Yesterday, I failed. The Los Angeles Gran Fondo for amateur cyclists rolled by, just a short walk from my home, and I missed it. Setting the alarm for 7am instead of 6:45 on Sunday morning may be understandable, but that miscalculation caused me to miss the whole thing. It got me thinking about how much failure there is the sport of professional cycling. Failure is everywhere. It’s every day. Perhaps we actually follow cycling not for the wins, but for the beautiful failures.
That was the case for Andy Schleck, who lost the Tour de France last year by 39 seconds to Alberto Contador. The gap occurred when Schleck’s chain jumped at a key mountain stage, and Contador was criticized for racing ahead at that moment. While the incident secured Contador’s eventual victory, the second-place Schleck was the compelling figure. We jumped out of our seats in shared frustration, unclear whether our anger was at a slip of the foot by Schleck, an unscrupulous move by Contador, or just bad luck. Schleck was more focused than we were, as he vowed to take his revenge in the mountains. Another rider taking his loss and moving forward to the next day, the next stage, the next race. It was not enough for Schleck in 2010, but there will be a great rematch in July, all the more thrilling because of last year’s heartbreaking loss.
Watching cycling’s superstars is also more interesting when it follows disappointment. One example is sprinter Mark Cavendish, a brash personality flashing colorful winner’s gestures across the finish line. In 2008 and 2009, it seemed he could not lose, but he had a mediocre season going into the 2010 Tour de France. Early in the race, four flat stages were taken by others—two by Alessandro Petacchi—and the questions were mounting. Was it all over for Cavendish? Had his team lost its touch? Was Petacchi replacing Cavendish as the fastest man in the world? Each stage was another missed opportunity, another failure. Finally, at Stage 5, Cavendish pulled out the win. On the podium, tears streamed down his face. Tears of relief. We watched the Manx Missile and remembered he was human. Thanks to those misses, we remembered he was just a 25-year-old kid who was outracing the best cyclists in the world.
The breakaway is cycling’s ultimate story of failure. One or a few riders launch off the front of the peloton and ride alone, often for the whole day. They give up the benefits of the group—protection from the wind, comraderie and motivation, a teammate to hand them a bottle of water. They take an unlikely chance that by suffering extra and alone, they will win the day. They rarely do. The peloton usually lets them suffer off the front before reeling them back in, often in the final kilometers, snatching the stage win right out from under them. All the effort by the breakaway is then for naught. The rider has lost the stage and expended extra energy, a disadvantage for the next day.
Jens Voigt says that he goes in the breakaway even though he knows there is a 99% chance it won’t work. He goes because he is driven by the remaining 1%. He will ride in the break, digging deep and suffering all the more, for that slim possibility of victory. If you don’t ride in the break, you have no chance to win, he says.
We watch the lone cyclist riding for hours in the saddle, expecting him to fail. We admire the nobility of the effort. It is the story of the underdog, the little engine that could, the ants moving the rubber tree plant, David versus Goliath. On the rare day when the breakaway actually succeeds, the win is even sweeter because of the trail of failed attempts.
Cycling has so much failure, and that makes the wins shine brighter, the effort speak louder, the resilience inspire us more. It's beautiful.