Breathing and other lessons, with Joe Lindsey
A particular story caught my attention early in the 2012 Tour de France. It was July 1st, a day Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Nissan attempted a punchy uphill stage win while fighting to keep the yellow jersey. He finished second after towing Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) to a win and then collapsed, spent, alongside the press tent where Joe Lindsey of Bicycling and 200 other journalists awaited the stage finish.
It’s Lindsey’s job to ask questions, but he didn’t pose any to Cancellara. In fact, as Lindsey reported it, no journalist asked a question; they waited for Cancellara to recover. “Cancellara was utterly destroyed by his effort,” Lindsey wrote, in his Boulder Report column about the day. “To stick a microphone in his face at that exact moment would be, for lack of a better word, cruel.” While Lindsey added that the questions were obvious and maybe didn’t merit asking, he also wrote, “Instinctively, everyone present knew that to ask a question or to put a microphone in front of Cancellara would shatter the raw, vulnerable human moment we’d been gifted.”
Perhaps I’m not so different from others who report on sport, but it’s the human moments that I most love to write about: the actions, emotions, and decisions that make athletes like us mere mortals. That’s why I liked Lindsey’s story about Cancellara. In the spirit of fair play, other reporters remained quiet as well, and if another journalist had written a similar story, I could be writing about him or her instead of Lindsey.
But it’s also true that earlier this year, in January, I asked Lindsey if I could meet and interview him, in large part due to a different kind of piece he had written in November for the Boulder Report. That story explored the dilemma facing Slipstream Sports as it considered cutting funding for – and thus ending – the Garmin-Cervélo women’s team. Lindsey wrote about the many factors and consequences involved in making that kind of a decision; I felt awed by the way he had handled the complexity of the situation.
How, I wondered, did a reporter gain that kind of 360 degree insight into the sport? Lindsey seemed like an ideal person to talk to in order to begin to understand what I didn’t know I didn’t know when it came to writing about pro-cycling. In that November story he had also broached the subject of what might be required for the business of pro-cycling to become sustainable, and given the recent demise of the winning, talent-rich HTC-Highroad team, that topic fascinated me.
Having broad knowledge about the sport, Lindsey said, simply came with covering it for a number of years. He started in 1996. Between then and now the internet and social media have contributed to what he called “an explosion in cycling-specific media” with more people having increased access to and interaction with athletes.
Lindsey suggested that transformation of the business model of a mature sport like pro-cycling would take some time; then again, it might not. It was hard to say. In a note after our meeting he mentioned changes were already happening, and it was possible that change could ensue rapidly once “enough attitudes change” and when “enough people not only change their minds, but are forced by some motivation to act on it.” All of our communication transpired prior to the October USADA tsunami, a force that might lead to such a tipping point.
But as fascinating as those topics were and about which I learned a lot during our short meeting, as I listened to Lindsey recount anecdotes over the clink of porcelain coffee cups in Amante North in Boulder, what struck me most were his observations about how his perspective has evolved after fifteen years or more of immersion in the sport.
One observation in particular emerged as he talked about the Festina scandal that broke in 1998 during that year’s Tour de France. “…at that time I was very young, very new to this whole thing, and I was very much coming from a fan transitioning into being a journalist – I had journalist training and all that, but I was a fan of bike racing before I was a journalist, and so I was like a lot of people,” he told me. “I think I was very shocked at what was going on. And was very puzzled by how the riders at the time reacted.”
Lindsey recalled some of those reactions: the departure of the TVM team and other teams, riders protesting and saying things like “This is terrible. You are treating us like criminals.” At the time Lindsey found these actions counter-intuitive. Why would riders not welcome catching and penalizing cheaters or – and these are my words – not want to complete the biggest race on the planet?
Years later, Lindsey interpreted the riders’ reactions differently.
“Doping at that point was so epidemic in the peloton that if you look back at it now, the action of the TVM team and various other teams, riders, the sit-down protests, all that kind of stuff, that reaction is understandable because what they were saying basically was, ‘Hey, look, this [PEDs] is something you have to do to do this sport right now, and everybody’s doing it and so if you are going to throw these guys [Festina] out then you have to throw us out too. And we’re just doing our job.’”
Lindsey elaborated, “Now I understand where they were coming from. And I don’t agree with it; I still think of it as a terrible episode, but I understand what was going on a little bit better.”
It’s that understanding of human reactions that enriches story. It also helps a reporter act in a respectful manner with the athletes he or she interviews; it is an integral part of 360 degree insight into a sport. To stand near Cancellara after he collapsed and not ask a question was to understand where Cancellara was coming from at that moment on July 1st – I’m human. Let me breathe.