Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

29 July 2014

The Ezzard Charles of the Cycling World

Although I watched it only in bits and pieces, and on television screens more than 5000 km from the action, something about this year's Tour de France made me woozy with deja vu, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions.

In watching a few clips, again, I realized that it was the weather:  Almost every stage seemed overcast or rainy.  And they looked cold for summer.  From what I'm hearing, they were.

Such were the conditions of the 1980 Tour.  In fact, much of Europe seemed not to have a summer that year.  I know:  I was there.  That was when I did my first bike tour outside the US.  And it was the first time I saw the final stage of the Tour, along the Champs-Elysees.

That allowed me to witness the greatest performance of the cycling world's Ezzard Charles

Ezzard Charles is probably the greatest boxer you've never heard of.  I heard of him from a great-uncle of mine who was a prizefighter; I would later learn that no less than Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano considered him among the greatest boxers of all-time, and that The Ring magazine rated him among the top fifteen.

His counterpart in cycling, whose victory I witnessed in 1980, was none other than Joop Zoetemelk


If you've never heard of, or forgotten, him, I wouldn't be surprised.  Any time I've mentioned him, even to those who know a thing or two about the history of cycling and are, shall we say, of a certain age, I was met with furrowed brows.

His palmares includes, in addition to the 1980 Tour win, six second-place finishes in the great race.  He also won the Vuelta a Espana in 1979 and numerous one-day races.   

His almost preternaturally fair skin led to the joke that he never tanned because he was always riding in the shadow  of Eddy Mercx and, later, Bernard Hinault.  In fact, his detractors claimed that he won the 1980 Tour only because Hinault had to withdraw--while wearing the yellow jersey---midway through the race because the chilly, damp weather aggravated a knee injury.  

As much as I have always loved Hinault, I must say that such a criticism of Zoetemelk is unfair.  At least, I cannot concur with his detractors after seeing what I saw of him:  He rode with as much determination as power and technique.  And those who saw far more of him--his contemporaries in the peloton--always spoke of him in respectful, and even reverential, tones

Aside from being an "eternal second" (the label the European media also gave to Raymond Poulidor), I think there is another reason why Zoetemelk is not as well-remembered as Mercx or Hinault:  He was not a flashy or even a particularly stylish rider.  Marco Pantani, who had exactly as many Tour wins as Zoetemelk, is revered because "Il Parata" rode with a panache that bordered on hubris. (Also, he died only a few years after his Tour victory.) Zoetemelk, on the other hand,was often called "the perfect teammate", as much as a taunt as a compliment.

I think he would have done very well in, if not won, this year's Tour. And it wouldn't have been a result of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador withdrawing.

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