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On the Stage.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.


Tom Demerly near rough terrain


People do endurance sports for a lot of reasons. I’ve talked, written, read and thought about those reasons a lot, especially on this editorial page.
Today I want to tell you a story that I was involved in recently, and show you the one reason why I love endurance sports.

It’s hot. The kind of hot that feels like you are wrapped in a damp wool blanket and you can’t get it off your back. There isn’t any relief. No breeze. No Shade. The only change in your perception of the heat is when it gets worse. And it only gets worse. It is nearing the hottest part of the day, but it isn’t there yet and it is already too hot. 94 degrees Fahrenheit and 100% humidity. I know, I checked. I would have guessed higher.


You know it’s hot when you feel the heat on your bike. Usually the breeze at about 20 M.P.H. does something to keep you comfortable. But not today, not in this heat and humidity. Perspiration streaks your face and you hope it doesn’t find your eyes because you know it will sting, adding one more layer of discomfort.

We aren’t going 20 M.P.H. today though. We are going exactly 26.5 M.P.H. and we are doing it into a headwind so strong and abrasive it feels like trying to ride your bike through a piece of hot toast. I know that because I am on the ragged edge right now, on the rivet as they say. I am hanging on, and just barely, but hanging on I am, and it is spectacular. This is exactly why I do this.

The man in front of me is a legend. A bona-fide, died in the wool, ass-kickin legend in his own time. I just saw him on TV and I read a magazine article about him last week. A couple weeks ago he got 4th at Ironman Hawaii. The man behind me is an even bigger legend. I have been reading about him and looking at photos of him and watching him on TV since 1984. This guy, the one behind, has won Ironman Hawaii- and every other triathlon worth winning too. There is a forth on this ride, and his name is Thierry. He is a fine athlete, but he doesn’t own the legendary status of our other two compatriots. Thierry and I are the regular guys on this ride; the other two are legends.

As with all legends, both of these guys have nicknames. The man in front of me is called the “Uberbiker” or “Stormin’ Norman”. The man behind me has only one nickname: Terminator.

Uberbiker is blasting a hole through the hot, wet air hitting him from the front. He burns this hole through the 18 M.P.H. headwind at a constant 26-27 M.P.H. like a blowtorch through red-hot steel. We ride inside that hole, the draft, lined up behind Uberbiker; me, Terminator and Thierry in that order. Thierry and I are struggling a bit, but Uberbiker and Terminator are still at idle on their throttle settings. They aren’t even working. It takes everything I have right now to stay on Uberbiker’s wheel.

The road exits the jungle and there are open fields on either side. The wind picks up and, as if it was a personal affront to him, Uberbike turns it up a notch. Now my drafting must be precise. Drafting isn’t just riding behind another rider. It is finding that small cone of still air behind a rider. It may be slightly to the left, slightly to the right. If I don’t find it and stay in it I will be gone in under ten seconds. I don’t have the power or fitness to ride with Uberbiker or Terminator, but I do barely have the power (and experience) to draft off them.

If Uberbiker turned it up a half notch from where we are now- 27 M.P.H., I would no longer be a part of this ride.

This is the best seat in the house for the sport of triathlon on this day. The man in front of me turned in the fastest bike split at Ironman Hawaii three weeks ago. The fastest bike split overall. He is an absolute machine. Arguably that makes him the fastest triathlon cyclist in the world, and I am on his wheel, hanging on for dear life. Thierry and I are the witnesses; Uberbiker and Terminator are the show.

This isn’t like having the best seats for the Superbowl. This is standing on the field next to the quarterback in the Superbowl. This is a seat inside the biggest show in triathlon. These men are the titans.

From where I sit I can see his muscles working, and he is all muscle. A massive carburetor of a cardio-pulmonary system that delivers oxygen and vents wastes from huge muscles precisely calibrated, along with his equipment (more on that in a second), to net maximum velocity. I’m eight inches behind him, getting a full demonstration of his firepower.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to sit behind a racer of this caliber and watch them at full cry, you don’t know what you are missing. Unlike any other performance in sport, the cyclist is a part of the vehicle- an extension of it. And in the instance of a finely tuned athlete like Uberbiker the line between man and machine is blurred. This is a cyborg union: Air intake, oxygen infusion, oxygen transfer, muscle actuation. A muscle pulls between a series of bones creating a lever and that lever turns another lever, the crank, which drives a chain which drives a wheel. But it is hard to say where the man ends and the machine begins when they are working together this well. The man/machine projectile moves forward through the dense air, operating in perfect unison.

So this is how they do it.

If you have ever wondered how the guys who win Ironman do it, how they go that fast for so long, well, this is how. Uberbiker is rock steady on his bike. There is no movement. My impression is that he is sleeping, save the rotation of his legs. And there is no sound coming from him. If you were watching this on TV you’d try to turn the volume up only to discover there is nothing to hear. His massive effort is mute. It reminds me of a silent movie showing a locomotive barreling down the tracks wide open.

The draft seems to be getting smaller now that we are going slightly faster. It is harder to find, harder to stay in. The sun burns your arms and back it feels so hot. The pavement here is perfect and the terrain blissfully flat. Our tires sing on the hot, black asphalt. The quiet humming of tubular race tires at 115 p.s.i. It looks like there is a rice paddy on either side of the road. I am vaguely aware of it but don’t dare look away for fear of being dropped. All my concentration is devoted to staying on Uberbiker’s wheel. The others are lined up behind me.

Uberbiker is nothing like you and I. We are recreational athletes. He is not. He earns a high six-figure salary each year for doing exactly what he is doing now. And right now Uberbiker is doing it to me, and it hurts.

Years of relentless training and miraculous physiological adaptation according to some beautiful, optimized genetic code have formed Uberbiker into a version of my species that seems nothing like me. Because he does this so easily. His effort now looks similar to mine, but my effort would only net 19 M.P.H. in these conditions, his nets 27 M.P.H. And he pushes a hot, wet mattress of air in front of him that seems as impenetrable as armor plating to me. Uberbiker’s effort displaces a phenomenal amount of air at this speed. His workload is enormous, constant, unrelenting and elegant. A magnificent display.

Uberbiker rides a new Look KG486 carbon fiber, monocoque frame with Campagnolo Record components and Profile Carbon X handlebars. He has a straight seatpost with the saddle oriented forward in the seatpost head and uses Look adjustable “Q” factor pedals. His cogset for this course is an 11-19 ten speed. I am struggling with a 12-23 nine speed. He uses the new Campagnolo Bora G3 wheels. His wedge-shaped, carbon fiber wheels alone are worth over $3000.

His version of the Look KG486 frame has the new teardrop shaped, girder-reinforced bottom bracket shell intended to be nearly rigid and impervious to the ravages of fatigue. When Look bicycles wants to find out if something will break under the hardest use, they give it to Uberbiker to test.

Of course, all of Uberbiker’s equipment has been carefully configured specifically for him with a great deal of painstaking effort. The most remarkable thing about his equipment is how it melds with his body. His bike fit and position is flawless. He is “planted” on the bike, every joint at the optimum angle and proximity to exert maximal force with minimum effort. The bike is very small underneath him, leaving only the slightest signature during its passage through the atmosphere. That passage, that vortex, is my survival on this ride.

I measured his bike: Saddle height, reach, setback, crank length, saddle the handlebar drop. His reach is incredibly short. The differentiation between saddle and handlebar height is more than what I wold expect for Ironman. He sits lower on the bike. Once I returned I performed a lot of calculations on the measurements I took: The ratio of his read to his saddle height, The ratio of his saddle height to his handlebar drop. The ratio of his saddle height to his saddle setback. I wish I had been able to measure Uberbiker. Without his dimensions these numbers are of diminished significance, but I find his position on the bike fascinating, and fitting bikes is what I do, so it is worth examining closely since this is such an extraordinary specimen.

The burst of speed to 27 M.P.H. must have been some attempt to loosen up Uberbiker’s legs. Now he is backing off to a much more survivable 22 M.P.H. This affords Thierry and I the opportunity to have a conversation. Thierry’s accent is very heavily French. My French is quite poor, non-existent really.

However, between the two of us we manage to have a conversation about the events he has done. He enjoys ultra-distance events. When I tell him I have done The Raid, Eco-Challenge, the Marathon des Sables and Desert Cup we have instantly found common ground. He tells me of an incredible race in the high Alps that is 100 miles. It takes competitors 30 hours to finish if they are good. He has completed it three times or, as he says in his accent, “I make zee race three times.” He tells me of another race he competed in on the Island of Corsica. This is how this all gets started. One person tells another about an incredible event and the next thing you know I am buying plane tickets.

Thierry is an eclectic sportsman. His palmares is impressive. Several Ironman finishes, ultramarathons and raids, bicycle races on all terrain. He is not typical of anyone on earth, except the type of people you meet at these events. Another reason I do them.

There is a crowded intersection up ahead. Uberbiker and Thierry take the opportunity to cut the ride a bit short but I continue on with Terminator.

Terminator is one of the men responsible for triathlon. Not one particular part, all of it. He is a part of the history of it. He is still a part of it. Terminator got his nickname because of his invulnerability. At one time or another, usually many times, he has beaten every top triathlete at every distance. When I first became a triathlete over 20 years and 200 races ago Terminator was on the cover of every triathlon magazine, you still see him on magazine covers today, 20 years later. Few athletes can manage that notoriety in there sport. I used to look at photos of Terminator’s equipment, what he wore during a race, what his training methods and his spits were. He was inhuman. No matter how fast Mark Allen, Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Mike Pigg or anyone could go; Terminator would beat them sooner or later. That’s why they called him that.

Following our turn on this course we pass through a little village and then we are back in the jungle. A rubber plantation to be exact. We cross a pretty little stone bridge, make a series of tight turns through a small village and then back into the jungle once again, tall rubber trees lining either side of the road.

Terminator is a bit more talkative than Uberbiker. We chat about races, what people we’ve known, what they are doing and what the weather will be like on race day. Terminator lives in New Zealand, he is originally from the U.S. I ask him about the course at Ironman New Zealand. This starts an entire new conversation.

In the cover of the rubber trees we are shielded from the wind and climbing a gentle grade. This gives us the opportunity to ride side by side and continue our conversation.

We can ride where we please today. We are both here for a race but the race is three days away. Today is training. Despite this the race organization has taken it upon themselves to arrange a full police escort for our training ride. We have several spotless BMW motorcycles with us, piloted by gendarmes in crisp uniforms and white gloves. Our lead vehicle is a police car with lights rotating. Somewhere behind us is a police follow vehicle and an ambulance. All this for a training ride. As we transit the rubber plantation on smooth roads our police escort stays well in front of us and the motorcycles have gone ahead to block intersections for us.

This is a look inside the big time for me. I’ve done a lot of races over the years and even been behind the lead vehicle when it counted a few times. But I have never been behind a police escort while tooling casually through a rubber plantation in an exotic land chatting with one of the legends of the sport. But I am today, and this is another reason I do this sport and love it.

We eventually get back to the resort, which is our base, and I casually say goodbye to Terminator as he turns off to his hotel. It is odd I think, I say goodbye to him as if I was on a casual training ride, as though I will be on the same ride again tomorrow. There is little indication that I am a great fan for two decades who has just fulfilled a dream by riding with a legend. It just looks like the end of a casual training ride. Well, as casual as it can get with a full police motorcade and two of the biggest stars in triathlon.

If you are a football, NBA or NHL fan you can devote yourself to the sport, but you will never stand on the field with the players during final practice. If you are a fan of the Tour de France you can buy a trip to the race and stand by the side of the road while the riders pass, but you won’t ride with them. If you love the Olympics you can try all your adult life to get in the event in some obscure sport but, unless you started as a child and have a particular genetic and athletic gift it may be impossible for you to ever march at the opening ceremonies. You won’t be a part of the big show in most sports. You will always be a spectator. And I am a lousy spectator.

In the sport of triathlon the only things required to be a part of the big show is a lot of hard work, a lot more dedication and an on-line entry form. That is what got me here today, on the stage of the big show.

 

 
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