Editor’s Note: Michael Barry is a member of the Columbia-HTC team.
Pedaling up the climb without a car in sight, the sun beating down, my open jersey fluttering in the breeze and my legs turning fluidly, my mind started wandering. The road was one I had ridden countless times, alone, with teammates, rivals and friends. I know every meter of road after nearly 10 years of riding in Girona — it now feels like home. Daily, we meet for rides, forming a group that contains many of the best professional cyclists in the world.
As I ride over each road in this small province, memories of past rides, people and conversations comfort me in a way a tune evokes an emotion of an adolescent moment.
Over the weekend, while watching the Tour de France, I was thrilled to see my good friend, a friend with whom I have grown and matured on the roads of Catalonia, in a breakaway with a margin on the peloton significant enough that he had a chance at the yellow jersey. George Hincapie has given himself, selflessly, to every team and leader he has ridden for — from Armstrong to Cavendish he has always ridden for the goal of the team. Now, late in his career, I thought this was to be his brief moment to shine in yellow.
Rivalries between teams are innate, as are jealousies. We are competitive. We are bike racers. On training rides we race each other to mountaintops, we sprint for town signs and we attempt to break each others’ records on the climbs we use to test ourselves. Yet, we also can sit back, watch our kids play together as we chat about the coming races, training rides, community events in town or our kids.
Sport is fun; business is ruthless.
George never wore yellow. It came down to the narrowest of gaps and he missed out. I wasn’t there so I don’t know the whole story, or why two teams — one, to which he gave himself through most of his career and another to which he has always been a friend — closed the gap when it wasn’t in their interest to do the work. Tactically, with or without George in yellow, their objectives would remain the same. He wasn’t a threat, on any level, to their ambitions.
In cycling, it is said there are no favors. This is rubbish. Life is full of favors, as is cycling. Teams help each other knowing the favor will be returned. Teams cooperate in every race I ride. The greatest champions have won not only because they are the strongest but also because other teams have given them support.
I know that the riders from Garmin, a Girona-based team, didn’t want to set off in pursuit of George. They had no reason to ride, aside from following the orders, which came over their radios. And, I know they now dearly regret their pursuit. But still they rode.
Somehow, I sense, the roots of a rivalry between managers have dug into the small community we have in Spain that has matured in the last 15 years. It saddens me that friendships, which have always managed to transcend feuds between teams and riders, now seem to be fracturing due to decisions made during a race. I am certain that without radios, the chase would have never occurred as it tactically made no sense — the pursuit was a waste of energy in a race that is won by carefully dosing efforts. Like a dog obeying his master’s commands, riders forget to think for themselves when they hear a voice yelling instructions.
From a business perspective I have never understood petty juvenile rivalries in which thinking is provincial instead of global. When LeMond was winning the Tour de France, cycling in America prospered, as it did when Armstrong was on top. In Canada, cycling flourished and pro teams were numerous when Steve Bauer was pounding over the cobbles and climbing the mountains in Europe. An American in yellow, no matter which American, no matter which team, would have been beneficial to the whole. This rivalry will end up doing more damage than good.
In George’s position I would feel betrayed. Cycling is a team sport in which one individual gains applause for the team’s efforts. He deserved a moment to receive that applause — not for his efforts in that one Tour stage, but for a career of efforts in the service of others.
At the top of the climb, I rode through a small mountain town. The town was quiet as the summer sun pounded down. The streets were empty. The few old men I see each time I ride through the town, sitting on the park bench, were motionless in the stifling heat. Outside a bar patio, just across from the two old men, a half dozen bikes were piled up. I stopped. Under the awning were several riders from two different teams — rival teams — together. Laughing, sitting comfortably and enjoying a short break on a long ride, I joined them for a drink. Then, we attacked the road home to Girona.
Barry also authored Fitness Cycling with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.