Saturday, April 21, 2012

Racing, Spectating and the Human Factor

Kurt's Heuriger
Two summers ago in Vienna I was fortunate to meet retired professional bicycle racer Kurt Schneider. Now in his 80s, he remains active on the Austrian racing scene in a supporting role, a local personality. A mutual friend introduced us, arranging to meet at Kurt's favourite tavern in the outskirts of the city. I expected it to be a reserved, formal encounter. I arrived to find a relaxed and stunningly energetic man laughing with the waitress, drinking wine, wearing a yellow Livestrong bracelet. We talked about his racing career and his thoughts on various topics, and it was utterly engaging. But even more than the content of that conversation I remember the ever-present twinkle in his eye, the overwhelming charm he exuded. By the end of the evening I was practically sitting on his lap. It was unbelievable. For me it is people like this who make the sport come alive. 

As a spectator, my interest in bicycle racing is oddly selective. I notice for instance that I am more drawn to the local racing scene than to the international pro stuff. The more real the person is to me, the more meaning their racing efforts hold. I am in awe of some of the amateur racers I've met in the Boston area. Their physique, their demeanor, their very presence make me "feel" the sport, and I get genuinely excited about it. I love to watch them, and I follow their results with interest. And yet I do not find it terribly exciting to watch professional racing on television. I don't know what it is, but today's big names seem like sterile corporate identities to me. I sense no fire or magical charisma in their personas. I cannot get myself to care about their results or their doping scandals. Maybe it is a matter of not having met them in person. Maybe I am just not into the sport enough to understand. And maybe professional racing is just different now than it was in Kurt Schneider's time. As a spectator, I want more of the human factor, the charisma, the twinkle in the eye. 

33 comments:

  1. You can't compare this guy who possibly served in WWII to anyone contemporary, let alone some young guys in spandex.

    Racers have always been mobile billboards; the dif is now the adverts wear shades and helmets, effectively Robocopping them. Imagine a transpo cyclist who hates roadies - this is part of the reason I'm sure.

    The way to get pro cycling is trying to imagine what they go through...then whatever you imagine it's not anywhere even close. These guys pound out 35mph in front of the peloton while chatting.

    Put some of these local racers in the presence of Cancellara and just watch them try to keep their cool.

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    1. Point taken, but even if Mr Schneider is 85 he would still be too young to have been a soldier during the Second World War, which ended in 1945. If he were pushing 90, it would be more likely. In any case, nice story. The Fausto Coppi story is a good one also.

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    2. Correct, he was not a soldier in the war.

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    3. Yes, I should finish my coffee before doing math.

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    4. He was a teenager; it was borderline. My grandfather is just a few years older and he did fight in the war (for the other side), joined the army when he was 16.

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    5. Peppy (die katze lief im schnee)April 21, 2012 at 9:53 PM

      For the other side here means for the allies, as opposed to axis like Austria would be during that time period. Just saying.

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  2. Also, the lack of "fire and magical charisma" is a red herring. These guys are consummate pros in the way they hide their pain, not betraying to competitors how much suffering they're enduring. To do so would give them a competitive advantage.

    Of course there is bluffing going on.

    If you want showmanship watch Voeckler on a break.

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    1. Very true; there are things I don't see and don't notice given how removed I am from it all.

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    2. Francesco raced with some nyc cats yesterday. He's a vintner now - full circle, now with charisma:

      http://www.oneimagingphotography.com/Cycling/Lucarelli-CastaldiCupRace42112/Moser-post-race/22556795_PJD38k#!i=1805231689&k=HT6Tmt8&lb=1&s=A

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  3. Bicycle racing is deeply seductive, but only really by being involved--it's not much more exciting to watch on TV than golf. I think most of us need to feel the adrenalin of an attack, the excitement of the peleton....and connecting with the personalities who have it in their blood to be in a sport that is among the most difficult and challenging.

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    1. exactly how I feel about it, pretty much!

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  4. What attracts me to "couch cycling" is the scenery, and also the fact of seeing the race scenario unfold minute after minute. However I wouldn't go out of my way to cheer the racers because being in one single place I would only catch a glimpse of the race. The bike trip to and from would be more engaging than watching them go by...

    ...But I do agree that there is no such thing as a "romance of bicycle racing"... or else it's only decades later in the dreamy black and white pictures of a hardcover book... Exquisite suffering, you know ? ;)

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  5. Watching a race in person is SO cool! Except I feel bad not racing myself, especially if I'm there with my race bike....What a pretender I am :) So now I show up on my commuter and revel in the color, the personalities, the tattoos, the shaved legs and muscles, and oh that speed!!

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  6. It is the same with most sport. I feel much more for one of our club Jaguar racers that crunches his gearbox than a F1 driver that blows up a million dollar engine. I've broken bread with the former. The latter has no real personal connection.

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  7. That is one sexy man! Age ain't nuthin' but a number ;)

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    1. And here I was thinking I am past my prime, when all I have to do is wait 30 years. Thanks, Velouria and Anna, for giving me hope!

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  8. if you want sexy, theres j crew ads or playgirl. cycling is a sport.

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    1. Lance Armstrong already looks like a J Crew ad. Mario Cipollini is certainly "sexy." But that isn't what I mean. I am not talking about sexy, I am talking about human and charismatic. There is a difference.

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    2. Peppy (radfahren katze)April 21, 2012 at 9:58 PM

      Nein! Too sexy! Das ist verboten!

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  9. Mario Cipollini is also pretty charming and funny. I used to see him on Italian tv from time to time.

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  10. I think there's plenty of personality and drama in pro racing. If you know what you're looking at, the races on TV can be terribly exciting. Cycling reminds me of baseball in that just watching a game with no context is pretty boring, but when you know all the players and all the backstory and all the strategy that's being deployed, it's fascinating. (A good place to start is to follow the racers on twitter - you start to see the personalities and it's interesting to get a glimpse of the day-to-day.).

    Last season was fantastic racing throughout, including a magnificent Tour de France. Voeckler riding beyond himself to cling to yellow, and watching him bury himself, become furious as it slipped away; Johnny Hoogerland and the barbed wire fence; Andy attacking on the Col d'Izoard to stay away and win solo on the Galibier; Contador desperately attacking 90k from the finish on the stage to Alpe d'Huez; Cadel Evans riding bravely and smartly and finally getting his. You can't write drama this good.

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  11. Hard to ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

    Schneider has made to his 80s looking fit and spry yet over the past couple of years current racers have died off the course from apparent 'natural' causes.

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    1. "It's the wine!"

      It must be. There is a whole world in that photo, V.

      Herr Schneider was the fellow who originally raced that track fixie you tried out along the Danube, correct?


      Speaking of cyclists and wine, Francesco Moser took an impromptu circuit in the local Brooklyn pro 1/2/3 race yesterday AM in Prospect Park, on a borrowed Specialized bike. He was in town to promote his winery.

      I hope I have as much fun and vigor in my makeup when in my 60s.

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/eglading/6953091916/

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  12. I agree in finding local racing more enthralling than UCI Pro racing. It has nothing to do with not appreciating the talent of the pros, but more to do with relating to the locals. I'm more likely to be looking for first hand race reports in blogs on Monday morning than what happened globally, and I'd rather be riding than watching TV.

    But that's just me.

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    1. That is an even better way of putting of what I intended to say. Love reading local blogs' race reports.

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  13. When I was a boy every bike club had a Schneider. Or two or three. The "industry" was Schneider and his extended clan. The sport remains immensely social and personal.

    The Tour de France used to be the occasion for a grand national round of family picnics. Somewhat it still is.

    Enjoy the local racing. When a local scene is strong, the spread between the local scene and the world stage is slim. You'll know it's been good when platoons of local racers land pro contracts. Some will come home from the wars and talk of how the best racing was the racing when you were there.

    Rider's physiques? Jean Robic. Beryl Burton. Everybody gets to play in cycling.

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  14. Jens Voight is every bit as tough and charismatic as any cyclist of any era, and if you want passion, take a look at Mark "the Manx Missile" Cavendish.

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  15. I find parallels between your interest in racing and mine in movies and theater. A mediocre play where you can see the actors sweat is a much more interesting experience than seeing the pros do it on TV or in a theater. It is nice to know they are real people on stage.

    Having said that, I find myself spinning in the basement watching Tour de France videos and getting great workouts - which is helping me getting a better start on the roads. I haven't looked for local racing videos yet.

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    1. I became interested in bicycle racing at a time when few other Americans even knew that the sport existed. I think that one of the reasons why may have been that when I was in high school, I sometimes rode with an aspiring Olympic rider who, as I recall, spent some time racing in Europe. So he'd actually ridden with team members of Eddy Mercx and other TdF riders of the day.

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  16. That's a super shot, your're very good with the camera! Professional!

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