Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Borrowing Your Way to Greatness

I don't think anybody steals anything; all of us borrow.  BB King.

This article isn't about cycling.  Well, OK, it is about cycling, but it is also about creating the new by borrowing the old.

As I watched another edition of the epic bike race, le Tour de France, come to a close, I listened to the commentators debating on the greatest cyclist.  I realized quickly there was no doubt in my mind.

The greatest was an American.  He was a winner of the cycling World Championship.  Soon after he would be in and out of hospitals for over a year.  Despite being close to death, he opted for riskier treatments that offered him the best chance to return to cycling.  While the treatments were successful, he was left with damage to all of his major organs.  He returned to cycling to win the Tour de France multiple times.  He ended his career with an unimpressive comeback attempt.

Of course it describes Lance Armstrong and that other guy.  While Armstrong is the best cyclist, undeniable from his seven tour wins, best does not equate to great.  The other guy was the greatest.

Great involves more than just winning.  It requires having a transformative impact.

Great is noticing that athletes in a little known sport called triathlon were doing something different on their bikes.  Rather than using standard handlebars that spread the cyclists shoulders wide, they used a couple of narrow poles with arm rests set so close together that their elbows almost touched.  These 'tribars' were impractical for riding close to other cyclists where they limited the quick moves needed to avoid crashes.  In a time trial, a race against the clock, with no other cyclists nearby, the mobility didn't matter.

And so, Greg LeMond would use these aerodynamic bars to cut through the wind on the last day of a Tour de France while his rival Laurent Fignon rode a traditional race.  A full 50 seconds separated LeMond from Laurent Fignon at the start of the day on the very short 25 km course.  Despite all predictions to the contrary, LeMond would ride 58 seconds faster than Fignon. 

It wasn't that LeMond was the only professional cyclist to notice what was going on in triathlon.  Almost all of his competitors had tried the 'tribars'.  Some said it restricted their breathing, others said they had trouble maintaining a straight line and others still said that their leg muscles were being trained primarily for sitting in a different position.

What made LeMond great was that he ignored the common wisdom and sought the truth.  He made his own decision, took the risk of training extensively with the 'tribars' to overcome the issues other riders had experienced. 

Since that famous ride, cycling has become intensely focused on creating aerodynamic positions.  Riders spend hours in wind tunnels.  Bicycle companies trim, cut, stretch and bend bikes and parts in an attempt to reduce air drag by ever lessening amounts.

Yes, Greg LeMond knew it could BE different.

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