I just sort of knocked this one out, and thought it was okay, but readers went nuts over it. So I figured I should save it here. What the hell does the writer ever know, anyway?
Graeme Miller was in the Valley the other day, visiting some friends, and one of those friends is one of my friends so I ended up having dinner and beers with him.
He’s one of those old pros just a few of you might know, some of you might sort of remember by name, but most of you, honestly, maybe never even heard of. You should have, though — just like I should have heard of all the other guys like him I haven’t. Miller and the racers like him are the last connection our sport has to that era when riders were called “prisoners of the road.”
In a career of a little more than two decades, Miller made four Olympics, with an eighth in the road race at Seoul in 1988 as his best finish, but he won races all over the world — just not many that casual fans ever heard of. Instead of the Spring Classics and Grand Tours it was the vagabond workingman slog around the world for Miller. If he’d been a boxer instead of a bicyclist he’d have been going bare-knuckles behind the abandoned factory for a hundred bucks a fall.
And he looks it. There’s that indefinable set to his jaw and in his stance and eyes that the authentic tough guys all over the world have, not preening like the fake fighters who do pretty good until they run into the real thing, and not visibly spoiling for a brawl like troublemakers, but a bearing that comes from a kind of confident — almost resigned — comfort with getting into a fight they’ll more likely than not lose. He and the guys like him are genetically talented sure, more so than most of us can dream of, but because they were missing that last, miniscule final bit of the gift that puts racers over the top, they learned that if they were going to make a living with their bikes they had to ride as if they were knocking the shit out of people. Send them back a hundred years or so and they would have made fine prisoners of the road, a description you can’t really imagine for Alberto Contador or Levi Leipheimer or Andy Schleck.
I’m not saying that cycling’s elite are weak. I know better: I’ve seen, in person, too much of what they do, and had enough chances to ride alongside them when they’ve allowed me to. But the modern prisoners of the road have something the others don’t. My friend Ryan put it the best I’ve ever heard it described, talking about Guy Andrews, an ex-racer (at a lower level than Miller) who’s now the editor of Rouleur and who did Rapha’s Crazy Bet with me last year: “He looks,” said Ryan just a few seconds after meeting Guy, “like he’s not afraid to get hit.”
He wasn’t. He came back at it harder every time the mountains or the weather or the pack itself knocked us on our asses. I just hung on, quit talking, let my eyes sink back into my head and tried to turn my pedals around. At the end, Guy and I had become something like friends, and for that reason alone I would count The Crazy Bet as one of the greatest rides of my life.
Get to know the prisoners of the road who live around you or even the ones who happen to pass through sometimes. They’re around. They don’t make a big deal of themselves, they don’t run the pack on the weekend rides, they aren’t the guys shouting at the beginners, they usually don’t have the best bikes or new kit. They might not even be the fastest riders in your area. But they’re the ones you want beside you.
Originally published in the October 23, 2009 Sitting In