The Euskaltel-Euskadi boys look pleased. It’s the end of another stage race and they can board their bus, forget about their bikes for a few hours at least, and head for home. The team prize for the race is in the bag, and even the mechanics and soigneurs have an extra jauntiness about them. Samuel Sánchez leads the team on its walk from the podium back to the bus. A part-time journalist is slow in recognizing him and fumbles for his camera. But he’s too slow and Samuel Sánchez has passed him by.
Samuel Sánchez moves with the confidence and physicality of an athlete at the extreme end of the performance bell curve we all inhabit. But there is also a hesitation to his step; he is a man who spends the vast majority of his time either sleeping or riding his bike. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year. His legs are pistons for spinning the cranks, not moving his feet; pedalling is his second nature, after all this time, not walking. There is also a slight roll to his walk, as if his torso, already slightly curved from being too long in the saddle, wants to pitch forward over an invisible set of handlebars in front of him.
But most strikingly, Samuel Sánchez has no shoulders.
Official sources list his weight at around 147 pounds. No one can agree exactly how tall he is, whether 5’8″ or closer to 5’11” (published bike measurements suggest somewhere in the middle, with a stretched out riding position due to a longer stem), but conventional measurements do not apply to Samuel Sánchez. He is not correctly proportioned in the normal sense. His upper body has been pruned of all extraneous material, his legs have been curved and sharpened to a keen edge. He is shaped like a wood carver’s adze, tapering upwards, a tool whose sole purpose is to carve great slivers of tarmac from European mountain roads. Which is why when he walks past, he is easy to miss – you might even miss him if you were to pass him on the street named after him in his hometown of Oviedo; on the bike he is easy to miss, too, despite the orange of his team kit with the gold trimmings of Olympic victory. Because Samuel Sánchez rides up mountains faster than all but a handful of human beings on this planet. So unless you’re at the front of the peloton – on a bike or watching from your couch as a motorbike and cameraman struggle to keep up – you’ll probably miss him on his bike, too.
At the 2011 Tour de France, Samuel Sánchez won a stage (his first) at Luz-Ardiden, nearly won on Alpe d’Huez, and secured the mountains classification (although by just 10 points over Andy Schleck, and the less said about those polka dot shorts the better). By winning the maillot à pois, he was – arguably – the best climber at the Tour. These numbers, 1st, 14 seconds (his margin of second place to Pierre Rolland on Alpe d’Huez), and 108 points (his mountains classification total) are important. But they are also irrelevant. There are numbers on Samuel Sánchez’s power meter, but these, too, are irrelevant.*
For Samuel Sánchez is an artist. To see the numbers he produces are irrelevant compared to seeing what he does out on the road. The keen cutting edge of his talent honed by training to be razor sharp. The effigies he carves from the mountains are visages of suffering and commitment; they are the result of his genes blended with hard, hard work and single mindedness to create something that we mere spectators can only marvel at, and shake our heads in wonder. We struggle to barely understand what Samuel Sánchez can do. The frenzy of fan excitement, the almost impossible athleticism, the seeming defying of gravity, his own suffering and that of his opponents. There are rules that govern what we ourselves are able to create, but like any true artist these rules appear not to apply to Samuel Sánchez. Someone who we might pass in the street without a second glance can somehow loom so large in our psyche for what he is able to do on a bicycle.
To see Samuel Sánchez climb is to brush closely to the impossible. He is mortal – even fragile – but he redefines what the mortal can do. We should be grateful that the Basque love of cycling provides the support for Samuel Sánchez to make bike racing his profession. We must also constantly remind ourselves that what we are seeing is in the realm of the possible, the real, but that we are witnessing something special, something privileged; that we are seeing art being created. The art of le grimpeur. From a rider with no shoulders.
* Sources widely credit Sanchez with the fastest time of Alpe d’Huez this year at 41:21. This is outside the sub-40 minute times posted during the 1990s and subsequently at the height of blood doping. For a more extensive discussion on the limits of performance, see here, and for climbing times on the Alpe, see here. The excellent scientists at the Science of Sport blog have discussed this extensively, and have sparked an ongoing debate about the physical limits of performance. If you want to crunch the numbers then this is the debate for you. For an old post on the Basque cooperative that makes Orbea bikes, see here.