Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Impoverished Athlete

A musician joke asks, “What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?”


You could as easily ask that question about a bike racer without a girlfriend or accommodating parents or any friends or acquaintances who will let him crash on the couch.

Steadily over the years, a number of women have also followed the lure of cycling performance. When I raced they were rare. That’s changing.

A bike racer in my district, or the next one over, supposedly lived in a self-storage warehouse whenever he was in the town he called home, because it was the cheapest roof he could put over his head. He used the bathroom at the gas station down the block. He ate out or bummed meals off friends. On racing trips he lived out of his car.

Almost every racer I knew was poor. It was part of the challenge. In a peculiar way, it was part of the reward. Focused on racing, we had to arrange the rest of our lives into some form of order, even if some riders did it by abusing and discarding personal relationships until they were left with a bike in a bare-walled room with a naked light bulb hanging above their grubby sleeping bag on the floor.

No one was going to find their ticket out of the ghetto on the bike racing circuit. A few of the penniless strivers might make it to the big time, with some sponsorship to help them in their subsistence lifestyle, but more often they came up against racers favored with a bit more money going into the race.

Racing takes money, it doesn’t make it. The number of million-dollar salaries going to bike racers would barely put a single starting lineup on a pro basketball court. In the United States it probably wouldn’t put a doubles team on a tennis court.

Racing bikes is more like riding rodeo. Battered competitors drag themselves from one event to the next. Win or lose, they usually leave quietly in the end. Face it, who’s watching? And yet some riders remain devoted even as their hair turns gray, their knees stiffen up and that separated shoulder begins to ache with arthritis.

Most people don’t stick it out that long. Riders may keep riding, but the holy quest of youth, to be faster, stronger, more resistant to pain, gives way to a wiser, more measured pace. Sure, one might go for a little hammerfest, or duke it out with a group of friends and acquaintances, but that isn’t real racing.

Many sports begin with this trial by poverty. You get just enough, or maybe even not quite enough, to get by. In sports with real earning potential, the payoff can make the difference between unimaginable wealth or selling used cars and polishing your high school trophies.

Just as backpacking is really just recreational homelessness, some racers just play at being poor. Those of us with really tight finances had to guard our resources and our bodies carefully, while the rider with the safety net could tolerate more risks. We used to say you could tell the sponsored riders from the unsponsored ones because the sponsored riders would pull their leg out in a crash and let the bike scrape across the road, saving their skin. Unsponsored riders would lift the bike up and take the burn themselves. Flesh heals, equipment doesn’t.

We became battlefield medics for ourselves and each other. Washing down after a crash was called The Screaming Shower. Cyclists traded folk remedies and little tips and tricks we got from real emergency room doctors and paramedics. Keep that road rash moist. Change the dressings several times a day and never let the wound dry out. Treat it as you would a burn, to minimize scarring and stiffness. We didn’t care too much about appearance, only fast healing and full range of motion. Crashing isn’t the worst part, it’s the down time afterwards.

Soon I hardly knew anyone with a normal collarbone. The bump was either in the middle from a fracture or at the end from a shoulder separation. If you hadn’t busted a collarbone, were you really going for it? Riders without the telltale bump were either very smooth and very good, or had simply broken something else instead.

At a time when the country wasn’t having any popular wars, bike racing was our own trial by fire. It was a great way to test yourself without involving any innocent bystanders. On the best of days it hurts. On the worst of days you may not wake up for several days afterwards.

Life is simple in the race. If you’ve ever watched a professional race or a good film about one, you notice how the racers are surrounded by their motorcade, separated from the world around them. In some areas spectators can reach in and touch them, but often they proceed as if in a tunnel. In an amateur race there aren’t even many spectators.

The race becomes a miniature world. The objective is clear. You see the reward for your effort immediately. Once you cross the finish line you want to start the journey toward the next one, to preserve that clarity. Once you care about anything else, the pure intensity is gone. You might serve another cause with your racing, as Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton do, with their charitable foundations, but they do it as part of their racing, not as a distraction from it.

At the start of it all is the impoverished athlete who has chosen this hard journey to see how far he can go. The price will be the same when following any dream. It costs your life, no matter what. The time passed. What did you do with it? It wasn’t about winning as much as about trying to win, because you can’t win without trying. It was about distilling life to one pure effort.

At the time it is just how you live. You live in the rhythm of training. It becomes as big a part of life as you want it to be. If it becomes the biggest part for a while, it is because you wanted it that way. Only after it is over might you notice the skeletal simplicity and the dedication to it that snuck up on you. We leave a life like that for many valid reasons, but it was good to have lived even a little of it.

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