We've all got a story like this. I'm out with our usual Tuesday training group doing laps of the park. It's just after 6am, and only just light, but it's springtime in New York City and the park loop is amply filled with local club and recreational riders all doing their morning thing.
There are eight of us, lined out in pairs, still in tempo warm-up mode, no drills. We go past a threesome. I vaguely take in that one of them is dressed in bright green.
"Seriously? Who wears pro-team kit?" says someone.
"What?" I ask, needing explanation.
"The Belkin guy. Wearing this year's pro-team kit. Who does that?"
"Wait, wait…" says Oscar, "That looks like…" He drops back off the pace group. The Belkin guy is bridging up to us.
"Shit. That's Robert Gesink. No! For real. It's Gesink."
It is. He joins our group. He rides laps with us. He talks perfect English. He's visiting the city with his wife and young child. They're staying at a hotel near the park. He's just vacationing.
This last bit turned out not to be the entire story. He was taking an enforced break after having had to suspend racing because of a cardiac arrhythmia problem. Fortunately, the subsequent treatment was reportedly a success and he returned to full-time racing.
In retrospect, he seemed remarkably relaxed for someone facing a potentially career-ending medical issue. He was charm itself, with no sign of stress. And I was already in awe. We were all in awe. The training was forgotten entirely. The iPhones came out. Tweets were sent, Instagrams posted. In truth, we still got a decent workout because while he rode on the front, chatting amiably, tapping out a steady 350 watts, we each took turns to ride paired with him — talking for as long as the super-threshold pace permitted. Evidently, he could have kept it up all day, just shooting the breeze at 25mph.
There's something about pros. They just look more like a bike-rider than ordinary bike riders do. Gesink is more blessed than most: tall, tan, blond — an almost cartoonishly perfect archetype of the Dutch pro cyclist. And gracious and natural with it.
Then there's the uncanny ability to inhabit an indifferent team kit and make it look ineffably cool. There are stylistic traits that are pro: legwarmers (but no overshoes) even on a mild day; no gloves or mitts; a medium frame with 300mm of seatpost… you know the drill. But anyone could imitate those facets of the pro look — and many of us slavishly do, yet still lack that golden glow, that magical aura of pro-ness.
Eventually, our time was up, our laps were done and, one by one, we said our goodbyes, wished Robert Gesink good luck and a happy holiday, and went our separate ways – each of us basking in the reflected glory of that halo of pro, each destined to be disappointed by the responses our excited narrations would receive at home and at work: "Uh-huh. Robert who?"
But we know that chance encounters like this are one of the glories of our sport, despite its obscurity to most. Every once in a while, we get to ride with our heroes. And not by virtue of some corporate-sponsored, pro-am jolly; not through any expensively bought privilege or insider exclusive deal. We don't have to pull strings to play in some payola charity event to meet the stars.
We see them on the road, because they ride and train on the same roads as we do. And when we're not daydreaming, we quietly thank our stars that actually, we don't have to get up and ride those roads for six or seven hours every day. I love riding my bike, but mostly, six or seven hours a week will do for me.
Even on race days, the pros remain accessible, not cloistered in luxury quarters guarded by big guys in black suits wearing one ear bud. Especially at one-day races, it's easy enough to rub shoulders with the riders. For a sport that, on the whole, struggles to make sufficient spectacle of itself, the upside is an unusual intimacy and a deep identification between the fans and the stars.
Yes, they're gods, capable of feats of strength, power and endurance so beyond our capabilities that they can be hard to comprehend. If I needed reminding of that (which I did not), I found myself chewing my bars for a 90-second interval just sitting on Gesink's wheel as he closed a gap at one point when our group had split. He didn't change position, make himself more aero, or anything. Just poured on the smooth, steady power like he had a bottomless pool of it that cost him nothing to expend some of.
But they have their limits and their off-days too, and we can also both see and, in a profound way, know their pain. Their struggles are of a greater magnitude but of a recognisable shape to us. Gradient is gradient, wind is wind, and cobbles are cobbles. We have indeed travelled not one but many miles in their shoes.
The beauty of it is that most pros know this and seem to observe the unwritten contract of the sport, which is that they came from our ranks, and to our ranks they will one day return. We're their people, too.
Look at it from Robert Gesink's point of view. Instead of riding solo, or doing laps with some random Fred at recovery-ride pace, he got to spool along with a group that knew how to ride tempo and on wheels. He could trust us not to do dumb stuff and knock him off. And he knew that we knew who he was and that he could count on respect and kudos. Happenstance as it was, there was a mutuality to the arrangement without a hint of condescension.
Whereas if LeBron James ever joins a pickup game, you can bet there's got to be an angle. If he's on a court near you shooting hoops, he's not training; that's a public relations event.
Okay, so Robert Gesink is not LeBron James. Except in our world. But in that world, we knew our place. Who do you think won the sprint at the top of Harlem Hill that morning?
This originally appeared in issue 48 of 1 Magazine, published in July 2014.