Friday, May 22, 2015

World's Greatest Endurance Athlete, As Crowned by Physiologists, Retires Before Career Starts

I am thankful no one ever called me the greatest in the world at anything. Let me alter that. I'm grateful no one ever said of me, as a child, that I would one day be the greatest in the world.

These days, I invite anyone to call me the greatest at anything. Please. Great away.

But as a kid, that kind of praise would have wrecked me.

The Tour de l'Avenir is the race that allows us to place that label on kids in cycling. Poor U23 kids get it slapped on them.

The 2013 edition of the race was particularly packed with talent. It included the Yates brothers, Caleb Ewan, and this week's Giro stage winner Davide Formolo. All went on, the following year, to earn what would be lucrative contracts with Orica and Cannondale. A young Norwegian named named Oskar Svendsen slipped into fifth place GC on stage 6, and held it through the last stage, won by Julien Alaphilippe, who is the most successful second-place rider of 2015, at 23 years of age.

Svendsen's move into fifth place at l'Avenir, achieved on a mountain stage, was a surprise, since he'd been known as a time trial specialist. After all, he was the reigning 2012 Junior World Time Trial Champion. Svendsen's result seemed to suggest he'd be the most accomplished of an unusually accomplished group of riders.

Oscar Svendsen


Here he is saying something about mountain goats, I believe, after a stage of l'Avenir in 2013.

Oskar Svendsen. Ikke fjellgeit, men fjell..... :-) from Norges Cykleforbund on Vimeo.

Results only formed a small part of Svendsen's promise.

At the core of our expectations lay a metric, a number. Svendsen, we were told, had the highest VO2 Max on record, at 97.5 ml/kg/min. This put him not only at the top of the cycling heap; it put him on top of the entire world in terms of athletic expression.

Svendsen came not only to be a promising young world champion like any other; he was also an expression of the limits of human abilities. That is quite a thing for a 20-year-old to bear.

It is, on the other hand, exactly what 40-year-old men love to impose on 20-year-olds. We sent each other the articles. We swooned:
Great! Bright future!

And then, only a year later, the kid up and retired.  He still tweets about cycling, but apparently he's focused on his studies. Is it any mystery why humanity's great oxygen vector champion decided he'd rather read a book and post ski jumping videos to his Twitter feed than give Norway its first true GC contender?

Our sport is a sport of striving. The miracle of Eddy Merckxx is a miracle of inexhaustible striving. We think of Michael Jordan as the most driven American athlete of our time, but Jordan's drive doesn't begin to compare to Merckx's.

Jordan played in 1,072 NBA games (1,393 including including college and the Olympics), was on the court for 41,011 minutes, scored 32,392 points.

Merckx won 525 races over his career, in which he raced well over 4,000 times. Just including the races in which he scored points, Merckx piled up 42,090.18 kilometers of racing. That puts his time on the bike in races--just in races where he scored points--at around 100,000 minutes. Between 1969 and 1974, Merckx won over 1/3 of the races he entered.

That kind of drive and dominance is hard to fathom.

And, unlike Svendsen, no one anticipated glory for young Eddy. They called him a fatty. A local pro told him, "In five years you won't get through that door, Eddy, given how fat you are." Merckx at least felt the pleasure of victory as an accomplishment, not a necessity of biology.

At the 2012 edition of l'Avenir, MABRA's own Nate Wilson finished 91st on GC.

A few months earlier Nate had kicked my ass (and everyone else's) at the Tour of Washington County. Because of an officiating error (a very rare occurrence in MABRA, due to our kick-ass officiating), I started last. Nate, as the winner of the road race, went of off before me.

His dad was taking pictures, so proud, and with good reason. Nate was fast; faster than all of us. Nate was maybe the fastest we'd seen--Joe Dombrowski included.

He went on to some excellent results, some extraordinary racing. And then, like Svendsen, he was gone.

Picture: Jim Wilson
My hope is that Nate left bike racing with more than regret, or at least the idea that he had taken from it what he could. There are worse things to do than to stop racing a bike, to, as Svendsen did, take up studying.

For my part, I can't imagine stopping bike racing. But then, no one ever called me great.

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