And here’s how that happened.
Lance is the guy with the tall socks, black shorts and helmet with yellow highlights, and the white rain cape. However, I’d like to call your attention to the dude in front of Lance, the guy with the shorts that say Merckx on them. That’s Eddy. ‘The Cannibal’ won a third of the races he ever entered. One third. In a sport as hard as professional road racing, that stat is remarkable. Eddy is the God of Cycling and the greatest racer that ever lived. He won everything there is to win, in many cases multiple times, and in most cases with true panache, grit, and tenacity. Any country in Europe, he’d likely get mobbed.
I took this pic at a Conquer Cancer ride that I did a couple of summers ago. The ride was led by Lance, Eddy, and Canada’s Steve Bauer; who is also a total legend as far as I’m concerned. It was a good time, a great ride, and an even better cause, and all the more remarkable for me because it ended up putting me face to face with Eddy Merckx himself, which is…well…for a bike racer a pretty cool thing.
There were 300 + people doing this ride and it was a mass start with everyone kicking off at the same time. Right away pretty much every guy out there tried to get as close as possible to Lance. Most of them probably didn’t know who Eddy or Bauer were, and most of them weren’t very familiar with riding in a bunch. Let me tell you, there were some pretty twitchy dudes in that group. I witnessed near absolute, total carnage on two separate occasions as one yahoo or another bounced around in that pack like cracked out kids at Christmas time, all hairy legged and knees akimbo as they braked, accelerated, braked, accelerated and swerved all over the place. To stay safe, Lance, Eddy and Bauer put the jam on in order to spread things out a bit and reduce the chances of someone taking them out. The logic is as follows – if you can keep up, you probably know what you’re doing, and the speed stretches out the pack so there’s less people rodeoing around. It was in this manner that the group got shot all to pieces. There were numbers of riders clustered together all up and down the road, a collection of triathlete gumbys trying to ride in their tri-bars, bearded weirdos in MEC gear, full on bike racers, dads just out for the ride, and everything in between. I had to work my way through the masses of people to get to the front, as I had lost contact with the speedier guys in the throngs of people during the massive roll out.
So I was jamming along, jumping from little group to little group, sitting in for a bit, then popping out to bridge up to the next cluster. Eventually I found myself settled into a functional bunch with a few other guys. I looked over and checked ’em out, ‘yep, they look pretty solid’, I thought to myself, ‘this will be a good group to stick with as we make our way to the front.’ I was also trying to spot Jordan and Bill, the two guys I was riding with, ’cause I’d lost track of them in the carnage. And so as I’m craning my neck around to see if I can spot them, I’m startled to realize that the guy right next to me in this group of 10-12 riders is fricken’ Steve Bauer himself.
That was pretty neat. I said hi to him, told him I’d gotten emotionally hooked on cycling when I was 11 years old, or so, and had seen him and Alexi Grewal of the USA battle it out for the Olympic Road Race gold medal at the 1984 Games. I was in Toronto, visiting my aunt, and I remember it well. Grewal nipped Bauer to take the win, unfortunately. That was the year that the whole US team was blood doping, before it was banned. Too bad. I didn’t mention any of that to Bauer, just sort of told him I’d followed his career since I was a kid. He was second in that Olympic road race, second in a photo-finish at the 1990 Paris-Roubaix, wore the Yellow Jersey for a week, was a Tour de France stage winner, and 4th overall in that race once as well. As far as cycling goes, Bauer had a brilliant career. And he’s Canadian. My comments might have been kind of cheesy, but seriously, what was I supposed to say? He was really cool about it and we talked about what he was doing now, and this and that. It was pretty neat to find yourself side by side, riding along with someone that you consider an icon and a bit of a hero. We were soft-pedaling, totally effortless, just cruising along at 40-42 kph, sucked along by the inertia of the group we were in. The sun was shining, I was nicely warmed up, and it was kind of magic.
The total distance in this particular ride was around 90km or so, but Lance and Bauer and Eddy peeled off after around 50, as they had did a similar ride the day before. Some guys went with them, but me and the fellas I was riding with kept zinging away. At that time there must’ve been maybe 7 or 8 of us, and I had found Bill and Jordan. We were all flying along in a great paceline we got working with a few other dudes, flying up the road in single file, each taking strong 30 second pulls before pulling off and settling into the back of the line to get a bit of a break before you found yourself lead guy and cutting the wind again. We were the first group to finish, in just under 3 hours or so, which is a pretty good pace for a 90+km ride. We really did push it. Bill and Jordan both used to race CAT 3s and those other fellas had some spunk in their legs.
After we finished, the guys disappeared to find their families in the crush of people at the staging area, and I was calling my mom, who was out there floating around somewhere too. I left her a message and found my way into the mess hall where I grabbed some food and a Coke, taking it outside to wait. I remember sitting on this bench at this picnic table. I felt wasted but euphoric, the same way you always feel after riding at your limit like that. I know that my eyes were bloodshot, that my face was streaked with grit and sweat, and that my hair was matted down from the helmet. I remember looking down at my feet, and seeing the stark line on my ankles from where I had peeled my socks off to put some sandals on. I remember seeing my legs and feeling good about the fitness that I saw in them, and noticing that they too were spattered in road grit. And as I was sitting there thinking all this, enjoying the sugar of this chilled Coke and kind of feeling like a ‘real’ cyclist, I look up and, no word of a lie, there’s Eddy Fucking Mercxk walking 3 feet by me. He’s showered and changed and also drinking a Coke. He has black hair shot through with grey, he is slim, around 60 years old now and still looks pretty intimidating and more than a little intense. Our eyes meet and he glances down at my bare, bone white feet which are incongruously attached there at the end of my mid-summer-tanned ankles. He looks at my legs, looks back up and makes eye contact again and then nods. This slight, acknowledging tilt of the head. I’m sort of in awe, but I slowly nod back and as I do there’s a ghost of a smile on the face of The God of Cycling as he continues on his way. I’ll remember that forever.