As we speak, the titans of Cycling (Spring 2009 edition) are engaging in the last few days of preparation for the first grand tour of the year, the Giro d'Italia. They are spinning lightly, or maybe testing themselves on a climb, or measuring a plate of pasta, or talking to a coach about their time trial position. Whatever it is that gets you in your best frame of mind and body... and makes the time pass. [And tomorrow, we will look into these guys in detail, and handicap their chances.]
My question is, would you like to be in their shoes right now? [Am not asking if you literally want to be Ivan Basso, btw.] The top guys are paid well to ride a bike, which is on the plus side. They are well-looked after, ride the finest human-powered machines ever invented, and have an army of assistants both on and off the bike to propel them higher. They are also looking at three weeks of grueling effort, dangerous conditions (gee, not at the Giro, right?), a few long transfers, and did I mention the effort? The exhaustion? The long, dark tunnels of suffering on stages like the Cinque Terre ITT or the Block Haus climb?
Then there's the pressure to win. The heads of state look around and see sponsors with anxious expressions, teammates who have sacrificed so much just for the privilege of helping you, fortunes large and small all hanging in the balance. There are no shortage of variables in the competition either: a mix of stars who may or may not be on form, to say nothing of the B-list guys who may or may not be clean, who just might tank up on the latest supposedly undetectable substance and rip everyone's legs off. Maybe they won't win the spiraly trophy and lifesized stuffed Girbecco doll, but they will make those stages you had dreamt of seizing for yourself a living nightmare. Even if these guys are all clean, you can count on someone from the middle of the pack going crazy on the biggest climbs.
So much work to do. So much pressure. So little control over an event as large as a three-week tour of a large western European nation with 200 of your best friends. Would you want to be in this position?
For me, the answer leans no. If I could have spent a chunk of my twenties as a domestique on a top team, touring the world and riding a bike, even for modest pay and in the face of extreme suffering, I'd have done so in a heartbeat. If I were a star and could enter the Giro knowing that I would grow wings as soon as the road turned upward, then sure... but that's almost nonexistent. Even Merckx fretted over the next stage. That's the pressure, and that's the part I personally wouldn't enjoy. I'd be standing at the start in Venice right now, staring at my watch, begging for the hours between now and Saturday to disappear.