A malicious rumor used to circulate, which despite my frothing denials at the time I will now confirm as … somewhat close to the truth.
OK, very close.
Fine. Unequivocally true.
I entered my sport at an elite level, almost at once gaining a professional license, having — here comes the rumor — attained basic competence and technique through sheer mimicry. That is: by close analysis of endless still photography of the sport’s top stars of the era. Studying the angles and attitudes of their limbs, elbows, hands, shoes, the contours of their shoulders, when sitting, when standing, attacking or “hiding in the wheels,” even their facial expressions, I became completely fluent in that physical vocabulary.
These photos I found mainly in magazines that a Danish cousin would mail to the frontier every few months. Back then, cycling was almost non-existent in the US. We rode bikes — two-wheelers — to our Little League games. Your baseball mitt would be slung onto the handlebar. You jabbed at blocky rubber pedals with your PF Flyer high-tops. There were no pro racers training in your local hills, in whose company you could learn, whose style you could copy. We got no television coverage here. Videos didn’t exist.
I think I was pretty much joining together in my mind a series of implied anatomical relationships and thereby deducing, extrapolating, and reverse-engineering the entire active range of motion — just as it must appear in live racing. It was like learning to be a horse by scrutinizing the images that Eadweard Muybridge, in the 19th-Century, had captured of race horses in mid-gallop.
When finally I arrived in The Old Country, staying initially in Brussels with my dad’s favorite wartime call-girl, Vonnie, I noted immediately that other young pros in my adoptive home, all of them natives, had studied under and been trained by fathers and uncles who were themselves ex-pros, a lineage of expert patriarchs. I met no one who had reached this point without fifteen years of painful, painstaking experience — in real time, on the ground. Real ground. Many had started at five or six. Even then, someone would have been close by with instructions: Keep your thumbs wrapped under the bar, never on top. To move a guy forward in the rotation, signal with a flick of your elbow. Don’t squeeze the bar, let it jiggle a little in your grip. Look at the road, not at your bottle cage.
But whereas other Americans — that tiny handful of Yanks who were around — tended to stick out like kazoo-playing gorillas in a philharmonic, I blent right in from the first day. Nobody suspected. (Most mistook me for Scandinavian, anyway, since I’d spent so much time there with my mom’s family and could sometimes be heard speaking Danish on the phone.) On the bike, I looked absolutely perfect. The story of how it had come to be — this got round much later, when that same cousin outed me in an article in L’Équipe, after he started working there as a sort of stringer in the late 70s. Motherfucker.
This and a few other improvised strategies comprised my cycling education, which as I say was surprisingly effective. Many of the races I’d hoped to compete in — these being mostly in the Flemish region of Belgium, northern France, and throughout the Netherlands — encountered long stretches of narrow, cobbled farm lanes. Some of these lanes look today scarcely different from how they might have in Medieval times, or during the Renaissance. If, in a painting of Pieter Breugel’s, you were to spot some crooked half-sunk stone under the wheel of a grain wagon, that stone probably remains as it was, still crooked and still half-sunk. (These days the driver will be gunning a FIAT F115 tractor; otherwise he too will look about the same.) For such roads, a specialist action on the pedals and a specialist orientation of the body are required, to reduce bone-jarring vibrations while keeping the power high. And unlike in Breugel’s period, when manure or slimy moss would have been the main factor of danger, nowadays these stones can be additionally slicked with motor oil and diesel. I devised the only preparatory simulation I could think of that would be possible here in the States: railroad tracks.
With my bike I would sneak onto my local system of recently abandoned freight lines, where I could train for hours, riding at full speed, rattling down the wooden ties.1 Eventually I learned even to bunnyhop occasional sections of interleaving “Wye” junctions that would otherwise have caught my wheels and flipped me. One hobo — this was indeed the word back then — who slept in a tunnel along my route must have been French. He’d shout “Alléz! Alléz!” whenever I passed through, although truth be told no proper frenzy would have been possible. That tunnel was very dark inside and littered with everything from basic trash to discarded appliances. By the light of his bucket fire, sometimes from nothing more than the blue flicker of a Sterno can, I could see just enough of the rusty iron rails to aim my bike safely between them at a quite delicate pace.
As it turned out, despite reasonably level ballast (the rough gravel that fills the gaps between ties) these railway lines proved to be wildly harsher than the kasseien of West Flanders. They were worse even than the legendary pavés bleus of the northern French countryside, which is saying something.
The first time I trained “in anger” over one of those cobbled roads, it felt like smooth tarmac by comparison to what I’d become used to in my secret training. Within seconds I managed to scorch the guys I was with clean off my wheel,2 resulting in lots of bemused chatter when we were having dinner later that day.
“Wow, speed for sure!” one of my Flemish teammates said, in his usual condescending attempt at English. And he didn’t mean, as at first I interpreted, that I had been going really fast. He meant drugs — that kind of “speed.” Which, believe it or not, was a compliment.
- Having re-investigated, I’ve found that much of my old route is now unrideable. Trestles have been removed in some places; in others a new commuter rail project has resulted in replacement of the old timber rail ties with pre-stressed concrete ones, which don’t require level gravel filler between them. Impossible to ride on now even if you attempted this with a mountain bike. Too bad, too, because one sweeping bend has been rebuilt with a “compound” cross-section, meaning the track banks slightly through the turn. That would be fun on a bicycle!
- OK, I’m making it sound as if all you have to do is look correct — perfect position, perfect action on the pedals. DNA is involved (no silk from a sow’s ear, as they say), as is extraordinarily nasty training to bring the genetic aptitude to full expression. Either you can take up O2 at a rate of somewhere around 80 mL/kg·min, or you can’t.