The first live bike race I saw, at least that I remember, was the Great Downer Avenue Bike Race towards the end of July of 2007. My parents were visiting Milwaukee for the weekend, and I wanted to check it out, so I managed to talk my family into coming along to watch. The Downer Ave. race was a 0.8 mile criterium, and part of International Cycling Superweek – an annual race series held in July, with a variety of crits and road races in the SE Wisconsin/Chicagoland area. The races draw amateur and pro riders from all over the country to take part in the almost two and half week event.
After walking the home stretch of Downer Ave., my dad and I picked out a spot along the wall to see all the pro men riders grouped at the starting line. I guessed there were at least 75-100 riders there, though I don’t know. After some introductions and other formalities, the riders took off down the street and turned right around the corner. We waited, and before long the mass of riders came around the corner at the other end of the street, charging back up towards the finish. The peloton flashed past us with a rushing draft sweeping along behind. I had never realized how fast racers went, nor that the peloton literally broke through the air and pulled it along in a slipstream. I was suddenly captivated. They only had to go by once or twice more before I was sure I had to try this racing thing out myself. I can’t say whether it was the speed, the cornering, or simply a large mass of road bikes working together, something about this struck a chord in me.
We enjoyed the July evening, not too hot with a cooling breeze coming off Lake Michigan just east of the neighborhood we were in. The race progressed, and a break soon formed. The group kept accelerating away from the peloton, even though they only had about six riders in the group. One of the riders in the break was easily more identifiable than the others, wearing a Rock Racing kit, tattooed all over. As the laps ticked by the lead group, pulled along by the tattooed rider, kept widening their margin.
Eventually we decided to go get some dinner at a pizza place nearby on Oakland Ave. When we left the race, the lead group seemed to have the race under control. The next day I read in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the tattooed rider, Kayle Leogrande, did indeed win. The paper also had a short feature on him since he had raced strongly for the series. He was a former junior national champion, leaving the sport behind to start a family and build the business of his tattoo studio. Eventually he realized he was out of shape and felt something was missing. After getting back on a bike, he soon was up to speed again, and not long after, back in the racing scene. I don’t remember the timeline of all this, but in a matter of a few years he found himself on the Rock Racing pro team, and was racking up the results. I found the story compelling, and somehow made the allure of cycling grow for me, even though this was just one guy’s story. While we had nothing in common, the race experience of that July weekend led me down a long, slow path to racing. Not one to jump into things quickly, I still didn’t try racing for another two years, but when I did, it was at Superweek.
The last few weeks and months have brought about many changes at the top of cycling, most notably of Lance Armstrong losing his seven Tour de France titles over doping. Many people have already written and commented about this. I have my own thoughts too on this, but never felt I had anything compelling to share that hadn’t already been said. Honestly, I felt tired of the issue and didn’t feel like spending the time to delve too deeply into all the sordid details. I came across two articles last week though which suddenly took me back to that July weekend in 2007.
I actually read “The Catalyst from the blog Red Kite Prayer first, but this story from the New York Times last week about Kayle Leogrande is better background info to start with. For those that don’t want to spend the time reading it, the story tells how Leogrande had a non-analytical positive test for EPO that specific week of Superweek, and based on his admission to one of the team’s soigneurs (team staff-person that helps with day-to-day activities for team, as well as masseuse for the riders), received a two-year suspension from the US Doping Agency (USADA). While Leogrande had only met Lance Armstrong once, his admission and suspension eventually led the USADA to Armstrong.
Red Kite Prayer posted the story “The Catalyst” also last week, telling how by making a stand soigneur Suzanne Sonye had an influential role in USADA’s investigation of Armstrong. Sonye considered Leogrande a friend, but could not sit on the information he told her. The date in question for his usage was July 26th, and the race we went to was on the 28th.
I shared these two stories since they shed light on a racer doping, one not named Lance. These stories gave me a strange feeling to know that a specific rider and race that inspired me in my cycling pursuits also became linked to the (now) biggest doping scandal in the history of the sport. That’s a complicated balance to navigate. I’m annoyed that I don’t have a satisfying way to wrap up this post, but will say that sooner or later, most people we look up to/admire/inspire us, do questionable things. We also see people like Sonye that stood up for what’s right, even with seemingly much to lose. It’s all a very mixed bag. Lance Armstrong did things that I still think are great, and more than a few things that I think aren’t so great. People are complex. Riding a bike shouldn’t be. At the least, if I’m not having fun riding, or if my riding schedule is hurting my relationships, I hope I will have clarity to see that I have to make changes. Be inspired, but not at all costs.