In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty….
Lads like Barry are no cowards
From the foe they will not fly
Lads like Barry will free Ireland
For her sake they’ll live and die
Kevin Barry, Irish Traditional Song
Just finished the book “Shadows on the Road” by Michael Barry.
It ought to be required reading for everyone who raced or races a bicycle, for all young riders with dreams and aspirations, or for folks who just love following the Tour on TV and want to understand the sport you wont hear about from the TV pundits.
I’ve always admired riders who can also write well. I don’t mean ghost written bios, one can tell the difference. No, those that have earned my eternal respect for literary chops that match their cycling talent are a small but distinguished cohort. Guys like Jean Bobet or Paul Kimmage.
Ernest Hemingway once said he wanted to write about cycling. “I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor tracks and on the roads. French is the only language it has ever been written in properly and the terms are all French and that is what makes it hard to write…I’ve started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the roads…”
Well, what Papa couldn’t write, a kid from Toronto certainly did. Michael Barry’s story of his years in the peloton with pro cycling’s top teams is part love story, part biography, and part confession.
It’s also a cautionary tale: An insiders logical and experience-based indictment of a screwed up culture that eats it’s young. Of a corrupt business masquerading as a sport. Read it, and heed its lesson, for it’s a rare nose under the tent into a world that many dream of entering, but precious few understand the reality of.
I thought Michael was way too hard on himself for making the choice to dope while he was at US Postal. Reading how it tore him apart, while knowing that smug asses like Di Luca and Ricco shrug, smirk, wearing similar choices as a badge of honor pisses me off. For truly only one with real honor in his heart would struggle internally with the choice as Barry did.
But I get it: For in my mind, there’s really only two degrees of separation between Kevin Barry, Irish martyr hanged by the British in 1920 for refusing to name-names — and Michael Barry, Canadian cyclist metaphorically hanged out to dry by a hypocritical media, his British team, and many in the fickle public following the 2012 Landis/ USADA revelations. Both men, faced with a no-win decision, chose responsibility to others over self-preservation.
But this tale of a boy’s dream pursued but unfulfilled ends on a positive note. Despite the horrible crashes, the perpetual pain, the anxiety, disappointment, fear, personal risk and perpetual sacrifice without anything near commensurate material reward, Barry remarkably, and admirably, retains the love for cycling instilled by his father as a boy. The passages describing his training rides are poetic odes to the soul of cycling. Riding as joy, riding as life. Magnetic north for a life better lived. You either get it, or you don’t.
Barry closes the book writing about his final races in Quebec and Montreal in 2012. I remember seeing him race in both races the year before. I was at the press conference at the Chateau Frontenac after Phil Gilbert dusted the field to win the sprint up the Grand Allee. I was struck by Barry, oh so skinny as only a pro can be, in a slimming black Sky kit, quietly guiding and looking after Rigoberto Uran who was 3rd on the day but seemed confused by the protocol and the language barrier. Barry, in his Elvis Costello glasses quietly stayed at Rigo’s side like a big brother, hovering over his younger teammate, helping him through the presser.
His attentiveness after riding a pretty long tough race struck me as a little unusual, but quite admirable nonetheless. The perfect expression of the perfect team rider.
The next day, as the peloton powered into the final laps of the Mont Royal circuit, Barry was there again, at the front powering the train along with his Sky teammates. He was on the front a long time, doing his job.
You won’t find his name in the results. No matter. I noticed. I know who was dragging the break back that warm Sunday afternoon in Montreal. I’m sure Michael Barry knows too.
In cycling, after the the circus moves to the next town, or the next season; after the flowers have long since faded and the podium girls are fat and married; after the results are forgotten and consigned to archives print or digital; and after the prize money is long spent, remembering the forgotten lads whose efforts and sacrifices really make the race, is much more important. In my opinion.