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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Velo magazine.
There is one minute to the start of the final stage in Utah. Brian Holm rolls up.
There is no one in the front seat, next to the perpetually cool Holm, who is directing his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team at the Tour of Utah.
Holm rolls down the window, wondering who this person is tapping on his glass. I introduce myself and ask if he minds if I tag along for the day. There are 45 seconds to start.
Long seconds. “Okay, you can ride,” Holm says, clearing off the seat. “I usually don’t pick up strangers,” he says, pushing his blond hair back and hitting the gas.
If you don’t ask, he says, you get nothing. “The worst you get is a ‘no,’” he points out.
Holm immediately praises the Utah race, and all the racing in the United States, likening the cycling culture here to a barbeque. Americans, he said, made racing laid back. “They are very different people, for good or for bad, no?” Yes, for good and for bad, I agree.
The break is trying to establish itself, stuck in the clutches of an antsy peloton, and testing the rules of who can take flight and who cannot. A week before, it would have been very likely that his Omega team would have been riding to defend Levi Leipheimer’s GC titles from the past two years, but a very bad team time trial erased
any hope of that.
“That’s life, yeah? Cycling — we win, we lose,” Holm says. “You can blame nobody. We laughed with it … you have to cry or you have to laugh.”
Omega laughed. Just after he lost nearly two minutes to Garmin-Sharp in the TTT, Leipheimer thought that maybe the group would let him try to win a stage.
“You need a selective memory. You have to remember the good things and forget the bad things,” Holm says. “If you can’t do that, you have to quit cycling. If you’re thinking too much in cycling, you have to quit.”
Holm meanders back to the usefulness (and uselessness) of youth. “When you’re 22, 23, you think you’re so fucking smart. You really believe you’re smarter than everybody else. You don’t think about anything else,” Holm says. “That’s kind of charming also, no? You’ve got that master-of-the-universe feeling. You think that nothing can happen to you. You ride without a helmet in those days. Without that feeling, you couldn’t be a cyclist either, you know? You believe so much in yourself.”
Holm, of course, had every reason to believe in himself. He completed each Tour de France he started, seven in total. He served as a hard-as-nails domestique for most of his career, and won 11 races, including a Danish national time trial championship in 1990 and the one-day race Paris-Brussels, one of the oldest on the international calendar. At the age of 49, he still looks like he could ride in a break all day.
The race begins to sort itself out. A 10-man breakaway is out front. It’s a quiet day thus far for Omega.
Holm previously admitted to using EPO in the ’90s and isn’t afraid to discuss it while the bike race plays out in front of him. “It was like I said something forbidden. But afterward, I realized it was the best thing I ever did,” Holm says of his admission. “Do I feel guilty about what I did? No. It was part of the system in the ’90s. It doesn’t keep me awake.
“It was not why I was pro. I didn’t really like it … Some people will admit. Others won’t. No good for anybody,” he says. “Just focus on today, and really be strict on it now, because nobody’s going to be proud about the system from the ’90s.”
He turns up the radio often. He loves music. British, in particular. Elton John elicits more volume, as do The Pretenders, with whom Holm sings along. Long stretches of silence are interrupted only by race radio and the faint register of the radio station, as we travel high above the valley floor. “Some days you miss being a professional rider. Not today,” Holm says, pointing out the heat and the climbs and having a look out the window as the peloton falls apart.
The race is now up and over the first climb, barreling toward Empire Pass, the recently paved horror of a climb.
Race radio reports that rider number 001 has gone clear. That’s Leipheimer. Holm seems neither surprised nor excited. “He said he would do it. It’s one thing to say you wanna do it, but your legs say no,” Holm says. “He always believes he can do it. Even when he can’t do it. Very often, his head is stronger than his legs. He’s always believing he can do it.”
On this day, it seems as if he can do it. Seconds later, race radio relays that Leipheimer has overtaken what was left of the break. Leipheimer presses ahead for a stage win.
When Holm gets to his rider, the American is chugging along and has a one-minute lead with 5km to go to the Empire summit. Asked what Leipheimer is thinking, Holm says, “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. He’s counting his pedal strokes.” He wonders if Leipheimer has started to cramp as he stalls a bit near the top of the climb.
“Come on! One twenty! One twenty,” Holm screams at Leipheimer. “You can do it!” Leipheimer goes over the top with a minute still in hand over the bunch. He dives into corners. This is not enough for his director. “Come on. Sprint,” Holm says to himself. “Risk your life.”
Leipheimer makes the turn up Park City’s main street. It’s clear he’s got it. Holm blows through the vehicle deviation because he wants to make sure Leipheimer doesn’t celebrate too much. Leipheimer points toward the sky and the street erupts, hundreds of people pointing upward together.
“I’d always rather have a stage win than winning the GC without a stage win,” he says. “You know that feeling we got today? Will he make it? Will he not make it? Riding after him, seeing him winning like that, that’s fantastic. You never get fed up with it.”
Leipheimer’s move was perfect. It was bold. Moves like that go one of two ways.
“There’s something great in a big loss also, eh? To really blow it up. You have to like it also. You’re on your knees. You feel like crying. It’s emotional. Ups and downs,” Holm says. “We’re in a sport where we’ve got more losers than winners. Sometimes, you have to go back to the hotel. I have to run one hour to set my head straight and make a new plan after that.”
But today, the plan was good. “Normally, I like to see the young kids winning … but you have to admire what old fuckers like that still can do. You’ve got to say chapeau, good job.”