On the Col du Galibier

I’ve always been something of a contrarian. I’ve always shunned the easy comfort and conformity of the group, to try to choose a separate path. This is a common behavior among misfits. In some sense, it is a defensive behavior. By “choosing” to be different, we own our deformities. So when one of the wolves from the pack tries to single us out as being different we will not suffer humiliation.


In theory.


In reality, we always suffer the humiliation of being singled out as a freak, and our loner behavior becomes as much self loathing as it is hatred of the pack. This is the American paradox. We claim to love and adore the lone cowboy, yet it is the wagon train of pioneers that our country is built upon. Perhaps that’s the self loathing of the faceless pioneers manifesting itself as a love of the loner.


The reality is I have always walked with a foot in both worlds. I have chosen which groups to join, and which ones to stand apart from my whole life. We all do.


I thought of this again while watching yesterday’s stage of the tour de France. When I was a kid my “sport” was the most frat boy wolf pack sport of them all, football. I played it from 2nd grade until I graduated from High School. I never struggled to fit into any team I played for, regardless of the meat heads and jerks that were on the team with me. Even after 25 years I still feel kinship with that “Band of Brothers” I played with.


But in other sports I choose a different path. I sought out the solitude of the bicycle as soon as I was old enough to throw a leg over a ten speed. On July Saturday afternoons I would watch the 1 hour weekly recap of the tour de France on Network TV, then head out on my Huffy or Schwinn, into the countryside of Genesee County dreaming that I was climbing a mountain in the Alps and racing against European guys with cool names. My imagination has always been active, and I have never felt more secure and at peace as I have riding alone across the hills and fields, lost in my day dreams. July has always been the month of cycling.

The Col Du Galibier

When I hit my 20’s and my good friend Scott started racing in Connecticut, it wasn’t long before my day dreams returned. I bought a new bike, and started riding again. As Mrs. 20 Prospect can attest, when I take up an interest I tend to go overboard and immerse myself in it. Riding mountain bikes led to racing mountain bikes, which led to road biking, and subscriptions to CycleSport, and devouring books on the history of cycling. Finally, it led to trips to Europe to see races. It became an addiction.


I followed the sport religiously for almost 10 years, reading the online race reports, and watching every scrap of TV coverage I could find. But as the sport stumbled from one doping controversy to the next, I became frustrated with it. When Floyd Landis was caught cheating, after winning the Tour de France with an epic solo attack, it was the final straw. Since that day I have turned away from following the sport, especially the Tour.


With the unbearable heat wave this past weekend, I picked up the remote control and flipped on the TV. There on a Saturday morning was the Tour. It’s riders strung out in a long line, ascending a mountain in the Pyrenees. I was sucked in. No sport has better scenery and cinematography than cycling. It can be a breathtaking spectacle.

I filled my coffee cup and settled in to watch the fireworks. A mountain top finish on one of the legendary climbs, I was certain this would be a terrific stage. The leaders would attack each other until finally a champion emerged, and the pretenders cracked. This is cycling at it’s best. Only it never happened.


All the way up the slopes of the Plateau be Baille, the race favorites sat and watched each other. Only one of them even attempted an attack, and when he did it was quickly covered by the rest of them. Such negative, calculated racing is painfully boring to watch. This beautiful mountaintop finish couldn’t have been more anticlimatic. Disgusted I switched the TV off, and went out for a ride in the blistering heat. At least in my imagination the campiones could still soar like eagles.

Coppi & Bartali

To the French, winning is almost secondary to the way in which you win. Cold, calculated racing may bring victories, but it doesn’t make a champion. To be a true champion you must with with style. You must win with panache. Better to lose spectacularly, than to win without distinction. This is a very strange concept to the American mind, but in my contrarian world it is one that I have come to embrace. Perhaps it is my own lifetime of scratching on the eightball that makes me identify with it.


So yesterday I was thrilled to see that honor, and panache are not yet dead in professional cycling. With over 30 miles, and two tremendous mountains left to climb, Andy Schleck attacked the field, and soloed away. In the style of the greats of cycling, he climbed the Izoard, and the Galibier, and took the stage win as the other supposed leaders watched each other, too afraid of losing to even try to win.


This is cycling at it’s best. One man, alone against many, fighting himself and the mountain. When Schleck climbed those switchbacks on the Galibier, he may have looked alone, but he was riding on the wheel of the ghosts of history. Coppi, Bottechia, Bobet, Bartali were surely looking down and smiling. This is how it is done.

There are still 2 days left to race, and he may well falter, and fail to win the yellow jersey, but with this ride Andy Schleck has done more to honor the majesty of the sport than anyone else in this years race.

15 thoughts on “On the Col du Galibier

  1. I kept searching my grey matter for something silly to toss off about cycling but was hit with a wave of Breaking Away style enthusiasm for the sport.
    Yet again Descripto’s story telling abilities suck the reader into the vortex! Now I’m totally rooting for this guy to “win with style” or at least flame out in a spectacular fashion.

    • When do you leave for the beach? I thought you were on hiatus, laying on a beach somewhere with a floppy hat, and a good book?

      • Not yet, the tales of my departure were premature. I actually leave tomorrow. Wait, you probably have theives on your site. I’M NOT LEAVING. REPEAT. NOT LEAVING.
        Anyway, I like to type up my goodbyes early so that I have time to loiter around on the internets before taking off.

  2. The Schlecks’s father raced on the same team as Eddy Merckx. My favorite image so far this year was Eddy leaning out of the open top of the team car screaming encouragement at Andy as he attacked on slope of the Galibier – a little like being cheered on by Jesus Christ himself..

    • I saw that too! What an awesome image, and great analogy. I didn’t know Schleck Sr. raced with Merckx. I tend to tune out Phil & Paul’s endless pratter.

  3. I like to think of myself as the Winningest Loser. At least I’m still laughing after defeat, right?
    Loved this post and this chunk in particular: ” Better to lose spectacularly, than to win without distinction.”

  4. Most likely the most fun I have had watching the TDF since Lemond beat “the professor” Laurent Fignon in the final stage by 8″ in 89″ Andy’s ride was truly a thing of beauty.

    • I loved it, even if it was a bittersweet reminder of Landis’ epic stage 17 break when he was over 8 min down, to pull back into contention, and eventually win the 2006 tour.

      • Yeah I watched that after day 5 at RAGBRAI. In some bar at the Univ. of Iowa. People were going crazy. Too bad he lives near Laguna and can’t seem to keep his trap shut.

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