Growing up, I imagine my dad did his fair share of worrying about me getting into trouble with chemicals and girls. Like with most problems in life, the solution lay in Cycling; training encouraged healthy behavior and once my dad convinced me to shave my legs, no one needed to worry about the girls anymore.
Cycling caused its fair share of problems of its own, but nothing that couldn’t be solved by more Cycling. I stopped spending as much time on my studies as I might have, and all my creative energies and capacity for remembering things were spent on Cycling. Who won the Tour stage on Bastille Day in 1989? Vincent Barteau. Who were the Founding Fathers? Washington, Franklin, Jefferson…Can I use a life line?
We’re big fellas, my dad and I, and that poses certain challenges in Cycling. A love for suffering and for a sense of accomplishment meant our hearts drifted towards the mountains, but our physiology pulled toward the rollers and flat terrain. We were never going to be the fastest, or the skinniest, or the best sprinters. But we could twist the throttle, watch the the needle rev up to just shy of the red line, and hold it there for hours. We could use our momentum to carry speed over the short, steep hills we found dotted along our routes. At one point in my youth, I remember looking at the little ring on my bike and wondering, in all earnestness, what it was there for.
The first time we went to France, I discovered quite handily why that little ring was there. We were not grimpeurs; we were rouleurs, and rouleurs use the little ring when the road points up for a long time. A rouleur, in Cycling, is a rider who goes well on the flat and rolling terrain. They are characterized less by their size, but by their style on the machine; a magnificent stroke tuned to sustained power, not high revolutions or bursts of acceleration. Rouleurs are good time trialists, they do well on short climbs, but are usually found in the laughing group when the profile starts to look like the cardiogram of a teenage boy who just saw his first pair of boobs. Some of them can climb well for their weight, but a rouleur is rarely at the front when the big mountains come along.
Translated from French, rouleur means having wheels, or to roll. But Hinault would use the word roule in conversation in the context of standing, or pushing, on the pedals. I quite like the sound of that. They have a wide power band, but can only win a sprint from a group of one or a small group of other rouleurs – although technically those tend to be more akin to “drag racing” than “sprinting”. They are characterized by being able to gobble up an enormous amount suffering, and are usually just dim enough to wear a wide smile on their face when its happening. And giggle maniacally when describing the suffering afterward.
Winning isn’t everything to the rouleur, which is why they’re often found among the ranks of the domestique. The rouleur needs to study the map, looking for the right terrain with the right kind of lumps if they’re going to have a chance of being at the front in a road race. They are possibly the most exciting to watch race; races of attrition suit them, as does bad weather – and when they’re in the break, they’re usually dumb enough to take their strength for granted and over-estimate themselves. Betting on the rouleur is a gamble, but their style of racing often means that even when they lose, it was a great show.
Merckx bless the rouleur.