A few days ago I had the great pleasure to meet one of my idols, the one and only Alberto Contador. I say meet, I queued up for a few minutes to have my photo taken with him, receive my complimentary signed hat and share whatever conversation I could shoe horn into this brief encounter. Like most bike racing fans, I’m gutted to see him retire as he lit up the races like no other. In this world of controlled wattage and power meters he was one last gladiator. A man willing to act and race on instinct alone, to throw it all on the line, for death or glory and we loved him for that. Waiting my turn I knew our interaction would be brief so I had my lines prepared in advance.
“One more year” I asked him,
“You’ve seen the route for next year’s Tour de France, stage 17 was built for you!”
That did make him smile, but I wasn’t going to get much more, he had after all be standing there for close to an hour. Still a smile will do for me and we parted, another idol met, and for once my dignity intact, which is not what usually happens.
For some reason I just find it impossible to talk to famous people, unless I am incredibly drunk, I freeze especially if they are pro cyclists and I am in such awe of them. There are many riders I have admired over the years but four who stand above all others, four who let’s say sit in my Pantheon of idols, (sounds a bit weird, but let’s run with it).
They are Contador, Wiggins, Boardman and Lemond.
Many years ago I was talking to a mate on a stand at a bike show and up walked Bradley Wiggins. He was already famous, but not at the levels he is today, and I was a massive fan. I knew he was riding the same event as me the next weekend at the Bec CC hill climb (him for fun, me VERY seriously) and I saw this as my way in to start a conversation. With nerves jangling I made my opening, but all that came out was stuttering and nonsense, it was an epic fail, he just stared at me perplexed and politely moved on. I mentally dusted myself down, remarked to my mate on how well that had gone well and vowed to never try and talk to a pro cyclist again.
A couple of years later though I found myself at the party for the relaunch of Cycling Weekly. A modest affair, with a few canapés and glasses of fizz, I just expected employees, journalists, maybe a couple of ex riders, but no big names. Then, across the room I spotted a woman I recognised, it was Chris Boardman’s wife Sally, she wouldn’t be here alone, that means Chris must be here. Chris Boardman was already a legend when I started racing, the multiple British champion who then took on the world to win gold at the Barcelona Olympics and take the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. I started to work the room, I spotted him but I had to wait until he was talking to someone I knew so I had a way in. When I saw him with the then deputy editor I made my move. Cool as cucumber I approached, I’d act as if he’s just another guy…
“Hi Chris… I’M YOUR BIGGEST FAN, I REMEMBER RACING YOU in ’91 National hill climb…and… I just blurted it all out. I made a complete ass of myself, but to his credit he didn’t just walk away and once I’d got the initial outburst off my chest we did have a pretty good talk about the hour record and I sort of redeemed myself.
The forth member on my pantheon of idols and the greatest of them all, the very reason I caught the cycling bug in the first place is Greg Lemond. The first time I saw him in the flesh was during the 1992 tour de France. A group of us were standing on the Southern flank of the Col du Galiber waiting for the peloton to appear. He was past his prime, had been dethroned the year before by young EPO fueled riders, but this year had won the Tour du Pont and was looking strong again. Alas, it was not to be, and on this first big mountain stage he was shelled early on. With the leaders long since passed, we trained out eyes down the mountain and spied a rider on the road below, it was unmistakably Lemond. It was sad to see my hero in such trouble but he got the biggest cheer when he came past and I was happy I’d seen him riding in the flesh. Our paths crossed again at the Tour in 1994 but I never expected to actually meet him, not for one minute.
Roll on 2013 and the Tour grand depart in Yorkshire. Here I was standing on a climb on the outskirts of Sheffield and I hear rumor that Lemond, the man himself was at the top of the hill, actually at the top of the hill. I just ran, dropped everything and ran. I had no time to think of what to say, I just had to meet him. I had to tell him I would not be there if it wasn’t for him and thank him. And there he was, already cornered by another fan having his photo taken, so I went up next. He was friendly, obliged to have the photo taken, we had a quick chat, I told him I’d written a book about the climbs of the Tour de France and I left with a glow that lasted for days.
I can now say I have talked to all four legends in my ‘pantheon of idols’, some more successfully than others but I’ve met them and they are encounters I will never forget, for different reasons.