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.