think it's even greater, on some levels, when you can work just as hard with no expectation or even desire for wealth or fame. It sounds like your friends have the best of both worlds.


Feedback is always appreciated!