Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Image source: Sports Illustrated
Paul Sherwen on Eric Heiden:
USPRO is still around, and I actually rode the first ever event, in 1985. Eric Heiden beat me, I didn’t think that guy with the massive thighs and big ass could beat me on a climb like the Manayunk. Eric had just finished the Giro and won the Intergiro classification, even after riding a Grand Tour, he was a bloody big boy.
I wrote one fan letter in my life. If I had known Evel Knievel’s address it would have been two, but the solitary missive penned by me at the age of 12 found its way to Eric Heiden in the summer of 1980. I must not have been wired quite like other suburban New Jersey pre-teens, at least when it came to sporting devotion. I had given the all-American pastimes of baseball, football, and basketball hearty efforts and I rapidly realized I sucked at each respective discipline. Of the three, baseball was actually my most promising endeavor. However, the only way I could get on base was if I managed to get hit by a pitch. My Bad News Bears-esque coach actually encouraged me to crowd the plate and get beaned, because I could run the bases well if I managed to get to first, but I didn’t think the NY Mets would be looking for someone to get clocked by a pitch at least once a game. Football? I got manhandled, even in pee-wee leagues. Basketball? I didn’t feel like learning how to dribble with my left hand. Plus, there would be no skywalking in my future due to what’s probably (optimistically) my 8″ vertical leaping ability.
Besides having no apparent talent at these sports, what really turned me off was the team aspect. I didn’t like being dependent on other people to play. I really wanted something that I could master and pursue of my own devices. This was the mid-’70s, and I somehow managed to tune into what was going on in Southern California with BMX bikes and skateboards. I, too, started to light it up on 2 and 4 wheels inspired by the team Redline factory pros, Santa Monica Z-boys, and of course Evel Knievel. I didn’t stick with the skateboarding too much since (a) I lost lots of skin and (b) I didn’t have a city full of empty pools to invade like my west coast peers. On the other hand, I fell in love with bicycles. My friends and I would ride all over South Orange, NJ, mostly in search of a means to get huge air. I sought out flights of stairs to clear, I launched myself into the stratosphere from frighteningly high earthen ramps of our own construction, I set jumps on fire, I lined my friends up on the ground and jumped them, and I even dabbled with a friend’s backyard half-pipe.
Big air was intoxicating, but what really thrilled me was speed. There were a few pretty lengthy streets in town with steep grades, and I did my best to get in synch with the traffic lights so I could coast all the way to the bottom without stopping for those annoying red signals. While I was loathe to admit it, to both myself and to my friends, there was a seed planted in the back of my mind about the inevitability of trading in my BMX machine for a road bike if I wanted to really go fast. And while I didn’t realize it then, I was as perfectly located in northern NJ for launching a lifetime of competitive cycling as my Santa Monica breatheren were for skateboarding. There was still an elderly guy riding around town on a gorgeous, chrome track bike, a hold-over from the track racing heyday of Nutley and NYC, who piqued my attention; some of my long-distance BMX adventure rides along South Orange Ave. unknowingly brought me to the neighborhood once sporting the famed early 20th century cycling mecca: the Newark velodrome; thanks to a Sports Illustrated (yes, Sports Illustrated) article I became aware of the nearby Tour of Somerville; Pop Brennan’s bike shop was still up and running; I remember being mesmerized by Breaking Away when it hit the theaters in 1979; and my inner geek brought me to the library where I learned of European professional cycling via Bicycling magazine and the box scores and fine print of the New York Times. I don’t think too many 11 year old American kids knew about Bernard Hinault, Joop Zootemelk, Jock Boyer, a very young Greg Lemond, Bob Cook, the Stetinas, George Mount, Eddy Merckx, but I was absolutely captivated.
Image source (left): http://www.racelistings.com/gallery/picz.asp?iCat=31&iPic=110
Image source (center): http://www.memoire-du-cyclisme.net/
Image source (right): http://www.centerportcycles.com/pages/scrapbook/scrapbook03.html
And then along came the Heidens: Beth and Eric. I was utterly in awe of Eric Heiden’s Lake Placid exploits. You all know the story: 5 races - 5 gold medals. Eric and his sister Beth accounted for 6 of the USA’s 12 medals from Lake Placid. There was some kind of mystique about Eric Heiden which I found compelling: something about excelling in a sport which brought an outpouring of acclaim in the Netherlands and Norway but barely a ripple in America, an inhuman capacity for hard training, and a certain zen master quality which kept him grounded, grounded enough to totally walk away from fame and fortune. But what sealed the deal for me was watching him at the 1980 Olympic track cycling trials. They were actually on tv, likely only for the fact that Eric Heiden was competing. He didn’t make the team, and ultimately it would have been a moot point due to the boycott, but Eric Heiden brought attention to cycling (at least for me). That was the moment where it dawned on me that I should kiss BMX goodbye and buy a 10-speed. So I wrote him a letter and asked for an autograph. And Beth, too, because Eric didn’t have a monopoly on kicking ass on skates and bikes. Lest one forgets, Beth Heiden won the women’s world road cycling championship at Sallanches, France the summer after winning bronze on the ice at Lake Placid. Amazingly, the photo I cut out of Sports Illustrated accompanying my fawning fan mail made its way back to me not too long after I sent if off to Wisconsin.
Of course, the Eric Heiden mystique was a double-edged sword, particularly to sportswriters without any knowledge of cycling. I was looking over some early ’80s New York Times articles to flesh out my memory of Heiden, and the early press was brutal. A scant few months after Lake Placid lore and legend, Heiden lined up at New Jersey’s Tour of Nutley and Tour of Somerville criteriums only to generate these headlines in the sports sections: “No Gold for Heiden in Bike Race” and “Heiden Fails Again as Bauer Wins Race”. Ouch. Later that year, there was a very big money 75 mile circuit race in Manhattan encompassing Central Park and some surrounding city blocks. $15,000 bucks was up for grabs and the cream of American cycling showed up to compete. But look at the Times headline, “Spotlight Too Bright for Heiden”. While Bruce Donaghy narrowly outsprinted Dale Stetina for victory, it was Eric Heiden who was unwillingly made the center of attention even though he bailed half way through the race. The Manhattan Borough president cast adrift the day’s winners and instead called Heiden, already cleaned up and decked out in street clothes, up to the podium and declared the day to officially be “Eric Heiden Day”. Heiden was clearly embarassed and tried to shift the attention back to the rightful podium occupants, the guys who actually finished 1st-3rd, but to no avail.
The next year, 1981, Heiden took out a professional cycling license and embarked on a career which ultimately took him to the Giro, the Tour de France, and the inaugural Philly USPRO title. He paid his own way to compete professionally at two world championships (1982-Goodwood, England and 1985-Montello, Italy) as a teammate for dual Greg Lemond silver medal performances. All of these events, never mind the fact that Heiden then went through Stanford med school and is now a doctor, popped into my head when Eric Heiden made a brief cameo appearance on NBC’s Olympic tv coverage. I don’t know if Heiden has since been sucked into the saccharin NBC puff piece milieu, but I thought it telling that the announcers identified First Lady Laura Bush and daughter Barbara in the stands at the first night of speed skating and yet didn’t say a peep about Eric Heiden sitting there accompanying them, caught on camera gesticulating towards the action down on the oval. Not a word. And I’m sure Eric Heiden appreciates the gesture.