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Follow Your Heart — But Bring Along Your Head
I had, for the first time, hooked my heart and my head together and, in the alchemy of that combination, created something more powerful than the parts.
In 1993 I performed a miracle. Or maybe I was granted a miracle. To this day, I’m not sure which. I know this: it was the first time I rode with each element it takes to win a bike race — my body’s physical ability, my mind’s acuity, and the passion of my heart — fully integrated and working together seamlessly. I rode for one magic, tragic day with everything I was. After years of proving my mettle first with amateur teams in Belgium, then with smaller pro teams, I was in my second season with the Spanish team ONCE, a top-notch squad that regularly fielded Tour de France contenders and featured champions such as Laurent Jalabert and Alex Zülle (who at the end of the decade would battle Lance for the Tour de France crown). On such an exalted team, my spot in the hierarchy was clear: I was not a champion. I was not a superdomestique, either — one of those riders whose career exists only as a sacrifice to the team’s leader. I was something in between. I was a threat to win stages of the Grand Tours (the three major European stage races, including the Tour de France and the tours of Spain and Italy), and some one-day races, but my true value seemed to be as a kind of rolling strategist. I had a knack for reading races and racers, and intuiting what the winning moves would be. On the road, I was like a radar antenna, casting my attention across the entire field until I picked up some useful impression: someone’s pedaling style looked a little ragged that day, or something seemed slightly off in another team’s dynamics — maybe two of their riders had gotten into a fight the night before and weren’t going to cooperate. I think my brain spun faster than my legs sometimes. My combination of skills made me a good rider to have in the Grand Tours, where a team survived on savvy as much as on conditioning. When I finished ninth in the Tour of Spain that spring (the race now takes place in the fall), ONCE’s team director guaranteed me a spot on the Tour de France roster. I couldn’t wait to tell my father. As corny as it sounds, he’d always been my biggest fan — and not because he didn’t have competition. In Belgium, when a kid starts to win races, he gets adopted by locals, who form a kind of fan club. Mostly it’s an excuse for the neighborhood guys to get together and drink beer at the pub before clambering onto a bus to stand beside the racecourse and scream your name. It’s not so much that you’re a star, but that the guys need an excuse to socialize. Still, mix beer and bike racing and a bunch of guys in Belgium and the loyalties can get pretty intense. Even so, my father had always been, easily, my most ardent supporter. He didn’t care when, at eight or nine, I turned out to be horrible at soccer, which was roughly akin to not being able to hit a ball out of the infield in America. My dad simply kept introducing me to different sports. I was terrible at every sport with a ball — except Ping-Pong, which didn’t exactly herald the life I dreamed of. I’d always ridden my bike, of course — almost every kid in Europe does, early and often. And it’s not just for sport. We ride to school, to the market, into town on weekends, across town with our friends. Informal races develop — from street to street, then to the top of the biggest hill. Eventually, you’re out one day and you see a big, tight group of cyclists fly by — the air from the moving pack pulling at your hair. The sound is like a locomotive. Men are shouting at each other and laughing. They’re wearing bright clothes and spinning their legs impossibly fast. It seems more than anything else like a grand adventure, a bunch of grownups playing out beyond the boundaries of the schoolyards and practice fields that games are supposed to be limited to. You’ve just been passed by a local club, out for one of their regular training rides, or maybe one of the informal races they organize among themselves — maybe even their club championship. My father belonged to one of those clubs; the talent and fitness levels he and his friends were able to maintain in between their obligations to their careers and families were, naturally, far below the pro ranks. But they were also much more skilled and much faster than the average riders. They raced, hard and often, and at speeds that would frighten a typical weekend warrior; they were as serious about the sport as one could get while still holding down a full-time job. I began tagging along with my dad, and the first emotion I can remember from those timees is a feeling of being at ease. I just felt as if I belonged in that pack. By the time I was thirteen, I was regularly beating the adulllllts when we’d have sprints to the finish of our training rides, or up the hills around our house. I was a natural: my heart rate stayed lower than others’ as we streamed along in a tight, fast pack, and when we rose out of our saddles to sprint, it seemed as if I could spin my legs faster, or push one gear harder, or pedal with my heart jackhammering near its maximum for twice as long as the others. I also had a fluidity on the bike, not only in the motions of my legs and the way I sat, but in how I was able to navigate my handlebar through the bunch, or how I leaned into corners, or swooped around ruts, how I found holes to shoot my front wheel through when it seemed other riders were blocked. That I had some kind of gift for cycling was apparent. What none of us knew was how much of a gift. Was I going to be better than average or was I going to be pro level? And if I was pro level, was I going to be an average pro or something else? All we knew was that suddenly I was riding faster and farther and harder than my father’s friends, and he loved that. He laughed as I attacked out of the groups, and he patted me on the back at the finish of tough rides. I could hear him shouting encouragement from behind as I hammered away at the front of a group, splitting it apart. My father also knew how to encourage me in just the right way when I didn’t do well. In the first real race I competed in — the first one with an official number and an entry fee — I crashed badly; my father said, simply, “Nerves,” making my failure seem not like some insurmountable disaster but a mistake — an error I’d be able to easily overcome. Belgium is known, most famously, for its gritty, hard road races in damp, chilly conditions on cobbled streets, and for long, muddy courses that are as much tests of the soul as the body; those are the races that make national heroes out of my countrymen. Cyclists from other countries believe that we Belgians are born to the rain and mud, that it is our birthright to excel when a race is at its worst. A Belgian who wins a mucky race in his home country is held up as a symbol of the nation’s character. So it was sort of funny that, as my father exposed me to different kinds of racing, I turned out to be best suited to track racing. This is a very specialized type of racing that happens on a velodrome, an oval course, usually 333 meters around, that’s made of smooth concrete or wooden planks. The turns are steeply banked — picture an elongated toilet bowl — so you can pedal to the top of the track then dive down into the turns to hit speeds of 45 mph or more. The bikes have one speed, can’t coast — if the rear wheel is turning, the pedals are, too — and have no brakes. The frames are very short lengthwise, and the angles between the tubes and the handlebar and seat are steep, so the bike steers incredibly fast, can be whipped here and there at what feels like the speed of thought. Because of the velodrome’s smooth surface, the frames can also be made extremely stiff (a regular bike generally sacrifices some stiffness for the sake of absorbing bumps and vibration from the road), which means that less of your leg power is lost through flex; when you sprint on a track bike, it’s like setting off a cannon. It wasn’t so much the chance to deliver power to the pedals that made me a good track racer — exposed to greater competition, I was discovering that, as it turned out, I was not going to be one of the elite of the elite in terms of physical ability — but the nature of the racing itself. Because the bikes respond so quickly to input, and because there are no brakes to get in the way of the pack’s movement, track racing rewards snap decisions. I had a knack for divining which of my opponents was going to make a jump from the back of a pack, then finding my way to the outside of the pack so I could latch onto his wheel as he passed and sit behind him safe in the draft until the finish line drew near. I found that I could, better than most of my opponents, keep track of complicated events such as points races, in which points are awarded to riders throughout the race on designated laps; I always somehow knew which riders had scored each lap, and what their totals were, and how many places ahead of them I had to be on the next points lap to end up in the lead. I was not a champion of the mud, but I was a champion. From the time I was thirteen until it was time for me to enter the advanced education program that, in Belgium, is somewhere between a junior college and a four-year university in the U.S., I’d put together a respectable amateur career: some national championships in track events, a few race wins that anyone in Belgium would have known by name, and even, now and then, some attention from European teams looking to recruit. But my father helped keep my feet on the ground, helped me understand that beating someone my age in our home country was a lot different than, say, riding side by side with the Tour de France legends we watched together on TV. A lot of good amateur racers put together the kind of win list I had — then settled down and became businessmen, used the connections they’d made with sponsors to get jobs in accounting firms, in marketing, running divisions of industries. The plan my father and I mapped out was that I would keep track racing while I studied for an advanced marketing degree. I thought I was probably good enough to turn pro, but I could also tell that I would never be a top pro. At every big race I participated in, there were usually two or three people faster than me. Multiply those two or three by all the races taking place in Europe in one weekend, and that put me pretty far down the talent list. And, anyway, I was almost as interested in the study of marketing. I liked being able to use my brain to do more than keep track of points. That plan worked pretty well until my last year. Unfortunately, one of the professors at school, for some reason, resented my success outside the classroom. He found out that I’d once snuck out of a seminar two hours early so I could prepare for a race, and he used that incident to call me before a board that was in charge of academics and discipline. I still don’t understand why, but the board ruled that, based on that one infraction, I wasn’t going to be allowed to take my final exams. I would have to spend the summer retaking the semester’s classes and then do the exams in September. There went my summer of racing. It looked like the decision I’d long put off — bike racing or marketing — had been made for me. I went to my dad and told him what had happened. My father was a successful jewelry businessman and watchmaker, a guy who didn’t take many risks. “What do you want to do, Johan?” he asked. I swallowed. I wanted to do everything. I wanted to do it all. I wanted to race bikes, and I wanted the kind of solid career and family my father had built for our family. After a long pause, he said, “Johan. What is in your heart?” “I don’t want to redo my schooling,” I said. “I want to try to be a bike racer now.” “Okay,” said my father, the non-risk-taker. “Follow your heart. Pedal.” That season I finished second in the Tour of Belgium, which always received a lot of publicity and media coverage in our country, and I won the national time-trial championship. I would get to wear my country’s colors every time I did a time trial through the whole next season. I was, in a tiny way — national compared to worldwide — a bit of a star. My potential for attracting media coverage the next season got the attention of the director of a new, small road-racing team sponsored by a bank in Licge. He offered me a contract for about seven hundred dollars a month, and I took it. We mostly did local races, and rarely went outside of Belgium. They were not glamorous, nor all that fun for spectators. Even so, my father attended as many as he could, and at the end of each one he’d seen, the watchmaker would carefully help me pull apart the tiny pieces of the race and examine them. My career ticked along from then on as predictably as one of my father’s repairs. In my second year I won a stage at a race called the Tour de l’Avenir, which doesn’t mean much to Americans raised on a steady diet of the Tour de France, but which is well known in Europe. The next year I won two stages in the Tour of Switzerland and got an offer to join Lotto, one of the biggest teams in the world, and then a few seasons later moved to ONCE. My father was giddy, like a kid, not exactly happier than I’d ever seen him, but happy in a way I’d never seen in him. He’d always loved to hang out with me and the teams I’d been on. Though he didn’t always speak the dominant languages the coaches and directors used, he somehow always formed a bond with my team directors, who seemed both amused by and extremely fond of my one-man fan club. Now, at age fifty-three, when he found out I would be riding with ONCE in the Tour de France, I saw that same kind of elation in his face. I had a month and a half to prepare for the Tour, and I planned to spend some of it joining my father on his club rides. One evening, just five weeks before the Tour, my father closed up his shop and slipped out for a late ride with his club. They weren’t racers, but they were one of the strongest recreational clubs in the region, and my father was one of the strongest riders in the club — and the most well liked. My father was a major figure in town. Everyone loved him. No matter what my successes, in town I had always been my father’s son. Now, proudly, he’d become the father of Johan Bruyneel. On that ride, less than half a mile from home, he had a heart attack and died. My world stopped. It’s hard to describe, but from the moment my younger sister, Daisy, called and said, “Dad had an accident — he’s dead,” my world simply stopped moving. I did the things you have to do — I drove home and comforted my mother and acted strong while coming apart inside. But the hardest, most confusing and terrifying feeling was that time seemed to no longer be really passing, as if the world were no longer really spinning, as if I had to wade through the thickness of time itself, marshaling an exhausting output of energy just to carry out the tiniest, easiest motions. Ride? I could barely manage to move. But two days after the funeral, I got back on my bike. I knew I had to. The Tour was coming. And I owed my biggest fan a ride.
But I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t move my bike. I’d always trained alone when I needed to train hardest, because I could suffer more on my own. But now, I couldn’t pedal hard enough or fast enough to hurt. When I would go out to ride, I couldn’t will myself to really train. It was as if I were pedaling into some invisible, fluid but somehow immobile, force. I spent more time sitting in my apartment than sitting on my bike. I would look at my legs and wonder what was happening. My chest felt empty — yet heavy. Finally, one day, I set my bike deliberately against the wall of my apartment. I knew what I was doing. I was putting my bike away — and my chance to ride the Tour. Two weeks passed. There was now no way I could do the Tour de France; too much fitness had drained away, too much time off the bike had dulled me. I cried one night, alone. I cried for my father. And I cried because the Tour de France was flying away from me like one of those riders I’d never be better than. And with that realization, something eased. My father’s death had smashed into me and since then I’d been stuck in place. I got back on my bike, and I went hard again, and on a flat, easy street I rode myself into a deep, deep, wonderful hurt. And I knew what I had to do. “I want to ride the Tour,” I told my team director. Just like that. With no preamble. I didn’t tell him, of course, that I had not only decided to ride the Tour but also that I was going to give everything I had to win a stage. He would have thought I was truly crazy then. You don’t predict stage wins, not even if you’re Lance Armstrong. There are too many variables — you don’t know how your form will be, you don’t know who will attack, you don’t know the weather, you don’t know what will have happened in the days before that will make other riders, or whole other teams, zealously guard the front of the race or launch their own suicidal breakaways. But I knew I was going to win stage 6. I didn’t tell anyone of my ambition. It was my private vow. I wasn’t afraid of being proven wrong; I just didn’t want to share the feeling. But I also needed to concentrate, on my own, to study for my stage win as if I were preparing for a test at school. There’s a certain kind of romance, of heroism, if my quest is strictly a story about the triumph of the soul — the comforting cliché that love conquers all. But the truth is that I was much more calculating. Once I’d decided I needed to not only ride the Tour but honor my father with a victory — once I committed to an impossible dream with my heart — I turned the entire enterprise over to my head. In those pre-Lance days, no one rode the courses over and over as practice. There wasn’t even time scheduled to allow it. But I did the next best thing. I pored over the course maps and topographic profiles again and again and again. I judged each day not just by terrain but by when it occurred, and who I thought would be riding well and with purpose. For instance, no matter how deep my vow to win, I could never triumph in a true mountain stage. And the flattest stages would be ruled by the sprinters’ teams, who would drag the pack along for hours at a high pace to prevent anyone from escaping early and ruining the chance for their burly speed demons to explode off the front with a 45- mph burst in the final yards. If I waited for a late stage, my team might be in contention for the overall win and I wouldn’t be free to attempt my private escapade — I’d have to perform whatever team task needed doing, from fetching water to sheltering our leader from the wind or chasing down dangerous breakaways. I immersed myself in information, training less like a bike racer than a tax accountant. Or, perhaps, exactly like a precise, patient watchmaker. Stage 6 was early, about one hundred miles long, and rolling. The hills were tough enough that one inspired rider could crack the legs off anyone trying to follow him. Whether such a rider could then hold off the entire charging pack was another matter. It was a windy day, with a nice temperature for racing — just warm enough to keep your muscles loose. We rolled out of Évreux, got the wind at our backs, and a group attacked almost right away, before we’d gone even three miles. It was a strong group, led by Steve Bauer, full of guys steely enough to ride the whole way on their own. But there was one problem for them, I realized as I analyzed the pack: one of the strongest teams, Panasonic, hadn’t gotten a man into the breakaway. Panasonic would have to chase, to bring the race back together. I sat back and let them pull. They did — for sixty-two miles. As soon as the pack absorbed the breakaway, I knew, there would be another attack. It’s a classic move: the counterattack. I waited, and waited, always near the front but never doing too much work. It came — bang! Six or seven of us, with strong, hard men such as Johan Museeuw, who would go on to win Paris-Roubaix, generally considered the toughest one-day race in the world, three times. We lined up in single file, each hammering out horrendously fast pulls when it was our turn at the front, meshing like a machine built for one purpose: speed. Miles whipped past. With the wind at our backs, we were shooting our bikes forward at speeds high above 30 mph. Announcers began to mention that this could set the record for the fastest stage in Tour de France history. I didn’t care. I didn’t care. For one thing, as fast as we were going, the pack was going faster. They were gulping down chunks of time with every mile. I also knew that, as fast as this group was, I had to find some way to escape off the front. Traditional cycling strategy dictated that we’d all work together to stave off the pack until the final mile or so, where we’d start attacking each other and still be able to hold off the pack with a few minutes of maximum effort. But I knew that if the race came down to those final moments, I couldn’t sprint with these guys. I couldn’t win in the final mile. I had to win now. With twelve miles to go, we rode into a small, sharp hill and I stood up, poured everything into the pedals — my grief, and my anger, and my love, and my loneliness, and my regret, and my memories, and my joy, and my respect. I shot forward — five feet, ten feet — and a few riders clung to me, then gave up. From their point of view, they were doing the smart thing; I had gone too early, I had gone alone, and I was sure to burn myself out trying to solo all that distance to the finish. But I knew something they didn’t. I’m gone, I thought. They’ll never see me again. I was wrong. They did see me — but they never quite caught me. From a purely physical standpoint, I believe that what I did that day was impossible. No one could have stayed ahead of the pack with that tailwind. Here’s how it works: The pack can sacrifice riders. Someone will go to the front and ride 40 mph — a ridiculous speed, a speed no one can maintain for long, a speed that explodes you after a short time and leaves you limping toward the finish line. But as soon as that rider explodes, another comes forward to keep the speed at 40 until he explodes. Then another comes up. Behind them, the leaders sit sheltered from the wind, saving their legs for the final rush to the line. So a poor, lone rider out front, killing himself to average, say, 30 mph — a heroic speed — is still traveling 10 mph slower than the pack. And never gets to rest. It’s a vicious, unforgiving sport. I rode. I just rode. I felt no pain. I felt nothing. It was the purest experience of my life, my legs spinning, my lungs pumping air in and out of my body, my heart beating, beating, and me, my brain, the head that had worked so hard to figure out how to get me to this spot, refusing to panic or second- guess or calculate. I rode, impossibly fast and without thought. Behind me, the pack caught the breakaway. “There’s just one rider ahead,” screamed a TV announcer. “The remnant of the breakaway, just thirty seconds ahead and sure to be caught!” I rode, in the center of the two- lane strip, right along the broken white lines, a motorcycle just behind me shooting video. The road twisted and the sun came behind me, casting my shadow forward like a rider I could chase. I chased myself. I passed under the 1-kilometer banner, people hanging over the barricades, shouting, waving their arms, and I rode, and I looked back: a wall of riders. An onrushing, crushing wall of the world’s best bicycle riders with me in their sights, stripping off their sacrificial chasers at 40 mph. I snapped my head forward and took two pedal strokes and looked back again and they were closer. I rode. It’s odd, but I just rode. I didn’t summon any superhuman effort, because I’d already been at that level for the last twelve miles. I just rode, my elbows loose, my position perfect, no sign of the exhaustion that must have been tearing apart my body. It was simple: I rode in a state of grace. The race official’s car behind me flashed its lights once, twice, and I looked back, then looked down at the pavement passing beneath me for four pedal strokes, and I sat up and with the pack closing in on me like a bullet, I raised my arms to my sides as if I’d drowned. My fists were clenched. Then: into the air, into a V, the victory salute, my hands open, palms out, thirteen absolutely impossible seconds in front of the peloton. Mario Cipollini, one of the greatest sprinters in history, won the field sprint and took second. When he crossed the line, he raised his arms in celebration, a curious move for such a proud racer. Later that season, we found ourselves riding beside each other, and Mario said, “You remember that stage you won when I raised my arms?” “Yes,” I said. I sure did. “I thought I won,” he said. “At the moment I raised my arms I saw you standing beyond the finish, straddling your bike, and I thought, ‘How the hell can that guy be there? It’s not possible that anyone stayed in front.’ ”
A lot of times, those thirty minutes just come back to me. The purity. The idea that we can exceed ourselves. That stage ended up being what was at the time the fastest day in Tour de France history — 30.7 mph. Won by me, a guy who was not a great champion but believed — and who made the most of that belief, on one magic day, by backing it up with an obsessive attention to details most would consider unimportant. It would be years before I could clearly comprehend what I’d done that day — how, in my desperation to honor my father I had, for the first time, hooked my heart and my head together and, in the alchemy of that combination, created something more powerful than the parts. I would rediscover that lesson later, when I met Lance and we started working together. But, really, I should have figured it out long ago, because the proof of what I’d done was always there for me to see. For that stage there happened to be a special panel of legendary riders, including my homeland’s icon, Eddy Merckx, the greatest all-around bike racer who ever lived. The panel was supposed to pick that day’s racer who epitomized cycling grace and style. The trophy was a magnificent modern-art sculpture of a racer. I won it, but that trophy sits neither on my shelf, nor in a bar with a fan club. I had it weatherproofed, and mounted on my father’s headstone with a simple inscription: THIS ONE WAS FOR YOU.