I could hear that Regina Spektor song in my head as I wrote this. And I wished, back then, that I never had loved the Tour de France fully. This was the first time I really started to grapple with doping. I think this is somehow related to it all: After the story came out, the heart-shaped butt woman contacted an assistant editor at Bicycling trying to find out if I was the same “Billy Strickland” she knew in high school. I am, but I didn’t get back to her. I didn’t want that particular heart to ever be anything to me other than a perfection whose unsustainability I could for once ignore. After a couple years, though, I succumbed to the inevitable condition of being human, and I emailed her. We traded a few messages and a joke or two about forty-year-old butts versus teen butts, and we left it at that. No crazy internet romance stalker obsession, no photos, no meeting illicit or legit, and the image lives on for me. Justine, I appreciate that you understood, almost as much as I appreciate the original vision.
The crazy bastard attacked on the first real climb of the day — the stupidest or the bravest thing any of the other racers had ever seen, or perhaps both at once. Some of the monsters of the peloton tried to go with him and actually got his ambition between their teeth for a moment, grabbed his wheel and held it with all they had. A few seconds of this and they looked at each other and maybe there were subtle headshakes, or maybe just a look passed between them and they all sat up: No way. Let him go. He’ll blow. No one can sustain this pace. But he did. He rode away and kept riding, so fast that the combined might of the best bicycle racers in the world couldn’t bring him back. My god, he rode. He chewed up two huge climbs, he inhaled pavement, and more than 100k later, at the finish, he was about seven minutes clear of his closest chaser.
That attack by Eddy Merckx in 1969 is the greatest exploit to ever happen in the Tour de France. At the time of his solo breakaway, Merckx already had an 8-minute lead. With only a week of riding left, he was as close to a guaranteed win as anyone gets in the Tour. Unless he blew up — exactly what he risked by attacking on the Tourmalet that day, especially since he had no idea how deep his legs were; he was riding his first Tour. At the end, he owned the yellow, polka-dot and green jerseys, and the most emblematic performance in all of sport. The inhuman alchemy in which suffering, cruelty and flair become beauty is what bike racing is.
Sport means more to me than it should. I’m 42. I have a wife and a daughter and an aging German Shepherd, and today the “service engine soon” light came on in our station wagon, and I think my gutters need to be replaced. The car and the gutters, before we even get to the family, are going to affect my life far more than some tiny, colorful images I watch on a TV, far more than a wedge of sweaty guys who pedal past me on toys as I stand beside a road.
I know why I ride. It keeps me fit. It makes me feel strong and full of energy. I get to talk to my friends. My daughter thinks I’m a warrior. Carving a corner in a training crit is lab-provable fun, thanks to endorphins or whatever the chemicals are that wash across neurons to alert me that I’m undergoing enjoyment. But really, at this point in my life, with my dog having needed a bath for weeks now, why am I walking around unmoored by an attack made on a mountain by some cyclist I don’t know?
Beauty is all around us, all the time, being created and destroyed every instant, and in those rare moments when through an accident of timing we are able to see it, a single second of it can burn itself into our psyches and become a talisman for life. It’s maddeningly random, our ability to care about beauty. There’s Lucy, my old black Lab, suspended in the air, a Frisbee in her mouth, her legs and tail and ears and even eyelids drooped in curves displaying supreme relaxation. There’s the upside-down heart of Justine Cherne’s butt in ninth grade. The arc of a fishing pole in my father’s hands as he played a northern pike into our boat one summer. Those moments feel inevitable as they happen, yet unrepeatable, beautiful not only in their incarnation but also because they are beyond our grasp the instant they are birthed.
I missed Eddy’s attack. I was four years old at the time, couldn’t even ride a bike.
There have been some spectacular exploits since. Think about the circus of 1990: Claudio Chiappucci, reckless, smiling, mouthy, the diabolo, the Italian in faux-denim spandex shorts who turned the Tour over like a drunk at a poker table by gaining ten minutes in a break on Stage 1 then nearly took his advantage the distance. (LeMond won by less than a minute.) There was the opera of 2000: Fragile, angelic and doomed Marco Pantani attacking on the Joux Plane out of spite, cracking Lance Armstrong for the first time. But I missed Eddy’s attack.
I’ve been missing Eddy’s attack my whole life, for reasons I can neither explain nor understand.
I’m 42 and I still haven’t put up the sleds from last winter, and the front door squeaks and there it was, on a television in a room crowded with people, our own chance at one of those eternal moments, one that equaled and perhaps exceeded Eddy’s. A guy who had an adolescent goatee and a hip so bad he could barely walk, and who appeared to have been shrink-wrapped into a yellow-and-green comic-book costume, was riding a bicycle away from a bunch of other guys on bicycles — a moment that by all logic should have been entertaining but meaningless to me, yet turned my eyes so shiny with blinked-back tears that my friends made fun of me.
What do we do when beauty is stolen from us? I can barely stand to speak of it. I’ll take the garbage out tonight, and I can’t wait to see my daughter’s recital tomorrow, but suddenly even Eddy’s attack no longer seems like enough, whatever enough was, and whatever enough was for.
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, October, 2006