The final podium at the 1985 Tour de France, and the weight of conditional adoration

Fabio Parra (white jersey) and Lucho Herrera (king of the mountains) on the final podium presentation at the Tour de France in 1985. Notice the woman in the white gown who looks like she's about to marry one of the riders. But more importantly, notice Herrera's unwillingness to let Hinault stand in front of him. 

After watching this video, and smiling about Herrera keeping Hinault from getting in front of him (if only briefly), I thought about recent interviews that Lucho Herrera has given. In those interviews he mentions that he remains thankful for how people treat him because of his victories, and that he understands their enthusiasm. But at the same time, he's always been weary of the reverential treatment. A man of few words, Herrera recounted that one difficult part of his kidnapping was that his captors wanted him to talk about every stage he ever rode at the Tour, as well as his victory at the Vuelta. "I never missed a single stage that you raced in!" said one of his captors. But oddly enough, it wasn't so much the hypocrisy that Herrera found troubling (that a kidnapper would admire him and ask him to stay up telling stories), he just minded the level and intensity of the attention, and the endless requests for stories from gun-toting captors. It was, in a sense, a greatly amplified version of what he'd experienced for much of his life.

Herrera's good friend Alvaro Garcia, one of the few men to have ever become close to the cycling legend, recently told the newspaper El Colombiano that if Lucho could somehow wear a huge Mexican sombrero to cover up his face without calling more attention to himself (to keep people from greeting him and recognizing him) he would happily wear one. This may sound antisocial on Herrera's part, but how could he not be weary of a relationship that is so shallow but so seemingly ardent, which is what complete strangers have with him? Why not be cautious about the fact that someone you've never met (me) can assign meaning and derive joy from something as minute as the way you stood on a podium nearly thirty years ago?

Furthermore, what happens when a stranger, any stranger, stops deriving that  joy from your decisions or actions, and instead finds dissatisfaction? What about those who feel so invested in someone they've never met, that they then feel personally wronged or cheated by their actions? 

If fans squint a bit in disbelief at the accomplishments of cyclists these days, is it not understandable that they might do the same back to fans, albeit for different reasons?

I spoke to Henry Cardenas about this and he readily agreed. The wins were great, he said, but when his Cafe De Colombia team was unable to win at will (which many thought they could realistically do), riders were heckled, taunted and insults were screamed out at them during races. The same happened during training rides, and even in their personal lives. Children insulted them, as their parents looked on proudly. Just as their lives had been turned upside down by success, now the opposite had happened—not because of some catastrophic failure on their part mind you—but simply because they did not achieve the results that others thought they were capable of.

This fickle devotion reminds me of the documentary Hoop Dreams. In what is likely the film's most poignant moment, one of the two young men that the film follows (William Gates) speaks about the ephemeral nature of the adoration that sports can bring on. He gains clarity in the midst of an environment where everyone not only wanted, but also expected and relied on him to make it to the NBA.

But I suppose that in the long run, all of this does little to diminish or change the meaning of victory to an entire nation. And therein lies the issue that Herrera has encountered so many times, and is perhaps the reason why I still take minimal pleasure in how he stood atop that podium in 1985. Because to Colombians, whether anyone agrees with it or not, sporting victory has greater meaning than it does in most other places. It's irrational, and potentially troublesome for those involved. But when I see a picture of the parade for Colombia's Olympic medalists (minus Rigoberto Uran, who is in Spain racing) in the streets of Bogota yesterday, I admit that I have to smile. I just hope that these individuals are also loved, and respected in defeat.