Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Great Sprinter of the Past, Soigneur of Present

The Ronde, if you saw it, or if you watched the replays, because you were at camp or otherwise riding (naturally), was the kind of race that makes you believe in miracles, or drugs or both. Cancellara's dropping of Boonen was fitting payback for Paris Roubaix 2008.

Droppage law: the dropped, oft the dropper becomes.

But I'm drifting off into another blog's territory.

What I wanted to talk about here was Erik Zabel. Zabel was a dominant, year-round racer in his day. A good introduction to him is in Hell on Wheels, but all you really know about Zabel is that the guy had no off switch.

Zabel didn't taper or peak. His form didn't "come around," because it never left. He just raced every race he possibly could for two decades. He raced until snow covered the ground, then he raced on the track.

Here is a picture of him now, handing out a bottle:

Zabel still rides a bike, doing the Etape and riding with Columbia. Obviously, he loves what he does, even if it is now only handing off water bottles to Vicente Reynes.

Lance certainly likes riding his bike, and Contador probably does also, but it seems less of a thrill to them than it does to Zabel. Zabel, remember, was a sprinter who was expected to throw elbows and mix it up in every single finish. He rode in the churning guts of the peleton and raced long enough to know the faces and smell the sweat of three generations of the world's best cyclists.

Zabel did what we do; that is, he rode among the great mass of the rest of us. He didn't depart when the roads went through the mountains. He suffered along, hoping to be there at the end, if simply to nose his wheel around the last shelter and, if the stretch was long enough, to be the first to cross an arbitrary line, followed by two hundred, all given "same time."

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