Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Cruelty of Expectations

Covering the financial industry as a journalist taught me how expectations can change a story. Company A says profit doubled: that's good news by itself but the forecast was for a fivefold gain, so the results are disappointing. Company B says sales fell 20 percent, signaling problems. Because revenue was predicted to drop 59 percent, its investors might still be pleased. The same goes in sports, and last week at the Tour de France, French cyclist Thomas Voeckler fell victim to rollercoaster expectations: his own and those of an entire nation.

Voeckler unexpectedly took the lead of the Tour on July 10, with 12 stages remaining. The 32-year-old rider, who finished 76 out of 170 in 2010, wasn't among the favorites: a French TV commentator described him as ``not the most talented rider of the peloton, but a fighter who never gives up.'' The French public, starved of victory since Bernard Hinault won the Tour in 1985, embraced Voeckler as a national hero.
The race leader's yellow jersey, or ``maillot jaune,'' for Voeckler wasn't a total surprise for those who follow the Tour -- which is about all French older than one year. The hard-working rider became the public's darling in 2004 by staying 10 days in yellow, before Lance Armstrong crushed a nation's dream and won his first of seven Tours.
Meanwhile France was still waiting for its next Bernard Hinault, a fixture of the Tour who gives away the winning jerseys at the end of every stage during the podium ceremony: yellow for the overall leader, green for the best sprinter, white for the best rider under 25 years old and, my favorite, polka-dot for the ``king of the mountain.'' Once in a while a young rider is heralded as the new Hinault and his career is promptly torpedoed, crushed by pressure and unrealistic expectations. (The same goes in tennis: the last French winner of Roland Garros, the French Open, was Yannick Noah in 1985.)

 (Voecler in yellow surrounded by his team mates in the Pyrenées. Photo by Mathias-S.)

Voeckler was realistic about his chances to stay in yellow on July 10, candidly setting the expectations low. He said in interviews after the stage that he would fight as hard as he could to keep the lead but didn't expect to survive the Pyrenées mountains.

Voeckler is a ``puncher-barouder,'' the type of riders who break away abruptly from the peloton and ride alone or in small groups for hours to try to win a stage. They fight against a peloton of about 180 riders organized in teams who take turns drafting each other to catch up. But to win the 3,430-kilometer (2,130 miles), three-week Tour across France, you need more than kamikaze breakaways: you need to be good at climbing mountains and at time trials too -- not Voeckler's forte. You also need strong teammates who can protect you, bring you bottles of water and help you up the climbs; Voeckler's team was considered weak.

Everyday Voeckler stayed in yellow that week was as sweet as it was unforeseeable. In France, we say that the ``maillot jaune'' can give you wings, and that's what happened to Voeckler in the Pyrenées. There he was, ``our'' Voeckler, keeping up with the leaders in the mountains with panache. In his characteristic style, bouncing around out of the saddle, he looked comfortable amid Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador, the three Tour favorites. He fought like a lion and couldn't believe he was able to follow the ``cadors.'' French commentators started saying that Voeckler may have underestimated himself and should revise up his ambitions. After the Pyrenées, France started to dream in yellow: can Voeckler win the Tour?

``Everybody's talking about it,'' Voeckler said in an interview with a French newspaper on July 19, the day before the two most difficult stages in the Alps. ``It's premature. But I start wondering whether I'm right to give myself zero chance to win, or whether you do well to think I may win. Since my last yellow jersey in 2004, I know how it works and I know the French like to think that a French can win."
The seeds of high expectation were planted, even though Voeckler, in the same interview, repeated that he wasn't going to win.

(See video of Voeckler keeping up with the cadors in the Pyrenées here.)

Like a French movie, the story doesn't end well. In the first Alpine stage, Voeckler took risks on a descent and veered off onto the concrete courtyard of a house, losing time. Two days later, after starting the stage with a lead of 15 seconds, Voeckler made what a teammate called a ``small error'' by trying to follow two favorites in the lower portion of the Galibier pass. He should have waited for the third one, Cadel Evans -- the eventual Tour winner. It's the kind of mistake Voeckler wouldn't have made without the yellow jersey on his shoulders.
``We knew Thomas had very little chance to win. He lost more time than we had estimated,'' because of the tactical error, Anthony Charteau, the teammate, wrote in Le Figaro. ``There was so much pressure on him.''
Voeckler lost the lead later that day at the Alpe d'Huez, a legendary climb on the Tour. He was fuming when he crossed the finish, accusing a TV motorcycle of staying too close in front of Contador and allowing him to draft during the ascent of the Galibier. Voeckler's anger was a sign he had begun to believe he could win, in spite of himself. We made him believe it, and now he was crushed. After the following day's stage, the man who was France's hero for 10 days was seen riding his bike alone to his team's hotel. He finished fourth overall.

(View from the Col du Galibier.)

France has already turned its sights to its next big hope: Pierre Rolland, a 24-year-old team mate of Voeckler. Rolland helped his team leader for 10 days, then won the Alpe d'Huez stage after receiving Voeckler's permission to leave his side. He was the first French winner of the coveted stage since...Bernard Hinault. Can Rolland, who won the white jersey for the best young rider this year, be a future Tour winner? That will be France's question, and the cycle of hope -- and the hope of its cycling -- will continue.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bloody Face

My chin was dripping blood when I crossed the finished line of the ``Double Trouble" 30K trail race on Sunday, greeted by runners from my club and a new friend met on the race. The moment encapsulated the spirit of trail running: a shared experience with friends and strangers alike of nature-loving, exhilaration, sweat, scrapes and in my case: a bloody face.

(Comparing battle scars. Photo: Helen Horn.)

My longest trail race so far, at 18.6 miles, started fast in the beautiful French Creek State Park. My friend Bill, who just two weeks earlier had run a marathon, told me that the trail was narrow at the start and that I needed to get out of gate fast to avoid getting stranded. On my feet were my first pair of trail-running shoes, which let me navigate through rocks and tree roots in a much smoother way than I used to with my less sturdy, regular running shoes. On my left wrist was a Garmin watch bought the day before. I had hesitated for about two years before investing in a watch that, through satellite connection, tells you how long you've run and how fast, among other things. I had a girly moment at the store: I picked the gray version with a pink lining rather than the plain black.

The advertised trouble started when I found myself behind the only female ahead of me -- she was wearing a pink top that was easy to spot amid the male runners. I was almost sure I'd seen her at the 15K race start --Ron Horn, the race organizer known for his sense of humor, had split us in two starts a few yards away from each other to separate the men from the boys.
My brain was tricking me into thinking that maybe she was doing 30K after all. Regardless, it was no excuse for not trying to catch up if I could. After the biggest hill of the loop, I lost sight of the runners ahead, including the pink-top runner. That's when I started to take my tumbles.

After a few near-misses and ankle twists, I took my first spill, landing on my left arm. A few minutes after getting back on my feet, I was down again, on the same side, now covered with dirt and bloody scrapes.
``Are you OK?" asked the runner behind me. Yes, I was. My one-day, girly pink watch, however, wasn't: the glass was shattered, along with my spirits. It was the equivalent of crashing a new Ferrari on the garage door on the first day out.

(`Honey, I crashed the Ferrari in the garage door. How was I supposed to know it was closed?')

Pink Top reappeared in the distance. She was slowing down and I caught up fairly easily. ``Come on!'' I said when I passed her. I don't know why I would say such an arrogant thing: Had I hit my head during the two falls? Was I upset about my watch? The kind explanation is that I meant to say ``Come with me" to kick her competitive spirit. She could easily beat me in a sprint and she shouldn't have allowed me to pass her -- and eventually she did win the 15K in what I fancy was a faster time than if I hadn't been around poking her. The unkind explanation is that I am ridiculously, needlessly and pathologically competitive and wanted to prove myself that I could race with her. The very unkind explanation is that I was being arrogant.

The start of the second loop was much more peaceful. I was alone among the trees, relaxed. Except I seemed to have lost gravity: my upper body felt strong, while my feet were left behind. Was it the shoes? They felt great but no matter how much I concentrated, the left foot especially kept dragging and twisting. I was caught by a runner who'd been ahead of me during my second tumble and we ran together, chatting. I thought he was brave to stay behind me given my inclination to go down but he said he liked being paced by me.

The third fall was the worse by far. My chin hit the ground so hard it resonated through my head. I could feel a rib or two were bruised, hopefully not more, under my trapped arm. I got up and asked Aaron, my new running friend, whether I still had all my teeth. He said yes, but my chin was badly scraped. I felt good enough to carry on. We had about three or four miles left, according to my watch; it was hard to tell through the shattered glass. When we reached the final water stop, I was all dirt and blood. Aaron told the volunteers we'd been running together so at least I wasn't alone.
``We just met and already he punched me in the face!'' I said. We had just a mile or two left and Aaron took off for a strong finish while I tried to stay on my feet; my balance was getting worse. I didn't want to get caught at the very end the way I'd been at the Pocono Marathon two months earlier, when a runner passed me in the final 100 yards to take third place. This time I looked back a couple of times to make sure no one was behind, and won the female race in 2h42.

(You should see the bear's face.)

My friends from the club surrounded me after the finish, offering support, water and congratulations: Janet and Mike, who had participated in the 15K only three weeks after running an amazing 100K race, and Kelly and Katie. We waited for Bill, who finished the two loops after twisting his ankle around the first mile, a ``silent'' injury that was less showy but probably more painful than my shredded chin.
Upon giving me the award for first female, Ron Horn said: ``She was a mess when she arrived, but now she's cleaned up.'' It took a hose to recover my natural skin color.

Once home, I watched a rerun of the Tour de France's stage 9 on my French cable channel: Sunday July 10 was crash carnage, with four riders sent to the hospital. A rider was hit by a television car in a crash that sent a second rider into a barbed wire fence. They continued the race with what appeared to be a dislocated elbow for the first one and injuries that required 33 stitches for the other. Professional riders go through hell on grueling races such as the Tour: They crash at high speed and continue riding for hours with injuries that none of us could bear for two seconds on a bike. They know pain.

I'm only an amateur runner with scraped chin who will avoid mirrors for a few weeks.

 (Post-hose cleanup: Showing off my award and my new Franken-face. Photo: Helen Horn)

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