Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Breakaway

The solo breakaway. It's one of the most magical moments in professional cycling. One rider, out in front -- five, ten, maybe twenty minutes ahead of the peloton (the main pack of riders). As I painted this watercolor...

... I imagined we're near the end of a Tour de France stage, and the peloton is angry. They know they let this lone rider get too far ahead; now they're in an all-out pursuit. They're 180 riders working as one, cutting through the wind in a ruthless, tireless state of perpetual motion. But you can't see the peloton in my painting, and that's intentional. The solo rider and the cheering crowd can't see it either. They merely sense it, like an ominous locomotive barreling forward just beyond the horizon.

There's only one word to describe the peloton in this situation: inevitable.

Can our solo rider beat inevitability? Can he reach the finish line before 180 riders swallow him back into the fold? It's five kilometers to the finish. His lead over the peloton has been reduced from ten minutes to a mere forty-three seconds. It's tight. Achingly, pull-every-last-ounce-of-energy-out-of-your-demolished-legs tight.

The crowd lining the street has been listening to the race on radio all day. They know what's happening. A murmur begins to circulate as they hear the helicopters buzz overhead. The official cars and motorcycles approach and the crowd shuffles in anticipation, craning their necks to see. Through the vehicles they spot an empty patch of road, and then there ... there he is! The solo breakaway!

Those fans may have had a hundred favorite riders at the beginning of the stage; but now they all come together behind one. They sense the desperation in his eyes. They feel his pain, his epic struggle. If they could pull the air aside and let him slip away to victory, they would. But instead they call out his name, wave flags, and yell the word that encapsulates all that is the Tour de France: Allez!

Until today, our solo rider had been surrounded by fellow cyclists and teammates during the race. He was the guy riding back to his team car to pick up water bottles. He was the one battling the wind at the peloton's head to protect his team leader. In cycle-speak, he's a domestique. But not today. Today his team is somewhere back there. He knows they're rooting for him and trying to reign in the assault. But there's not much they can do.

Life is complex ... but not now. There's the cheering crowd, the clock, the pursuers, and the finish line. For the next five kilometers, nothing else matters.

As the solo rider passes -- woosh -- all the fans simultaneously look down at their watches, counting the seconds of eerie silence before the arrival of the chasing Empire. And as each second ticks away, they gain hope. Hope that in spite of everything, sometimes the scrappy guy no one ever believed in wins. Hope that those who bravely strike out on their own can achieve something unimaginably great. Hope that inevitability is not so inevitable after all. Hope that anything is possible.

In that moment, the fans, the solo rider, and the peloton all feel the same thing. Wonderfully, sensationally ... alive.

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