My Favorite Rider

This was published earlier over at Embrocation, but with all the great comments following Monday’s Musette, I thought it would only be fitting to share it here as well.  My one regret?  I forgot to include my 1994-5 Richard Virenque obsession following his Tour stage win to Luz Ardiden.  (I have a blue-white-red Timbuk2 messenger bag to prove it–so mid-ninties, huh?)
At lunch the other day, my friend Matt asked me who my favorite rider is.  Aside from being a good friend and a respected colleague, Matt’s also a recreational cyclist who has enjoyed learning more about the sport during our frequent lunchtime discussions. I wanted to give him a thoughtful answer, but his question stumped me.

That was over 2 weeks ago and Matt’s question still lingers.  Throughout the holidays I frequently found myself thinking about it, wondering which rider—if any—could be considered my favorite.

I came to the sport in the early 1990’s.  A mountain biker at first, a friend took me to the 1993 Core States Championship in Philadelphia, where I stared in awe as Lance Armstrong attacked to win the million-dollar Triple Crown.  He was young, charismatic, American, and fast.  He became my first favorite roadie, and a Specialized Sub-6 helmet and replica Motorola jersey became the centerpieces of my wardrobe that summer.

Then came 1996 and my burgeoning obsession with the cobbled classics.  Thanks to World Cycling Productions I was finally able to watch these legendary races unfold before my eyes.  My first order consisted of two titles: the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem.  As a result, Vittoria All-Weather, Briko, and Mapei were just a few of the year’s additions to my cycling lexicon, and Michele Bartoli (with Johan Museeuw a close second), became my new favorite rider.  It’s easy to see why: his attack at the foot of the Muur (you can find it on YouTube) left destroyed the other race favorites, including several former winners.  His position on the bike during the final kilometers brought to mind stories I had heard of Maurizio Fondriest riding rollers in front of a mirror, analyzing his form to make it look just right.  To me at the time, Bartoli represented everything exotic about the sport—an classy Italian winning the quintessential Belgian race was the perfect juxtaposition of what I considered to be cycling’s two best aesthetics.  Bartoli later won several more of what have since become my favorite races: Het Volk, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour of Lombardy.

Near the end of Bartoli’s prominence though, I entered the sport myself (at the professional level, that is), taking a job with Mercury-Viatel in late-2000.  My perspective soon changed.  No longer a fan, I became a colleague, even a boss of the men I had previously only read about in magazines or watched in videos.  Being a “fan” suddenly seemed out of place, amateur even.  As it was I was already struggling for credibility as a 24-year old American without an impressive racing pedigree; idolizing riders was out of the question.

After 2001 and my return home, my cycling heroes soon became the friendly, honest, approachable, and down to earth men I had to come to know during my time in Europe.  I felt thrilled when Peter Van Petegem took back-to-back wins in Flanders and Roubaix, proud to see Matt Wilson driving on the front at the Tour, and vindicated when Pavel Tonkov took his final stage win in the Giro d’Italia, his middle finger aloft in salute to all who felt he “just didn’t have it anymore”.

And now? Matt’s question remains unanswered.  Tom Boonen?  Sorry Tommeke, your affinity for nose candy reinforces the wisdom of “fool me once”.  Alberto Contador?  You had me at hello Alberto, but lost me as soon as you opened your mouth after this year’s Tour—taking the high road would have proved much more impressive.  Stijn Devolder?  A Flanders Double is great, but go win something else before you whine as much as you did last fall.  Bradley Wiggins?  Don’t even get me started.

Instead, this season I’ll be looking to the Vansummeren’s, Haussler’s, and Hincapie’s of the sport for my hero-fix.  They ride hard, win the races they’re supposed to win (well, almost), and do it all while keeping their mouths shut (unless you or your team really pisses them off).  For me, that’s good enough. 

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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