I kept asking to not have to write this, but Bicycling’s editor, Steve Madden, kept telling me I had to. It was back in 2007, and I think I knew without wanting to admit it what was coming for us in cycling, and I wasn’t sure what I thought, what I hoped, what I knew. But Steve had been right about the story about my heart, which changed my whole life and led to Ten Points, so I wrote. I still don’t know whether I should have. Sometimes it feels indulgent, sometimes it feels right on. Mostly it feels naive, or at least innocent — if only this was the worst of it. LeMond, of course, has since incarnated once again into a hero. But the most interesting bit might be something that’s not even in here: I originally wrote the story with Elli having three days in yellow, because that’s what he kept saying at the bar. But our fact-checker found out that he’d worn the jersey for four days. I tweaked the story so only I mention the number of days, and changed all the references to four, but, I mean, fuck, man, how much can yellow really mean if he got that wrong? Is it as much piss as gold? Or was I so drunk I got that basic detail wrong? Or was he? Or is all of that true?
In a different age, though it was only three years ago, I found myself sitting in a bar in South Africa, preparing for the next day’s road race by nursing vodkas while watching literally hundreds of men and women approach Alberto Elli then momentarily draw back before finally shaking his hand or touching his shoulder, as if they’d been told they could go ahead and pet a lion.
“It’s like this for him everywhere,” said an eerily familiar voice over my shoulder. I turned and saw Phil Liggett standing behind me. That voice from out of a TV, the sound of the Tour de France itself to my ears, said “It’s like this for all of them.”
“All of who?” I said.
“The ones who wore the jersey.”
Elli was in yellow for four days, 96 hours of what would be an 18-year career, or about half a week in 936 weeks of pro racing. At 36, he slipped into a breakaway on a 120-mile stage of the 2000 Tour and became the oldest to wear the jersey since the great angel of the mountain Federico Bahamontes led the Tour at 35 in 1963. Before him it was Bartali, just a few months younger, in 1949.
Aside from joining the company of those legends, Elli had won the Tour of Luxembourg twice, the Midi Libre once. But, a near-certain tragedy for an Italian, he’d never won a single stage or significant race in his homeland. None of those victories or losses mattered. He’d worn yellow.
I bought Phil Liggett a drink — because, I mean, hell, I had the chance to — and he bought me one after that and in an hour or two there was Elli standing beside us. Still a couple years from retirement, he was thin and pointy like a sawblade. There was a big, chunky silver luxury chronograph watch on his sinewy wrist, and at the bottom of a black suit sewn in sharp angles, his matching shoes were shined to a luster that made black seem like a color you’d use to brighten a room up.
It turned out his English was what he described as “halting,” but I figured if he could use that word his English had to be better than my Italian, which pretty much stops after I order the bottomless salad at Olive Garden. After a while of trying to wait long enough to show him that I wasn’t like everyone else he ever met, I started asking about the jersey, like everyone else he ever met.
Somewhere in there, I said, “Which of those four days was the best?”
“Each,” said Elli.
I shook my head to show he’d misunderstood, and said, “Which one? Il supremo giorno?”
Elli didn’t quite slam his palm on the bar, but with each of his first two words he pinned the meaning down with his hand. “Each day. Each one day in yellow was a best of my life.”
I nodded. Phil asked Elli something, then someone came up to us and got introduced to the Italian and started to shake hands and pulled back almost imperceptibly then shook hands and I thought about that and I thought about Elli’s answer and when the person left I tapped Elli on the shoulder and said to him, “Of your career.”
He looked at me, and I thought probably I’d had too much to drink. I said, “Of your racing career, you meant. You meant those four days were each the best days of your professional life.”
Elli shook his head, something in the set of eyes between sad and disappointed, not because what he said next was true but because he could find no way to explain it to me. “Each day,” he said, “a best of my life.”
Over there on the left wall of my office, up near the top, that’s the yellow Campagnolo cap I bought because I wanted one like Dave Stohler wore in Breaking Away. It wasn’t the first cycling hat I bought. That’s the SunTour I got in 1982 because it was the only one the store had, and it used to be white but it looks the way it does now because I wore it more than I wear my helmet today, and it’s up there, too. There’s a 7-Eleven hat, because, you know, Davis Phinney. And CoreStates, and Farm Frites, Motorola, WordPerfect, Euskatel.
There’s my Z cap.
Greg LeMond, 1990.
When LeMond ripped the Tour de France away from Bernard Hinault in 1986, I was getting an F in my independent study project in English because I’d decided I shouldn’t care if I graduated, and my father had died two months earlier, and Beth had moved across the country. I needed that goddamn victory, and when he wore yellow there at the end of it all, I cried just a little bit. When he won by those miraculous 8 seconds in 1989, I kissed Beth, who had come back. In 1990, I accepted triumph as what we all had coming to us, and even though I was 26, which was a little old for that sort of thing, I ran right out and bought that hat.
You think there’s any way to explain my Greg LeMond to all these kids and all these middle-aged-but-new-to-the-sport cyclists who know him only as the guy who trashed their hero Lance Armstrong then took the witness stand and turned the Floyd Landis trial into tabloid porn?
He might be telling truths no one wants to hear, or he might be bitter, or crazy, or lonely, or free from a terrible secret for the first time in his life, or all of that at once. I don’t care anymore. I find that I can’t. I don’t care or want to hear from or about Floyd, or Tyler, or Ivan or Jan or Bjarne or Dick.
I want to go back, just one more time, and be the person who hears the sound of Alberto Elli’s hand slapping the bar.
I’m not rooting for anyone in this year’s Tour de France. I’m rooting for the yellow jersey.
In an age when it feels as if we can no longer trust any racer who inhabits the jersey, we can count on the jersey itself, a simple shirt that in its 81-year-old life has been catalyst and witness to power, honor, pettiness, pranks, good and back luck, fame, fortune, destruction, crime (and punishment), scandal, commercialism, dignity, and even death and taxes. That jersey bows to neither heroes nor villains. It creates them.
That is what we can count on. That is why, once that first pure, or poisonous, soul inhabits the first yellow jersey of 2007, I hope I might still find myself following the Tour as passionately as I ever have.
In 2005, Elli received a six-month suspended sentence and, along with two other riders, was fined a few thousand bucks for his part in a doping scandal that started when police raided the hotel rooms of racers at the Giro d’Italia.
Elli never raced again. The yellow jersey did.
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, August, 2007