Sunday, September 18, 2011

Chris Ragsdale: The Right Stuff

Back in June, I told Chris Ragsdale that I thought he would win the 2011 edition of Paris-Brest-Paris, a 1200km (745 mile) event held since 1891. PBP is one of the most famous ultra-cycling events in the world:

PBP is held every four years, and officially it is a Randonneur event, not a race. PBP actually was a race until 1957, and amongst the lead group not much has changed. The competition is intense and ruthless, and a “win” is a very, very prestigious addition to any rider’s palmares.

For the nitty gritty details of this year’s PBP see Chris’s own account, as published in David Longdon’s recent blog:

Toward the bottom of the page is a link to a post-race interview with Chris. At around the seven-minute mark, the Master of Type II Fun (the kind that is only fun well after it is over) is asked if he will be back. His weary answer, "Give me two weeks and then ask me."

For a really interesting “on the scene” perspective on Chris’s ride, see this report from Damien Breen, one of his European-based crew:

Out of 5500 people who started, Chris finished 20 minutes behind the “winner” in 5th place with a total time of 44 hours and 36 minutes. He managed this despite the fact that he rode 40km (25 miles) more than the winner. Do the math. If Chris doesn’t go off course due to a battle-fatigue induced rookie mistake, he would have ridden the other riders right off of his wheel and won the race, as he was almost certainly the physically strongest and mentally toughest rider there.

Did I pick Chris to win because he is by far the strongest rider I have ever known? No, of course not. How would I compare Chris Ragsdale to other elite level riders I know nothing about? It means nothing if I say, “Pick the strongest riders we have ever had on the Hills of the West Coast ride, and Chris could ride all of those riders off of his wheel and into the next zip code if not county.” You can’t compare top level elite athletes to mere mortals. Chris Ragsdale must have a heart that could have propelled Secretariat to the Triple Crown.

Did I think Chris would win because of his track record of winning multiple US 24 Hour Championships or because he holds the world record for 1000km? Well, certainly his record doesn’t define Chris as a dark horse. Whether the European riders knew it or not, Chris was almost guaranteed to be a formidable competitor, but I had no idea as to just how strong the other riders would be. I truly believed Chris would win the race because of a very intangible factor.

When I was twelve years old and learning to play golf, I had a chance to meet Jack Nicklaus. Watching Nicklaus address a golf ball in a meaningless pro-amateur event was an almost mystical experience. He just had a certain aura about him. There was a quiet confidence paired with an absolute focus. Case in point: Nicklaus was chatting with my friend Pat, who was caddying for his father while his dad was playing in Nicklaus’s group. But when he prepared to hit his drive and then stood over the ball, everything changed in a split second and there was this steely look about him that I have never forgotten. It didn’t matter that it was a pro-am; he had the same look of concentration as if he were trying to win the US Open.

For lack of a better term, I’ll just call this aura the “Right Stuff.” I think certain athletes must be born with it, as how else do incredibly talented professional athletes differentiate themselves when they all possess amazing and comparable skills? Just as with Austin Powers and his Mojo, it must be possible to “lose” the Right Stuff and only time will tell if someone like Tiger Woods can get it back. At seventy years of age, I doubt that Nicklaus has lost it.

With many top athletes, it seems like a certain “attitude” comes with the Right Stuff, but with Chris Ragsdale, there is no conceit or arrogance. When I saw Chris in June he looked even leaner and fitter than usual, and he had this certain look in his eye when I asked him about PBP. When I told Chris I thought he would win PBP, Chris humbly mentioned that there would be many world class riders at PBP and he hoped to learn from them. A lack of cockiness might differentiate Chris from many famous athletes, but without trying he just exudes a confident aura.

A few weeks ago, Tracy and I went to the opening game of the Issaquah High School football season. Neither of us had been to a high school football game since high school! We got there late, and sat in the visitor’s stands right behind the away team’s bench.

Toward the end of the first half as Issaquah racked up a 48-0 lead, I said to Tracy, “You never know if somewhere on that visiting team is a kid who still thinks his team can win, is determined to do so, and who still intends to win. He’s not down on his inept teammates, and is focused on winning singlehandedly if that is what it will take to enable his team to win.” If there were such a person on this team, a budding superstar in the making, he wouldn’t consider whether winning was possible or impossible, and he wouldn’t quit trying until the final whistle. You never know where people with the Right Stuff may be lurking.

People are asking Chris if he will be back in four year’s time to give PBP another crack. Who knows, but I doubt it, because I think by then Chris will have something else to focus on. That would be RAAM (Race Across America), possibly the most prestigious ultra-cycling race in the world. I’m betting that Chris will win this grueling race in his first or second try.

Why do I think Chris will win RAAM? Because he has the Right Stuff and he is not about to lose it.

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