Real, big-time bike racing was descending on my town. Barriers lined the sidewalks and minivans festooned with roof racks filled the available parking. A door slid open and there were the two stars of the Panasonic-Sportlife team: Viatcheslav Ekimov and Olaf Ludwig, both Olympic Gold Medalists.
While crowds mobbed Greg LeMond just 100 feet away, just a few people stood around the Panasonic-Sportlife van—bike racers and Winning subscribers all. The Panasonic-Sportlife team was to our select audience the ultimate Belgian PRO team. Ekimov and Ludwig signed a few autographs before sitting down on the tail of the van. What happened next was a revelation to me.
I had read that pro cyclists got their legs massaged and had even seen a short clip of a post-race massage on Tour de France coverage, but the pre-race massage was news to me. Further, the experience was my first with a warming embrocation. I watched as the soigneur applied the cream to the pros legs, watched as his thumbs and fingers moved through their hamstrings as if he were pushing through pudding; bread doesn’t knead this easily.
Suddenly, the aroma hit me. It was distinctly European, heady and exotic, as if it were the smell of bicycle racing itself. I had no idea that the massage was helping to warm their muscles in anticipation of the day’s stage. It took talking to a Cat. II teammate of mine to explain how a proper pre-race massage with a warming “liniment,” as he called it, could help prepare a cyclist for the day’s demands.
That I’d been exposed to something I hadn’t read about in any of the magazines made me feel like I had been let in on a secret. I was hooked. That there could be a wealth of hidden knowledge not even hinted at in the magazines gave the sport a new depth for me. As much as I loved the straightforward simplicity of my impression of bike racing, the idea that your success might depend on your pre-race knowledge and ability to prepare made bike racing alluringly complicated.
Before my next race I went out and bought a tub of Icy Hot. It didn’t have the impressive Euro scent but I was amazed at its ability to shut out the cold. More than anything, what stayed with me from that day was the smell of the embrocation and the way their muscles, especially their hamstrings, drooped from their legs as if they were wet cloth. I couldn’t yet reconcile how something so relaxed, so without tension, could contain such explosive and controlled power.