As fans we frequently commodify athletes -- attach labels to them to indicate their value. My favorite example, as a Red Sox fan, is the discussion of who is the team's "ace," or top starting pitcher. Recently, reporters who should've known better asked Josh Beckett, a notoriously prickly dude, about it, and he responded with palpable disdain. Didn't answer at all. And I can sympathize: not only the lack of sympathy for Boston sportswriters but the concept -- what does that label mean to him? Why would the identity of yesterday's pitcher matter when today it's his job to find 27 outs someplace?
We fans do this in cycling too -- and it's not "bad" or even always wrong. The results justify our "sprinter rankings" discussions or predictions of who will win Paris-Roubaix or climb up a grand tour podium. In the sport's rarified air, you can find guys commodifying themselves as "captains" and protected riders. Hell, last year we even enjoyed the distinct pleasure [cough] of watching Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador wrestle each other for the label while their DS vainly insisted that it didn't matter.
But commodifying has its limits back in reality. Even if Lance and Bert couldn't hear Bruyneel's message, "just race your bikes" is something that resonates for a large percentage of the peloton. Take the case of Garmin-Transition's Steven Cozza. The 25-year-old Californian defies easy commodification: he's not a cobbles behemoth or a mini-mountain goat. He rates his own abilities as climbing and time trialing but was famously seen on the front of Paris-Roubaix last year for a few hours. We spoke via email last weekend and he shifts easily from discussing winning the world's biggest one-day race to riding in support whenever his team asks him to. In short, he's a bike racer, he just wants to race his bike. Check it out:
PdC: Generalizations are bad, but among the European peloton are the classics guys known for any particular traits of personality?
SC: Yes, Classics guys tend to be very very mean. We are not like those wimpy French stage race guys out there. Us Classics guys have mustaches and chop firewood for training. For example, I ate rattlesnake for dinner last night. I'm gluten-free, so rattlesnake is one of my favorites.
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PdC: So you recently said that you dream every day of winning Paris-Roubaix but your website lists climbing and time trials as your strength. At this early age are you trying to figure out where you best fit in?
SC: You know I try never to count myself out. Why put limitations on ourselves? There are too many jerks already out there telling us negative things and my ears are closed to all of them. You just got to believe in yourself. Anything is possible.
PdC: It sounds like in your heart you're a classics guy. So how did you become a "classics guy"? How far back does this connection go?
SC: I like the Classics and see myself going far with these races, but I just love racing my bike and the harder the race is the better it is for me. This is why the Classics suit me so well.
PdC: Staying with Paris-Roubaix, last year was your first full-on running? Had you raced over those cobbles before turning pro?
SC: I've raced since I was 17 in Belgium. I have spent many years racing over those cobbles and absolutely love it.
PdC: So being in a long break [Cozza was part of a lead group at the 2009 Paris-Roubaix], was that like being a kid in a candy shop? What did you think about it?
SC: Yes, it was. I was very excited. It was a really hard break to make in a cross-wind section. It was like having a front row seat at the movie theaters, except I was in the movie. I love every minute of Paris-Roubaix because of the challenges it presents. There's never a dull moment, that's for sure.
PdC: In a race that long and difficult, did you have hopes of staying away? Or did you think, it's Paris-Roubaix, we will be chased down?
SC: Yes, of course. It's happened before and it could happen again. You just never know. I wasn't in the break just to be in the break. I was in the break that day to try and win that freakin' race. I want to be the first American to top the podium one day. Those are larges ambitions, but you've got to dream.
PdC: To finish after being in the break was a real accomplishment. How close do you feel to being strong enough to competing in P-R?
SC: I feel I can already compete in the best races in the world. Ive had quite a bit of injury and bad luck over the past year. When I put all this bad luck behind me I'm going to come out swinging.
PdC: Are you hopeful of a spot on the team's Tour de France roster? Is that a pretty big key to your development?
SC: Yes, I would love to race and be competitive in the Tour de France someday. It's something all pro cyclists want to aim for.
PdC: What do you do to train for the classics? Do you head up to Belgium far enough ahead of time to get in some training? Or is the plan to keep racing, generally raise your fitness and see where it gets you?
SC: It's a little of both. It's very important to get some long kilometer days on the bike. After some of the 200k race,s we will go out for another 50k just to be ready for Roubaix. Since I am nursing a broken clavical that I had operated on after my crash in Qatar, my approach is a bit different. Long training days and motorpacing until I can race again.
PdC: Are there places around Girona that help mimic the climbs of Flanders or the Pave of northern France?
SC: No. Nothing can mimic these climbs. You have to go there to train on them to really be great.
PdC: You've mentioned climbing as part of your arsenal. Did you get a sense of the Tour of Flanders and whether that might be a better race for you?
SC: Flanders has short steep climbs in it. You don't need to really be a pure climber which I am not. The Flanders climbs are perfect for me and I really enjoy this race as well. I think I can ride very well in Flanders in the future.
PdC: Between P-R and Flanders, how are the rhythms of the race different?
SC: They are actually very similar. The best guys use the cobbled sections to make the selections in both races. It's just that one race has short, steep cobbled climbs and the other does not.
PdC: Right now you're a young rider on a team that's put together a front-line Classics team. I gather your job (if you're healed) is to support them?
SC: I'm 25 years old. I wish I could still use the 'I'm young' comment, but I am half way to 30 now. Whether I'm riding in support of my team or taking over a lead roll, I don't really care. I just love to be able to do my job on the bike whatever that entitles. When I'm given a clear mission, I give it 100% no matter what it is in the race.
PdC: But you have ambitions to win P-R and presumably others. So how do you get the team to give you a chance? By getting results elsewhere? Driedaagse West Vlaanderen, de Panne, Eroica, stuff like that?
SC: Yes, that and to be there if something happens to our leader to take over the main role.
PdC: In what races do you expect to have more of a leadership role?
SC: When you are going the strongest you get the leadership role. That's just how it works.
PdC: Do you worry at all about people thinking of you as a domestique? Is there a danger that guys get "labeled" by doing good support work? Or are these labels and distinctions just something for people outside the sport?
SC: No not at all. There are 200 guys in a bike race. Not everyone from every team can fight for the win. Teamwork really is important in winning a bike race and if it wasn't for the domestiques, the leader would never win. It's just how it works and to be a great domestique is a great accomplishment. Not every guy can do the work of a great domestique.
PdC: The collarbone -- what's the prognosis now? What kind of training do you do to preserve your fitness?
SC: Three weeks on the trainer and now back on the road. My first race back is Volta Catalunya. For more up-close updates, check out my web page at www.stevencozza.com and join my Race For Kids Fan Club while you're at it.
Do check out his site. He writes well, with candor, and is passionate about his charitable work. He also talks about his hectic life lately, which (along with a non-functioning Skype connection) is why we did this by email rather than the preferred, more conversational phone interview. Guy's got a lot on his plate as he struggles to get race-fit as soon as humanly possible.
Couple things I found interesting. First, following up on my opening theme, he makes a good case for shedding labels. After our discourse I have started to see those "I just wanna race my bike" comments you see all the time from riders not as banal but as sincere attempts to explain that racing isn't about commodities. Everyone is a bike racer racing his bike, whether he's asked to take a leading role or a support one. I should know better -- the team concept of cycling isn't exactly new to me -- but chatting with Cozza is a nice reminder that the athletes don't typically categorize themselves. Performing at such a high level requires a ton of hope, including for many guys the hope of winning the big race someday but in the context of teamwork, where everybody's contribution is valued more or less equally. Cozza's goal is to be one of those guys, do everything he can, and see where the chips fall.
I was also a little surprised to hear him say that 25 isn't young. Obviously he would know more about this than me, but it's worth wondering whether American riders can be held to the same standard as Europeans (for whom 25 is at most just entering their prime). Even guys like Cozza who went to Europe straight from high school still don't tend to have the background in racing that the homegrown riders there do. Look at Tyler Farrar, who started really putting together his immense talent at age 26. Or Christian VandeVelde, who "exploded" onto the scene at age 32. Or even Armstrong, a wet-behind-the-ears World Champion but not a Tour de France winner until his late 20s. Cozza may believe it's getting close to now-or-never, but I'm not so sure.
Photo by Doug Pensinger, Getty Images Sport