By Michael Barry
Photography by Camille McMillan
In bed, lying awake in the darkness, everything from the past and future swirls together to calm or create anxiety. Once the lights have gone out, my mind starts to wander to irrational places as I toss and turn in an attempt to control what I cannot. The preparation for tomorrow’s event has been pointed, perfect and professional. Christian Rumeau, my first directeur sportif would have said, ‘Il a du métier.’ I have been devoted. In bed everything converges and then, in a moment, I can accept that the thousands of hours, tens of thousands of kilometers, the diet, my sleep schedule and everything else has been done well. In a race with countless uncontrollable variables it is in bed where I somehow try to rationalize what I will endure and tell myself that I am ready.
Under the covers my leg muscles twitch. They aren’t painful but feel full and slightly bloated. The veins that will pulse with blood in the race are now deep under the fluid that my legs retain. I have eaten a feast in anticipation of the required effort and know through experience that I will cross the finish line depleted, as the demands of the race require me to empty my body of every resource. After crossing the finish line, my hands will tremble. Drunk from the effort my sentences will not be cohesive but terse. I will be stripped of every bit of energy I stored during the days prior. The race will have left its mark physically and mentally: my body will be covered in the road dirt that builds up through the six-hour race like the soot on a miner’s face; my legs will be marked with veins like the roads of France line a Michelin map; my face will tell its own story. Whether we are victorious or defeated, the spectators who line the roads after the finish gaze at us with patience. They see the wear, which I cannot. A cyclist represses the pain, the struggle and the sacrifice.
Awake in bed, it is not the crashes, or even the fierce effort that I fear. We suppress those fears to cope. In the darkness of the hotel room, it is failure that is haunting. Cycling is tactical; the race follows a formula, like a card game. But to play the game well enough to win, the proper resources must be used and the right moment chosen: when to bluff, when to attack, and when to concede. We know our limits and only hope we can somehow push beyond them at the right moment. The moment may only come once in a race that is seven hours or even three weeks long. If we can’t push, if we aren’t in the right spot at that moment, we fail. What I fear are the tiny variables that make the difference: executing the effort at the ideal moment, and finding a position in the peloton of two hundred which swirls like a fierce ebbing river as it speeds along the road. To prepare, we train to adapt to the conditions, the circuit, the environment, the competition, and crashes.
I am trying to sleep in a small hotel in the Italian Alps, anticipating the World Championships. I cannot calm myself. My legs begin to sweat and I twist sideways, the sheet falling to the ground. On the bedside table sits my watch, a bottle of water, a book, magazines, my numbers, a sleeping pill and the course guidebook which outlines everything we are supposed to know about the next day’s race but answers none of the questions that keep me awake. The watch reads 11:30. If my fear of failure and my anticipation of accomplishment persist, I will reach for the pill. In just over nine hours, I will be lining up for a race that will take nearly seven hours to complete, that will cover 265 kilometers, and that will climb 4,500 meters. From experience I
know that the sleeping pill will give my mind and body the rest I need prior to the start. In an identical short and narrow bed next to mine lies my teammate and, for tonight, my roommate. Likely, he is awake as well as his mind cascades through similar thoughts, creating a spectrum of emotions. Tomorrow we will ride the same race but our experiences will be unique. Good legs or bad legs, we will both suffer. In the night we will wake each other briefly as we shuffle to the bathroom, trying to be quiet while finding our way in a dark foreign room cluttered with bags. We learn to find comfort in our rhythmic daily routine as little in our environment remains constant. We move through the seasons, through countries and continents, and from hotel to hotel. Our season, the cyclist’s season, seems nearly eternal with only a small break of a few weeks in the autumn. In those few weeks we break the rhythm to breathe outside of the bubble we create and then, progressively, we find our routine again, where nearly everything in in our lives becomes focused towards the goal.
I became committed to this goal, to ride my bike as fast as possible, when I first began racing friends around our neighborhood as a small boy. The environment and the circumstances have changed but the same emotional high and thrill I discovered on my tiny BMX bike remains.
I was born and grew up in Toronto, Canada where cycling is a fringe sport. First generation European immigrants who were cycling fanatics and understood the intricacies of the sport formed the small cycling community. Most of them raced at a high level in their home country and brought the racing scene to life. They shared their knowledge and experience with the young riders, enthusiastically promoting races and organizing group rides, which helped the inexperienced develop their skills.
Toronto is a city of passionate hockey fans, multicultural liberals, and conservative businessmen. The city is known for the long frigid winters, the short hot summers, the swelling suburbs, the towering buildings, the congested roads, the port on Lake Ontario, and the green wooded parks. As a child it was on those roads, in those parks, and between the traffic that I pedaled with fervor, pretending I was in Europe, racing with Coppi or Merckx. Now, the night before the World Championships, I realize I am there, on the stage I once imagined. Maturing through a lifetime spent on a bike, my vision of cycling has changed but still, as I lie in bed the night before the race, I feel the same emotional exhilaration of an unexpected challenge as when I readied myself for the races as a boy. Although cycling is a different sport to what it was midway through the last century, when my childhood idols were racing, the essence of the cyclist still remains the same.
Most children live in an imaginary world, and I built mine from the libraries of cycling books that my father, a British immigrant who owned a bike shop in the city, had collected since his youth. The local neighbourhoods and parks became my courses as I coaxed my friends into reenacting the European classics. Having carefully analyzed my hero’s position, his pedal stroke and his grimace, I mimicked him, even wearing my hat just as he did.
The races didn’t end when I reached adolescence. In the winter I rode in snow boots; the fresh fallen snow was a plume of white dust floating up from the wheels, my breath a cloud of condensation in the crisp frozen air, my toes and my hands slowly became numb nubs under the layers of wool and leather. No matter how hard I pedaled, the biting cold pierced the layers and I froze. Yet I persisted because my hero Bernard Hinault had won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the longest of the Classics, under falling snow. On that day, most of the frozen peloton retired from the race, but with the tenacity he’d learned on his family’s farm in Brittany, Hinault won. I knew what a cyclist needed to accept to win. In my teens, I found the point where suffering on the bike became pleasure. Pushing myself to physical and mental extremes I arrived home elated. To find the sublime there is a balance where elements of pain and passion become equal: on a bike, pedaling in the environment, a human being can find divinity.
When class was let out early due to falling snow, I jammed my book bag with my texts and hockey skates. With worn and stretched leather toe straps, removed from my pedals after seasons of use in adverse weather, I strapped my hockey stick to the bike’s top tube and rode through the snow. The bike skidded and slid while I danced on it, my weight shifting to keep momentum and balance. It was the same technique as the one I now use as I race across the cobbles in Belgium – one that is learned through errors and experience. A brusque movement breaking the rhythm brings the rider to a crashing halt. The bike should float, the rider’s body
should be nimble and his mind at ease; tension and fear are disastrous.
Every professional cyclist has developed his technique on the bike in his own unique way. With a common passion and goal, our skills develop in our daily routines and in our contrasting environments from the moment we first stretch a leg over a top tube. Spending hours on a bike every day in Toronto, I slowly evolved into a professional.
On the city streets lined with parked cars trapped by banks of snow, I carefully chose the path of least resistance by following the thin line the car tires had pressed into the snow, avoiding icy patches and lumpy drifts. In the late afternoon the rows of houses were quiet as their inhabitants acute. The tires crunched the snow beneath. The build-up of ice on the mudguards made a whirl against the spinning wheels. Although I was in a city of millions, I felt alone in the snow. Things moved slowly. Squirrels that usually darted on the tarmac instead dug and sniffed in the powder for food, their usual panicked demeanor dampened. On the bike, I felt at ease, and although it was a route I rode daily the changed environment transformed the ride into an adventure. Day turned to night on the short ride home. The snow went from stark white to gray as the sun set. In the night’s darkness, the snow began to contrast everything it surrounded as it glistened in the moonlight, becoming increasingly crisp under my wheels as the temperature dropped.
Arriving at home, I warmed my frozen toes and fingers with movement and friction. Painfully, blood began to flow, causing a discomfort worse than the frozen sensation that had pained me only moments before. As soon as I was warm and my hands nimble enough to tug on clothes, I stripped off my woolen school uniform and pulled on my cycling clothes. I devoured a slice of bread with honey to get a boost before stomping through the snow to the frozen garage to plug in the electric heater to warm the temperature so that I could ride my bike on the rollers.
In the garage workshop among the hanging bikes, the benches cluttered with tools and punctured tubulars hanging before being mended, I would ride the rollers, listening to music for hours. The first wheel revolutions were uncomfortable as everything – the wheels, rollers, saddle and bartape – was cold and hard. The ice crystals, which turned the windows opaque, would slowly melt, the windows becoming fogged, as my tempo increased and I stripped off my layers of clothing. A puddle of sweat formed between the cylinders as my wheels spun. Unlike a static fixed trainer, which holds the rear wheel in place and requires no balance, rollers develop skill and intuition as the cyclist learns to relax and feel the subtle movement of the bicycle. Riding on top of three rollers is a balancing act, as the cyclist must pedal as if on a road to stay upright yet there is only a foot of spinning surface on which he must maneuver. They take the cyclist beyond the effort by also training his cadence and agility. Balancing on the barrels became innate to me with each passing hour. Without glancing down at my wheels I could sense when I was an inch from riding overboard, repositioning my body and bike before crashing to a halt with the smell of burning rubber filling the small workshop.
Spinning legs turned the cranks, which spun the wheels and turned the cylinders. On the rollers my legs became free and I spun away, relentlessly increasing my tempo until I couldn’t spin the whirling machine any faster. There were moments where the ride was a thrill but over hours it felt like tedious work.
The sweat saturating the chamois padding in my shorts began to chafe with the relentless pedaling, eventually opening small cuts on my thighs. My back became sore, as my upper body remained virtually motionless while my legs pumped in circles. In front of me, pinned to the wall, was a poster of my childhood idol, Eddy Merckx, in a yellow jersey, on Mont Ventoux. For two hours, I would stare at the poster while the rollers spun under the rhythm I pedaled, which often spontaneously matched the cadence of the musical beat – I found inspiration in the music and the images floating through my mind.
Now, as a veteran, I return to the rollers to pedal the way I did fifteen years ago when I am lacking the fluidity required to accelerate in a flying peloton. Biomechanically an adaptation occurs where the body becomes accustomed to the high cadence and begins to flow freely. As I neared the end of my workout and my thoughts turned to the schoolwork to be done for the following day, father would come in the garage, his face red from the cold, to hang up his city bike, which he had just ridden home in the snow and darkness from his shop. He smiled, gave me a pat on the back with his ice-cold hands and said, “I’ll go put the kettle on.” A cup of tea and biscuit after the effort brought comfort, but pushing my body calmed me in a way that allowed me to focus on my school work and enjoy the rest of the evening, and my father’s encouragement would drive my passion.
My first pedal strokes were taken before I can remember pushing them out, as I began sitting on a bicycle shortly after learning to walk. I have no memory of the hours spent riding around the house on the tricycle, but the photos my father proudly took document each progression. I began riding a two wheel bicycle at two, racing up and down the cobbled drive at four, and dreaming about the Pyrenees, yellow jerseys and cobble trophies as soon as I saw the images of Eddy Merckx. The nut of that dream keeps me pedaling and pushing.
The photos in the French magazines only showed half of the story. The beauty of the countryside, the champion’s arms in the air as he crossed the line and the shining, spinning, silver-spoked wheels gave the sport a glamour that only became possible through dedication and determination. Bike racing is also a way of life and not only a finish line, thousands of kilometers or one mountain pass: the pleasure comes with the pain.
With desire, I rode. In the pursuit of a goal and a dream my sacrifice began. Cycling became the priority and overwhelmed relationships, school, and nearly every other aspect of my life. I managed the workload by using every minute I wasn’t in school to do my homework, ride or take a short nap. From the early morning to the late evening of my day I tried to maintain balance. Schoolwork was done properly because it was a requisite, a safety net in case cycling didn’t turn into a career. Otherwise, my life was focused on the bicycle.
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