Friday, April 10, 2009

Cycling's Sages: Age and Guile beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut*

Armstrong. Hincapie. Leipheimer. Voigt. McEwen. Just a few of cycling’s elder statesmen that are still mixing it up and dishing it out in what is supposed to be the twilight of their careers.

Cycling, like any sport, is one in which a pro’s successes – and ability to remain competitive – are largely a function of how old (or young) they are. All of the aforementioned cyclists are 35 or older and still racing. And winning.

Armstrong, until his recent collarbone fracture, was an instrumental lieutenant in Leipheimer’s Tour of California victory. Oh, and let’s not forget about his plans to make a run at the Giro as well as the Tour this year (despite his accident, he still may). George Hincapie claims to be as strong as ever, and has his sights on the spring classics – notably the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Jens Voigt just cleaned up at the Criterium International, and Robbie McEwen is still one of the top sprinters. And until recently, you could include the likes of Zabel, Cipollini, and the ever-present Ekimov as contenders.

So what gives? What’s with these comparative codgers still enjoying the top ranks of the sport? Ah, these wise sages – the Yodas of pro cycling if you will – have done enough Tours of duty to know that the sport is as much about mental savvy as athletic prowess. What subtle indications betray a particular rider’s fitness (or lack thereof)? What moves to chase? Whose wheel to follow? When to time your attack?

At this level, and frankly, at their age, the ability to perform is as much about energy conservation as it is about energy reserves (strength). It is the knowledge of how to preserve what precious little there is in the tank and exactly when to floor it and cross the line on fumes. Also, having another ten years of training and racing at the sport’s top level over the ranks of young bucks hasn’t hurt. All the while under the careful direction of their battalion of directeurs, doctors, coaches, nutritionists, midwives, rhinoplasty surgeons, and astrological advisors.

Are these masters-level cyclists the only ones winning? Hardly. There is strong pressure from the undergrad ranks to make sure that any potential fish head is mercilessly jettisoned from the peloton before it even has the chance to stink. Any bearded, bespectacled, trudging post-doc, though admired for their accomplishments – some of which pre-date the birth dates of the rising class – come race day, are scrutinized for any weakness, and ground up and spit out like chaff at the first sign of cracking.

However, the names mentioned are giving off no indications of foul odor, nor would appear to anytime soon. Quite the contrary. But are they the exception to the norm? Perhaps. They didn’t get to where they are without being meticulous perfectionists, mastering both the nuances of live-fire races and rigorous training regimens. They have much to teach, and those their junior have much to learn regarding their approaches to success.

Much has already been written regarding Armstrong’s return to the sport and what it portends. Some liken the current Astana lineup as a tinderbox destined to spontaneously combust. Surely, so many superstars on one team can only spell disaster. Witness the late T-Mobile team of 2005 boasting a trifecta of Tour podium contenders in Ullrich, Vinokourov, and Klöden. The infighting destroyed the hopes for any of them. With so many individual agendas, the result was foretold and obvious to everyone – apparently save for the team management and sponsors.

With Astana, I am not so naïve to not realize that this year’s Tour is shaping up to be a dramatic soap opera. Will Armstrong make good on his overtures to work for Contador, or will the whole story unravel like the infamous Hinault-LeMond duel of 1986? Teammates in jersey only with faux smiles and stilted, uncomfortable congratulations?

If Contador has any sense, he’ll look at Armstrong’s presence not as a potential threat to his GC chances, but as an opportunity to learn from (arguably) the sport’s greatest. Even if Armstrong pulls an Hinault and goes for personal glory, my advice to Contador borders on Zen: Study. Learn. Practice. Master. Wear clean underwear. Respect your elders.

If you’re going to get schooled, get schooled by cycling’s sensei. There’s no shame in it, and the lesson will serve you for years to come…so you may ultimately pass your wisdom of the ruthless ranks of the pro peloton on to your own understudies someday.

Ultimately, the declining physical ability of those highlighted here (and this is by far from an exhaustive list) will more than offset any advantage provided by their mental acuity and they will fade from their present glory. But until then, they have a lot left to teach, the younger ranks have much to learn, and we have an incredible amount of awesome cycling to enjoy.

*With apologies to P.J. O’Rourke, whose book of the same name is pure genius and should be required reading of all who are literate.

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