Behind the story there is always a greater story, one which is often missed.
The Tour of Lombardy unfolded in traditional fashion: a breakaway, a gauged acceleration in the peloton, the knife-stabbing attacks that seal most riders’ fate, and then, finally, the winning attack and the defeated sprints for the places of honor. The favorite won.
Moments after Cunego crossed the finish line with his arms in the air, two more riders trickled through, and then a small group sprinted to the finish line. My teammate Craig Lewis sat on the front of that group in the final kilometers, to narrow the gap in the hopes of helping out our teammate Morris Possoni. Their tactics were also predictable, yet the fact that Craig was there, with Ballan, the world champion, in the finale of one of the toughest one day Classics of the season, was impressive. To me, his finish was the greater story of the race. And, on many levels, his story captures the essence of our sport.
Heroics in cycling often take place on quiet mountain roads where there are few, if any spectators. In a race there are dozens of riders that deserve accolades for their achievements but usually only a few ever do make the headlines. The teammate is sometimes more impressive than the leader as his work destroys the peloton to set up the leader for the finale. Only those on his wheel know the force with which he rides, as the camera is only able to capture images of visual pain. The images don’t convey the internal emotion, the work that went into producing the power, the years spent riding to achieve comfort where the bike becomes an extension of the body, and the life changing fight virtually every cyclist has endured to come back from a horrific crash.
Our season, bookended in Italy, began together in Laiguelia, in March. Craig absorbed everything he saw in Italy metaphorically and literally: the food, the wine, the coffee and the culture. On his bedside table he had magazines about the regions, their wine production, and their food. During the early season races we struggled on the climbs, but it didn’t seem to matter to him at that moment; he was simply on the bike enjoying it. Through the season, we trained together daily, and had similar race schedules. He trained methodically, but unlike most others who are obsessed with the end result he was also growing with the journey.
Almost every professional cyclist has had a crash where he questions his future in the sport ? a crash where he can’t get out of bed, where bones are broken and skin burned off to reveal muscle and flesh. Crashes that make mothers cry and fathers fear. Craig’s body is covered in scars. The scars tell some of the story as they are marking like shrapnel wounds; they aren’t the normal road grazes but deep surgical marks.
Internally, I don’t know what he feels, and can’t imagine what he went through. He has told me stories, but only when I asked, and they are the horrific kind that give someone eternal nightmares. He doesn’t want to revisit his days in the hospital and he doesn’t want sympathy. His injuries were life threatening, the rehab he endured was prolonged by complications, and his future was always uncertain. In many ways, on many levels, cycling was his therapy.
During the season he worked until he was empty for the team and its leaders. We joked at many stage races that he spent more time on the front than anybody else in the peloton—and in most races he did. The kilometers ticked by and he grew stronger. When he had the chance he performed well in the time trials. Learning from George Hincapie, his neighbor in Greenville, he rode through the season like a veteran: patient, calm, calculating and focused.
Classics are hard races to gauge and ride. Many riders who can win 180 kilometer races come to pieces when the race goes over 220. The sport changes when this threshold is reached; some riders excel as they are able to handle the load while others whither due to genetics or a lack of endurance. It is rare a young US pro with little experience can animate the finale of a tough Classic. Craig’s performance not only shows talent and tactical knowledge but also true grit.
Craig was not unknown on the American circuit but in Europe he was. Embracing the culture, the racing and the moment he improved and next year, without a doubt, he will rise to yet another level. His comeback is remarkable on many levels: because after not knowing if he would live he is now racing with the best, because he is calm and respectful, and because he has a level of maturity that few in the peloton ever reach.
In a season, which seemed loaded with doped winners and their Pyrrhic victories, his story is refreshing. These are the stories that give cycling its emotional depth.
Michael Barry, is a member of Team Columbia Professional Cycling, husband of Olympic medalist Dede Barry and author of VeloPress’s “Inside the Postal Bus”
Barry has also co-authored Fitness Cycling in conjunction with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal