Fields wasn’t great when he first came to Austin, he was just better than everyone else at a time when cycling was a micro-niche within a micro-fissure of a fringe activity. By the time he left, he was the dominant racer in the state during the second golden age of cycling–his style of riding had made Austin the epicenter it remains today, and he made it such an attractive place to train and ride that Armstrong made it his home base.
Everyone wants to be great. It is a near-universal human longing. But what is greatness? Simply, it is transforming yourself from the person you are into the person you want to be.
Armstrong wasn’t great because he won seven Tours. He was great because he transformed himself from a poor kid raised in a broken home into the most dominant rider in the history of the Tour. It wasn’t until the methods to his dominance were revealed that the greatness crumbled, because greatness is about process, the process of change, and when you shortcut the process you are simply mediocre.
The process of greatness, although it leads to the most intense feelings of satisfaction and pleasure of which we are capable, demands failure, repeatedly, as each step transforms you, bit by bit.
Cycling is only one of countless means to greatness, where you can become who you want to be. And people hunger for it. From the moment they see the first results of a week’s worth of riding, they are hooked.
Whether it’s weight loss, better health, more energy, athleticism, freedom, or big picture control over their lives, cycling is a powerful avenue to greatness. I have personally met hundreds of people who have become great through cycling.
But because greatness is a process of continual, painful catharsis, the moment you stop pushing, your greatness slides into the past. You were great, not you are great.
This is one impressive thing about Armstrong. He is driven to transform himself. From lonely kid to cycling hero to cancer advocate to parent to media commentator … whether or not he “succeeds,” his drive to transform doesn’t appear to rest. He, like everyone who aspires to greatness, gets meaning from his life through the struggle to become the person he wants to become.
But back to Fields.
Back in the day, Fields gave you the chance to be great but it was all on you. You were the one who had to turn the pedals, put on the rain cape, endure the 100-degree, 90% humidity of central Texas, repeat. And he was resented for it. The first time I ever heard his name was at Freewheeling, where the mechanics were shit-talking him and the “carpetbaggers from I-O-Way.”
Greatness upsets everyone else’s apple cart because it reminds them that they are mediocre, that they are satisfied with mediocrity, and that they are too lazy to do anything about it.
And the corollary to greatness truly is mediocrity, where most people live despite their inner desire to achieve greatness. Because greatness is a process that wrings sweat and pain out of you, few people choose to pursue it even though it brings such incredible rewards.
In cycling, the mediocre among us come up with shortcuts to greatness, and there are a couple of biggies–equipment and #faketraining.
Equipment and gear let you think that the extra watts you can now churn out thanks to the equipment have somehow transformed you, the same kind of flawed thinking as if a battery-powered crank or a drug-induced performance have made you different from who you were.
They haven’t. Take away the motor and the EPO and you’re still the same old girl you used to be, as the Eagles once sang.
Same with #faketraining, which, like equipment and drugs, seeks to transform you without making you hurt and hurt badly. Because with cycling, the transformation is first physical, that is, you have to pedal your bike at a speed that tears down, then allows your body to build back up.
The #faketraining of canned riding plans, riding plans that emphasize “recovery” and “rest,” computer data, and cycling social media are all distractions from the ugly and brutal process of greatness in cycling, which simply means riding until it hurts really bad, and then riding harder. Real training isn’t in order to win races or to win group rides, although those things may well result.
Real training is transformation, is greatness, and it admits of nothing but slamming up against your limits and then pushing beyond, whether your limit is riding around the block or winning the Tour. Do you sometimes have to take a break from it? Of course. But not for long, unless you’re done with transforming and ready for mediocrity.
Fields insisted on the long route. He knew that shortcuts were just that, and he held them in total contempt. You were free to ride your bike however you wanted, but you were never free to claim that greatness could ever be a byproduct of laziness.
We’re coming up on the end of our fifth season of the Flog Ride here in the South Bay. It is the hardest regular ride around, and it leaves you wrecked every single time. What’s impressive isn’t simply the roll call of riders like Tregillis, Wily, Cowan, Brauch, Cobley, and Fernandez who have come out and dominated it. What’s impressive is the roll call of riders who have come out for years and committed to the process of transformation without ever winning a lap. Names like Klahr and Fischer and Landes and Reichmann, and so many others who were willing to suffer through the process.
The process of greatness.