Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Time on a Bike

In bicycling, time certainly is relative, from the micro to the macro.

Consider Lance Armstrong: 12 minutes back and his tour is over, no chance whatsoever of getting back in the mix, his deficit might as well be 12 days. Yet, on a long brevet, a 1000K for example, 12 minutes gets lost in the rounding. Well not really but shoot, most of us would do well to get through a control in under 12 minutes.

This time of year my friends at work ask me about the Tour de France, and of course Lance Armstrong. They know I’m ‘into’ bikes and these things, the Tour and Lance, pop up in the mainstream media, especially if there is a: DOPING SCANDAL/crash/DOPING/fantastic win/DOPING /fantastic failure/ fist fight/ or something to do with say, ... doping.

So I was recently having a ‘copy machine’ conversation (we don’t have water coolers any more) about why 12 minutes is an insurmountable deficit. I did my best to illustrate the dynamics of the Tour but it got me thinking about the relative significance of time.

For Lance, 12 minutes in arrears is an impossible deficit to overcome. For me, finishing a 1000K brevet in 63:33 was blazing fast and a personal best, and if I had been 12 minutes slower it still would have been a personal best by over 5 and a half hours. Even at that, 63:33 for a 1000Km brevet is on the slow side of the continuum.

Now we hear phrases such as ‘end of an era’ and legacy. Unfortunately I think the end of this era came a year or two ago, but some folks are only now realizing it. The pundits all had one too many cups of kool aid before they got on the big bus to fantasy land. In their defense, Armstrong has done the impossible so many times in the past that the ‘here we go again’ mentality might be forgiven. And who am I to point out the Kings clothes? After all, Lance Armstrong has made a fine career of turning my predictions and prognostications upside down.

As I watched him ‘plodding’ up the mountain to Morzine-Avoriaz (plodding … I’d have been pushing my bike, gasping like a fish out of water, arriving hours later) it was a sad sight. His domestique, Janez Brajkovič no longer pulling him along but riding silently along side, staring straight ahead, I thought that yes, this is the picture of an ignoble end of an era, and a sad picture it was.

Not saying I feel entirely sorry for Lance Armstrong, he’s had success beyond anything I can imagine and he has resources to help ease the pain of the precipitous fall, but still, this, his last tour was one he should not have raced. Like Michael Jordan, Greg Lemond, and other world beaters I guess it is hard to kick the addiction of being the very best in the world.

I wonder how Armstrong will see himself after this season compared to how he saw himself at the end of last season. In August of 2009 it was clear that he felt it was still possible, he could still win the TdF. He had come third in that tour, an accomplishment that almost any other professional bike racer would cherish as the crowning achievement of a career on the bike. Lance could hardly see it; he was looking ahead to something else, something bigger. Now he must realize that it is beyond his ability; barring a miracle he will never again stand on the top step of the podium at the Champs Élysées.

He is probably the fittest, fastest 39 year old bike racer on the planet. On any given day he could probably beat 95 percent of all the racers in the Tour, but there are few if any days that he could expect to beat all of the other 5 percent. It must be profoundly disappointing to come face to face with those facts, at least for the first time.

Hang on Lance, you’re about to experience another dimension of time! Blink once and you’ll be looking at those trophies in the case and thinking back to the good old days. Blink again and you’ll have trouble remembering the details.

Time is the cruel, uncaring companion. Always there at your side, sometimes an ally sometimes an adversary, but ever oblivious to your plight.

Oh yes, another funny perspective on time: Imagine coming to the end of your ‘career’ at the ripe old age of 39.