The Eternal Seconds: Heroes or Villians?

The Eternal Seconds: Heroes or Villians?

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Joop Zoetemelk was a hard man, a tough nut to crack. He specialized in getting second place, a talent he developed under the doctrine of Eddy Merckx and mastered via the harsh tutelage of Bernard Hinault. It’s very seductive to lean back in our armchairs and draw the conclusion that our sport’s Eternal Seconds, as they’re called, are the weaker men than their rivals. The sport is filled with this familiar story; a rider comes up and is hailed as perhaps the next great rider, only to have synchronized their career with a more dominant rider.

Poulidor, who started with Anquetil and finished with Merckx. Zoetemelk, who started with Merckx and finished with Hinault. Then EPO entered the peloton and the balances were set off for a bit as riders who shouldn’t have been at the top were popping in for table scraps before Ullrich took the helm by getting on the podium in the Tour more often than any champion before him had won the Tour. Like Chimera and Bellerophon, every great hero needs a villain and it seems these riders are always there to stand up and fight year after year, against all odds.

In keeping with the Chimera and Bellerophon metaphor, I’m not so sure it is the victor who is the hero and the loser the villain. In my ski racing days, I was at the top of my game – I even had one season where I was undefeated throughout. That season was, without hesitation, my least rewarding season; winning became a question of margin – I even won one time trial where I started last and caught up to each of my teammates in serial and paced them to the next teammate such that we all finished in a big line of eight skiers.

The most rewarding season was the year where I struggled to fight back after losing motivation (due to the previous season’s excess) and still managed to win the key events. But the real fun wasn’t so much in the winning or losing, but in the bond it built between me and my principal rival; we both fought to the point of blacking out and neither of us ever – even for a minute – relented.

Extrapolating from that small-world experience to what it takes to become a Pro Cyclist capable of wining the Tour de France, it gives some insight into the mentality of the athletes who play out these battles that figure so prominently in our interpretation of our sport. To that end, I wonder if the champions don’t have the psychologically easier side of the coin. After all, they suffer almost the same amount, endure almost the same pressures and endure almost the same amount of discipline and sacrifice in pursuit of their goals. But one has the reward of victory and one the indignity of loss.

To come back year after year as victor seems almost like a picnic in comparison to the brutality of coming back year after year only to lose once again – then to resolve to return undeterred. In this sense, the loser who refused to quit endurs the suffering and sacrifice without the glory that comes with winning. Without them and their unrelenting optimism, the story would be less bright, less colorful. Which is the hero in our story?

// Folklore // Nostalgia

  1. I found myself at work today thinking about the “eternal seconds”.  I was trying to think of the modern version  I’ve seen Cadel mentioned, Andy (although maybe Frank Schleck should be too) mentioned, I kept coming back to this question: would you guys consider J-Rod the 2012 version, perhaps not eternal, but the recent version given the Giro and Vuelta? I loved how he rode in the Vuelta until Bertie cracked him.  Seeing him attack climbs and defending jerseys just to see him fail near the end, had me feeling for him and respecting him this year. 

  2. @frank

    Conti was a fighter more than Schleck and had they been tied he’d have found a way to win nevertheless.

    The Vuelta proved that point pretty well

  3. @frank

    Yes Cuddles’ change in racing style was the thing that changed him – and to me, the precise point in time when it did change was at the bottom of the hill in Mendrisio when he attacked – Kolobnev didnt want to help the two Spaniards (Valverde and J-Rod) and the Spaniards were too scared of Fabian to chase Cadel. And poof, like Kaiser Soze, Cuddles was gone.

    What I find interesting about Evans is that he reckons he never changed his riding style, he seems to maintain that he would attack whenever he could – its just that in many races he has not had the ability to attack because he was at his limit. Maybe his more attacking nature is due not only to increased confidence but also due to maybe cleaner racing? Or that he started juicing himself. Or neither…

    Just finished Tyler Hamilton’s book – which is a must read for anyone interested in cycling. Such a shame for a guy like that to get so caught up in his denials that he ended up blowing up his life – when if he had just taken his medicine (a clumsy pun I know), like Millar, maybe he could have avoided years of angst and saved a lot of dough.

  4. I wonder if our liking of the eternal second placer stems in part from the excitement of wathing someone finally breaking the drought? Witness Marianne Voss’ recent win in the World’s road race – after FIVE consecutive silver medals. FIVE.

    As a view from th eother side of the fence, I read an interview some time ago with Sir Stirling Moss, who for a long time was (and probably still is) acknowledged as the best driver to never win a world championship. Asked the question yet again, he replied “Would I trade it all for one World Championship? No, I don’t think I would. I am far better known for never having won than a dozen others are for having one once.”

  5.  

    @Nate

    @frank

    I say we re-write history. Or re-right it, as it were.

    You’re perpetuating a highly entertaining Dutch tradition, viz Anquetil’s bidon.  Carry on.

    Ha! Spot on, mate – that’s what I was reminded of, too. “Those photographs of Anquetil climbing with a bidon on his frame are clearly inaccurate…”

  6. @Nate

    @frank

    @ErikdR

    Mart Smeets: “So, we had Joop as the winner, for the first time. “The eternal second…”, one could say…”

    Bernhard Hinault: “Don’t say that; you shouldn’t say that: People should realize that in the same year that Joop had his accident – it was in the Midi Libre – he had been winning just about every race he entered – ahead of Merckx; ahead of everybody. He was flying!

    After that crash, he had lost, in my opinion, 25% of his potential. For me, Joop is a great champion. How can he not be? Like no-one else, he has done battle with Merckx, with me, Bernhard Hinault, and with so many others…”

    Unquote. Couldn’t agree more with the words of the Badger: “Pour moi, Joop, c’est un grand champion…”.

    Brilliant stuff, mate. Brilliant. Isn’t ’74 the year Hinault ditched off the road in the Midi-Libre? That emphasizes the point in my opinion. Even if I’m wrong, which I’ve gotten so used to that it doesn’t even impact my opinions anymore!

    You are confused but don’t let that stop you.  Hinault is talking about Zoetmelk’s crash.  You are confusing Hinault’s crash in the 1977 Dauphiné maybe with Roger Rivière’s crash recounted in The Rider?

     
    Doesn’t Krabbé also mention Hinault’s crash – i.e. the one where Hinault flies off the road, drops 4-5 meters down some very steep slope with trees and then clambers back up? (It’s been ages since I read ‘De Renner’, but I seem to remember something about Krabbé referring to Hinault as a rider who “fell down like a mere mortal, and crawled back up as a “vedette” – i.e. in some kind of a-star-is-born manner. I can’t find my copy of the book anywhere, though. Rhhaaarghh. Time for a visit to Amazon, mayhaps

  7. Great article, with a very interesting perspective – yet another example of why I love this site.  If Velominati had a print publication, I’d be a lifelong subscriber.

    I certainly wouldn’t call him an eternal second since he only finished 2nd in it once, but every year when Paris-Roubaix rolls around it seems like just about everybody (fans, journalists, pundits, other riders – both in the US and abroad) is rooting for Hincapie, even if realistically he hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in L’enfer du Nord of winning it.  I haven’t seen that kind of support for any other rider in recent past.  I also won’t go so far as to say from a fabled story perspective one could claim Hincapie as Bellerophon and the race itself the Chimera, especially since the race seems to chew him up and spit him out each year, but to me there is certainly something heroic about coming back season after season and trying to tame the beast, even when you and everyone else knows your sword is starting to dull.

  8. @VeloVita

    Great article, with a very interesting perspective – yet another example of why I love this site.  If Velominati had a print publication, I’d be a lifelong subscriber.

    Have you looked at Rouleur ? It’s probably the closest thing in print, but without the one-eyed Dutchman, nipple lube, Assos girl and sheep-shagging jokes.

    BTW they have a good article on Ambrosio in the currentish edition, apropos of the previous article here about wheels.

  9. @frank/marcus

    i agree, Schleck the lesser did nail one of the longest solo breakaways in my recent memory and it was a valiant ride, which made for a great Tour that year, good point

    I think apart from Cuddles racing style, the part I saw as significant to his win was actually a team that was focused on a common goal, whereas before he had always had a team who was moreless focused on spring classics or stage wins, and not REALLY acquainted with a GCr hope

    And good point on bringing up Hincapie,  I think he really fits in on the eternal second in a lot of ways, he is the consumate super domestique, destined to second or less, as his job is much different, but on the days he was able to really race, how many times did he win?   Not many, I have rooted for him endlessly in Paris-Roubaix only to swallow the bitter pill of deciet and admit that he wasn’t really ever going to pull it out, but he was a fierce competitor and added such flavor to the race

  10. @ErikdR

    @Nate

    @frank

    @ErikdR

    Mart Smeets: “So, we had Joop as the winner, for the first time. “The eternal second…”, one could say…”

    Bernhard Hinault: “Don’t say that; you shouldn’t say that: People should realize that in the same year that Joop had his accident – it was in the Midi Libre – he had been winning just about every race he entered – ahead of Merckx; ahead of everybody. He was flying!

    After that crash, he had lost, in my opinion, 25% of his potential. For me, Joop is a great champion. How can he not be? Like no-one else, he has done battle with Merckx, with me, Bernhard Hinault, and with so many others…”

    Unquote. Couldn’t agree more with the words of the Badger: “Pour moi, Joop, c’est un grand champion…”.

    Brilliant stuff, mate. Brilliant. Isn’t ’74 the year Hinault ditched off the road in the Midi-Libre? That emphasizes the point in my opinion. Even if I’m wrong, which I’ve gotten so used to that it doesn’t even impact my opinions anymore!

    You are confused but don’t let that stop you.  Hinault is talking about Zoetmelk’s crash.  You are confusing Hinault’s crash in the 1977 Dauphiné maybe with Roger Rivière’s crash recounted in The Rider?

    Doesn’t Krabbé also mention Hinault’s crash – i.e. the one where Hinault flies off the road, drops 4-5 meters down some very steep slope with trees and then clambers back up? (It’s been ages since I read ‘De Renner’, but I seem to remember something about Krabbé referring to Hinault as a rider who “fell down like a mere mortal, and crawled back up as a “vedette” – i.e. in some kind of a-star-is-born manner. I can’t find my copy of the book anywhere, though. Rhhaaarghh. Time for a visit to Amazon, mayhaps

    Yes, that’s right.  He mentions Riviere because Riviere fell on one of the descents in the Tour de Mont Aigoual, then starts talking about Hinault falling, Wim van Est, etc.

    @ChrisO

    @VeloVita

    Great article, with a very interesting perspective – yet another example of why I love this site.  If Velominati had a print publication, I’d be a lifelong subscriber.

    Have you looked at Rouleur ? It’s probably the closest thing in print, but without the one-eyed Dutchman, nipple lube, Assos girl and sheep-shagging jokes.

    BTW they have a good article on Ambrosio in the currentish edition, apropos of the previous article here about wheels.

    @ChrisO

    BTW they have a good article on Ambrosio in the currentish edition, apropos of the previous article here about wheels.

    Which number be that?

  11. @Marcus

    Yes Cuddles’ change in racing style was the thing that changed him – and to me, the precise point in time when it did change was at the bottom of the hill in Mendrisio when he attacked – Kolobnev didnt want to help the two Spaniards (Valverde and J-Rod) and the Spaniards were too scared of Fabian to chase Cadel. And poof, like Kaiser Soze, Cuddles was gone.

    I remember the moment well; he looked back and was almost surprised to see the gap and he just kept going. The moment that changed his style for ever (hopefully).

  12. Its like the Schleck-haters saying he was a soft cock for losing the Tour to Cadel. I’d say he was an awesome competitor that year with his big attack to the Galibier and his fighting spirit is what made Cadel’s win all the better. Same goes for his loss in 2010 against Conti – remember that had it not been for the dropped chain he’d have tied – and he attacked relentlessly up the Tourmalet on the last day and was beating Conti in the ITT until the wind picked up and his shit-ass TT position turned into a reverse sail.

    I’m convinced, though, that in 2010 he’d have lost even without the chain – Conti was a fighter more than Schleck and had they been tied he’d have found a way to win nevertheless.

    Frank:  your Dirty Schleck Love is showing.  I will grant that that one day Andy actually rode like a tough cyclist but it is sooo overshadowed by all the whinging he and his brother did about the decents that year. 

    Switch subject:  You read Hamilton’s new book?  I have not yet.  Any review coming?   

    Lastly, another fitting classic mythology dueling duo that would have fit would have been Darmok and Jalad.

  13. @Nate

     

    Yes, that’s right.  He mentions Riviere because Riviere fell on one of the descents in the Tour de Mont Aigoual, then starts talking about Hinault falling, Wim van Est, etc.

     

    Great; thanks, Nate! (Note to self: buy new copy of ‘De Renner’)

    On a completely different note: the sun is way over the yard-arm here in autumny Denmark (almost 6.30 p.m.), and it’s getting dark – but life is good:


    Am planning to do some work tomorrow on the thirty year old steel Moser that my father gave me a few months ago (his own old bike), and if the weather on Sunday turns out as good as the forecast promises, take it for a spin. Will let you know how it went. Have a nice weekend, all.

  14. @frank

    @Ron

    ChrisO – Strong work there, pal. Very nice and that’s thoughtful analysis of it.

    ErikR – That’s incredible to read those words from Hinault. Respect for Zoop, respect for the Badger!

    Hey, does anyone have a good interview/article/video clip where a talented PRO is discussing the level of commitment, effort, energy and focus it takes, year after year, to do what they do? Yeah, this is touched upon in a lot of pieces, but I’d love to read/see something where a rider addresses just how much will power it takes to get to that level and stay there.

    Forget the video. Get a book, dude. Merckx, Half Man, Half Machine is a good place to start.

    Hamilton’s book on the Secret Race is another. Pharmy’s book Its Not About the Bike is another. Dopers, for sure, but the sacrifice and the work comes through nicely in both those books nevertheless.

    Half Man, Half Machine is a great place to start. Took me no time to finish, but it puts being so dominate into prespective. And you get why The Prophet’s cycling career was relatively short.

  15. @Marcus

    @frank

    Just finished Tyler Hamilton’s book – which is a must read for anyone interested in cycling. Such a shame for a guy like that to get so caught up in his denials that he ended up blowing up his life – when if he had just taken his medicine (a clumsy pun I know), like Millar, maybe he could have avoided years of angst and saved a lot of dough.

    Unfortunately, what made Tyler great – his ability to suffer under great pain, was his undoing. His massive depression would have been abaited by the physical suffering of great challenges, but his metal state could not deal with the small stuff and drove him back into the darkness. As is public, I can atest, the small stuff is what can be the toughest challenges. hehehe, although a few explosions around me ain’t gonna help either. Or my mother-in-law.

  16. @ChrisO

    Yes to Rouleur.  Its a wonderful publication, however, without a local stockist its a little cost prohibitive for me to subscribe in the US and some of the issues don’t appeal to me all that much so I’d love to be able to peruse it first. If you haven’t checked out the Rouleur podcast that they put out with the release of each new issue, they are worth downloading.

  17. @Nate

    It would be number 33… or if you’re Sean Kelly, tirty tree.

    Illustration by Jo Burt on the cover.

    @VeloVita I know what you mean. I love it but sometimes want to burn it when they think they are a fashion mag. For example there’s a nice article about the Polish Peace Race winner Stanislaw Krolak, let down by a total lack of captions on the photos. Some shots are of 70 year old Polish guys… it’s not him because he died three years ago so how am I supposed to work out who the f*ck they are and what relevance they have to the story ? And some fantastic historical shots but you have no idea if they show the riders the story is about, whether it is the same year, or even the same race. Bit too artsy for their own good sometimes. And some of the stuff is just too wordy – Herbie Sykes needs a good sub-editor.

  18. @ErikdR

    (Note to self: buy new copy of ‘De Renner’)

    The translation into English is a masterpiece; it truly is exceptionally well done – the best example of Dutch/English translation I’ve ever seen. That said, I’d love to read it in Dutch and get a look at his prose in its natural state – must be incredible!

  19. @Dan_R

    @frank

    @Ron

    ChrisO – Strong work there, pal. Very nice and that’s thoughtful analysis of it.

    ErikR – That’s incredible to read those words from Hinault. Respect for Zoop, respect for the Badger!

    Hey, does anyone have a good interview/article/video clip where a talented PRO is discussing the level of commitment, effort, energy and focus it takes, year after year, to do what they do? Yeah, this is touched upon in a lot of pieces, but I’d love to read/see something where a rider addresses just how much will power it takes to get to that level and stay there.

    Forget the video. Get a book, dude. Merckx, Half Man, Half Machine is a good place to start.

    Hamilton’s book on the Secret Race is another. Pharmy’s book Its Not About the Bike is another. Dopers, for sure, but the sacrifice and the work comes through nicely in both those books nevertheless.

    Half Man, Half Machine is a great place to start. Took me no time to finish, but it puts being so dominate into prespective. And you get why The Prophet’s cycling career was relatively short.

    Yeah, you can only live life with the throttle wide-open for so long before you burn out the engine!

  20. @ChrisO

    @Nate

    It would be number 33… or if you’re Sean Kelly, tirty tree.

    Nice one.

    And some of the stuff is just too wordy – Herbie Sykes needs a good sub-editor.

    A famous Dutch writer once said that writing is striking; so true – you write and then you start chopping out all the extra shit you don’t need – which can be a painful thing to do when you’re cutting bits of phrasing that you fell in love with but which don’t offer any value to the piece…

  21. Fast Freddy Maertens- this doesn’t really belong here but it’s worth looking at. This site is great but his link to a Belgian beer is beauty. Not Malteni but good. Check out Freddy and the B+B video. Beautiful work here.

    http://www.flandriacafe.com/2012/09/waar-is-freddy.html

  22. @ChrisO

    It would be number 33… or if you’re Sean Kelly, tirty tree.

    Well played.  I think of King Kelly whenever I think of a number in the 30s.

  23. @Gianni

    Fast Freddy Maertens- this doesn’t really belong here but it’s worth looking at. This site is great but his link to a Belgian beer is beauty. Not Malteni but good. Check out Freddy and the B+B video. Beautiful work here. http://www.flandriacafe.com/2012/09/waar-is-freddy.html

    I’m not sure the youngsters really appreciated the fact that they were being attended to by one of the disciples. Kinda sad to see Freddy reduced to this, but I guess he wasn’t too smart with his “investments” after he retired . . .

  24. @wiscot Bless Freddy, he was a champagne drinking playboy. No thought for his 401k. Still, I love him sitting in the cement mixer/ B+B, 2 feet behind that couple, blowing the horn. It amuses us simple folk.

  25. @frank

    @ErikdR

    (Note to self: buy new copy of ‘De Renner’)

    The translation into English is a masterpiece; it truly is exceptionally well done – the best example of Dutch/English translation I’ve ever seen. That said, I’d love to read it in Dutch and get a look at his prose in its natural state – must be incredible!

    Very slow to react to this, I’m aware – sorry (way too busy at work) – but thanks! I have this friend who I do a lot of work for (a Brit, married to a Danish VMH, who lives in Portugal – go figure…) – who is seriously considering getting back into road cycling – and I’ve been badgering him (see what I did there?) to get a copy of the EN version of “de Renner”. The guy in question works in the translating business –  like myself – and he’s a bit of a ‘purist’, so he’s usually leary of translated litterature. I’ll now inform him that I have it from a very reliable source that the English translation is spot on. Cheers. (I cannot believe that I can’t find my Dutch copy, though – I actually should have TWO floating about the house somewhere. Tell you what: if both should re-appear at some point, I’ll send you one of them…)

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