The Day the Cat Got Out of the Bag- ROAD Magazine September 2010
As the bell rung for the final lap of the 1999 World Championships, the lead group eased slightly for a left turn and skirted across the cobbles on the edge of the historic center of Verona, Italy. The arched walls of the Roman amphitheater stood as a monumental sundial in the center of the Piazza Bra, marking time with long shadows spread across the rider’s path in the late afternoon sun. Six hours earlier, the rich palette of colors from the 172 starters glistened in the bright October morning, the chill in the air tangled with a mess of hope and nerves. With hope comes strength, with nerves there is a prayer for good luck and the merry go round that is the World Championships had turned hope into desperation and then surrender for 161 of these riders. In 20 minutes, one of these remaining eleven riders would be world champion. For the favorites, the pressure of performance would prove too stifling, for others they would wait for the revolving roulette wheel to slow one last time and hope they wore the lucky number. But one rider would play the joker, knowingly or not, strength or luck, and would roll the dice, not so much as to define a career, but on a chance to script one. The cat would soon be out of the bag.
Winning a world title is as much a season’s goal as it is a career defining moment. Victory ensures a lifetime membership into an elite circle, one that begins proudly, for some ostentatiously, with a year’s honor of wearing the coveted rainbow stripes. While recent years have seen an overdose of the ensemble on the winner, it is the years that follow, the honorary badge worn as a subtle crest, displayed in a rainbow armband, the classy symbol that immediately elicits respect from other riders. While there is a new winner every year, victory lasts forever. In the NHL, entry into the winner’s circle is rewarded with ones name engraved in the ring of champions that make up the Lord Stanley’s Cup. In NCAA football, one player annually enters the Heisman Trophy club, an elite list of some of the greatest collegiate football players. But unlike hockey, where a season’s worth of teamwork culminates in an equipment shredding, trophy hoisting skate around or the Heisman Trophy award-its winners benefit from season long dedication from teammates-world champions, on the surface, are made in a day. A national team alliance expects trade team rivalries to be neutralized, relies on loyalty and dedication and a pledging of allegiance to their nation, coach, and ultimately one rider all for the glory of their country. But there is no mistaking the win forever benefits one rider, and his trade team reaps the financial reward. Reunions of former world champions are not with teammates, but other winners, sharing stories not of a great season, but of one day and how they captured victory and the city they conquered. But it’s their teammates that are saddled with the burden of loyalty, carrying a thousand untold stories vaulted in their minds, moments extinguished as quickly as they were ignited. For some, there is a persistent burning of regret, a hint of resentment and the dishonor of betrayal. For others, success is found in the solitude that comes with honorary service.
Trixi Worrack’s steely blue eyes seem to purposefully conceal her inner persona, one that is revealed jubilantly with victory and easily with her sharp sense of humor. While the duplicitous, deceitful and unprofessional behavior of national team members in past years has been well documented, there is still a sense of pride that comes with flying the national colors and dedicating ones self for the good of ones country. In the 2008 World Championships in Varese, Italy, Worrack yo-yoed front to back three different times in the final five kilometers, a valiant effort as the wildcard, clearly willing to play roulette with a fully loaded gun, her efforts an attempt to break the will and sap the strength of three of her four breakaway companions and put victory in the arms of Germany with her teammate Judith Arndt. Arndt’s victory was a few hundred meters short, and Worrack was left holding a smoking gun. Was there regret, reflections of a missed opportunity for such self-sacrifice so close to victory again -she was second in 2006 in Salzburg and delivered Regina Schleicher to victory in 2005 in Madrid- made more bittersweet by Arndt’s failure to secure no better than third behind Nicole Cooke and Marianne Vos. Her relaxed smile and laughter recalling the finale quickly dissolved. “No, not at all. My efforts were for the team and for Germany.” Her reply behind those steely blue eyes was without hesitation.
The city of Verona is well known as the setting for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, a love story destroyed by selfishness, distrust and deceit. The 16.2 kilometer course twisted through the romantic city streets and crossed, then paralleled, the Adige River for the last time. As Belgian Frank Vandenbroucke calculated his odds of victory as he approached the site of his crash ten laps earlier, he surely felt they were worse than
11-1. Admitting pain is an admission of failure, forever planting a seed a doubt that the pressure to be the protected rider is too great. Frank could not take that chance. Such is the temptation, the allure, the addiction at becoming World Champion. It is so elusive, even diabolical, that it has its own curse. Belgian teammates Nico Mattan and Johan Museeuw, when alerted of the accident, sifted through the peloton to judge the damage. Museeuw pressed Vandenbroucke for an answer, and in a moment of weakness that would come to define his career, and life, Frank lied. He had hairline fractures in both wrists. While he did not know this at that very moment, the pain that had been ignited was enough to wage a war in his head.
If the Roman ruins and medieval center itself are the man made pride of the Veronese people, then Lake Garda, in their eyes, is Gods gift to them. The crystal blue waters that smack the eastern shore of the lake glimmer only 25 kilometers west of Verona. In the main piazza in the small village of Lazise, members of the Belgian National team sit together enjoying a coffee. In a final effort of unity less than 24 hours before the start, 1996 World Champion Johan Museeuw has selected a serene spot to listen to Wilfried Peeters, his loyal domestique at Mapei, and Geert Van Bondt, Peter van Petegem’s faithful corner man at Farm Frites, chatter in Flemish, while Peter Farazijn, Frank Vandenbroucke’s domestique at Cofidis, sits unengaged. Delicately managing professional athlete’s egos, insecurities and demands can be enough to drive a stake through a seasoned team, never mind one put together for a day. While the scenic location was not a summit effort to determine their leader, the Belgians, much like Spain and Italy, had an embarrassment of riches that can only happen once a year. In hindsight, perhaps the pressure was too great, his insecurity masked behind brashness and words of bravado that alienated him from even those closest to him, including his absence on this day. Whatever his demons were, Frank Vandenbroucke had gained leadership of the Belgian team. The honor roll he would try to emulate stretched far past Museeuw’s title in Lugano in 1996. At 23, his palmares belied his youth, but his behavior did nothing to hide his immaturity. In a nation as cycling crazed as Belgium, these two had graced the podium of their beloved Tour of Flanders six months earlier on either side of van Petegem, his victory securing a place in the hearts of the Flemish people and assuring increased scrutiny and expectation that comes with claiming the most important crown in Belgium. However the role of leader was decided, 24 hours later Museeuw and van Petegem would be furious, accusing Vandenbroucke of selfish behavior that cost Belgium its two best chances at victory-themselves.
Michael Boogerd could blame nothing or no one but himself this year for falling short of a world title. The climb of the Torricelle rises 207 meters above the city, twisting in on itself to view the Adige River as it snakes its way through the medieval core of Verona. The 4.5 kilometer ascent was the main obstacle on the day and for the Dutchman, it proved to be 500 meters too long. After six plus hours of racing, both his strength and his luck-he narrowly avoided the crash that felled Vandenbroucke- expired. His legs drained, his will emptied and his chance at redemption gone. Boogerd was one of the strongest after 15 laps, but he rapidly became unglued and a desperate chase ensued. He would finish 14th, 59 seconds behind. The previous autumn in Valkenburg, with a deflating front tire slowly stealing his chances, he called for a wheel change, and never saw the front of the race again. Instead of drawing the joker and riding over the Cauberg to victory, a fleck of glass stole his attempt at becoming the first winner on home soil since Frenchman Bernard Hinault in Sallanches in 1980. He finished 6th, one minute and ten seconds back. Strength and luck, both good and bad, share the responsibility of shaping a race’s outcome and defining or shaking a rider’s confidence. And while a rider can work to control the former, it’s only at what is the most opportune or inopportune moment that the truth is told. And there is only one chance to get it right.
“The man who has the patience to wait is the one who will win.” former professional Scott Sunderland said, elaborating on the crucial role mental strength plays and how desperation can impede the primary instinctual tactic required to handle the repetitive nature of a world championship race course. As the 2000 worlds in Plouay, France passed under the one kilometer to go banner, Sunderland found himself in contention for the world title. Having skipped over Verona, Sunderland was in search of redemption after fighting back from a near fatal accident in the 1998 Amstel Gold Race. His season target that year was the world championships in Valkenburg. During a recent ride along the Schelde River towards Oudenaarde, deep in the cycling heart of Belgium, Sunderland recalled the finale that he credits with prolonging his career, giving him the physical proof that he had returned to his best. “I was about 30th wheel going into the final turn with 750 meters to go. I took to the inside, and sprinted up the right hand side, and by 250 meters was third wheel. Oscar Freire was to my left and kept me blocked from Romans Vainsteins wheel and I never got out of the wind.” Vainsteins won, Freire was third. Sunderland finished seventh, a career best. Was the outcome a result of waiting too long, or not long enough? What if there was a bit less wind, a budge from Freire that let him shift one meter to the left, could the result have been different for the hard working Australian? “Yeah, sure, but hey, that’s bike racing.”
There comes a time when desperation, or seizing opportunity, can produce surprising success, and have monumental consequences. For many newly crowned world champions, victory is the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice and suffering. There are the lessons learned from failure, experience gained from handling pressure, judging a race, gauging one’s strength. Victories leading to a title are garnered through national races, small stage races, and lower tier events that typically slip under the radar. As a career progresses and confidence increases, results become more newsworthy- a semi classic, a grand tour stage, a monument. But what if a rider was to begin his career with a world title? This is, on paper, against all odds. Surely this rider cannot handle the pressure of such an enormous event. And what of the curse that has stricken those who failed to repay their debt, executed in a moment of desperation, the temptation too great to let their chance at stardom dissolve in weakness. A deal with the devil is never 50/50, and sometimes, it’s not a choice.
Unlike Mario Cipollini’s celebrated victory in Zolder, Belgium in 2002, the 1969 title in Zolder went to the wrong man. The favorites were stunned when Dutchman Harm Ottenbros, installed as a reserve, capitalized on the negative racing steered at Eddy Merckx and won a two man sprint. Victory was the worst thing that could have happened to him. Scorned by his fellow riders, he was ridiculed, a nobody that didn’t deserve the honor of the rainbow jersey. “Believe me,” he has been quoted as saying, “I wasn’t in the slightest bit sorry when my year as world champion was over and I didn’t have to wear that jersey any more.” To many, including his own countrymen, he was a disgrace.
When the nine riders swung right onto the Corso Porta Nuova for the final time, only one question remained. A show of strength, the gambling, the luck, calculated or desperate, had led each of these riders to this position, and so far everything had failed to snap anyone’s iron grip on their shot at cycling’s Holy Grail. As the group, led by American Chann McCrae, swung back to the left, completing an inverted S, one rider, in a moment of instinctual brilliance, exploded from the rear with 400 meters to go. In moments before victory, it is said that an athlete’s absolute focus seems to slow time, silence the crowd, and move frame by frame as if in a slideshow. For some, it’s a glance into a photo album of their past, for others it’s a semi-hypnotic vision, replaying hundreds of frames of the same image. For this one rider, it was a glimpse into his future. With each pedal stroke, the boulevard transformed into a red carpet, the next eleven years neatly scripted with every meter covered, the advertising banners on the barriers converting to billboards electrifying a wealth of palmares that would come to include semi-classics, classics, monuments, grand tour stage wins, stage race titles, and two additional world titles. After ten seconds, from the drops, he glanced under his arm, and continued. Then a second look back. By the third, the red carpet now stretched across the finish line and Oscar Freire was assured of victory. After six hours and nineteen minutes, it took Freire less than thirty seconds to become the new world champion. Luck or strength, drifting one meter to the left, sitting behind a different rider, hesitating one second too long and maybe, just maybe, things would have played out differently over those final 400 meters, and perhaps the next eleven years. But hey, that’s bike racing. And that’s the World Championships.