The Tour de France, one of the greatest sporting events in the world, concluded this week. This year’s race was 2276 miles long, and those riders who were able to finish the race covered that distance in a little over three weeks. Vincenzo Nibali was this year’s winner. But for me one of the most inspiring rides of the Tour came from the American–Andrew Talansky.
Talansky was the top American rider in this year’s Tour, but unfortunately two brutal crashes early in the race ended any hope he had of winning. Nevertheless, in spite of both crashes, and some serious injuries, he continued to ride.
He was hurting so badly that at the end of Stage 10 he could not even remove his jersey after he had finished the race. He started Stage 11 with a body covered in cuts, scrapes and bruises, and after riding a little over 50 miles it appeared he’d had enough. Talansky lost contact with the peleton and fell well behind the pack.
Talansky’s body was telling him it was time to quit. Talansky’s heart was telling him something else. So he kept riding.
After another 30 miles, Talansky couldn’t go any further. He climbed off his bike, so crippled with pain he was bent over double. He sat by a guard rail, and it was clear to everyone watching he was done. The pain was so severe he was crying, and it seemed he didn’t even have enough strength to stand up on his on. After about 10 minutes, he pulled himself to his feet, apparently to get into the van that picks up racer’s who drop out. But to the amazement of all watching, he didn’t climb into the van. He climbed back onto his bike and he started to ride.
Unfortunately, he now faced a deadline. He had to finish the race within 37 minutes of the 1st place rider or he would be disqualified. This was next to impossible, given his crippling injuries. There was no way he was going to be able to continue the Tour after this stage, must less be a contender. And now it looked like regardless of any amount of effort, he would be disqualified at the end of this stage–so the sensible thing to do was to stop, climb into the van and live to fight another day.
But he kept peddling.
And with crowds lining the street cheering him on and inspiring him forward, he ended the stage 32 minutes after the 1st place finisher–a full five minutes before the time required to avoid disqualification.
Of course his body was so badly broken he had to drop out of the Tour the next day. But he dropped out a hero, after one of the most courageous rides in the history of that epic race.
Why do we find these stories so inspiring? Stories of athletes who keep going in the face of the gods decreeing that their effort is futile? Stories of athletes who find meaning by staying in a race any sensible person would quit?
I think these stories speak to us because, while we are not world-class endurance athletes, we have all had times when life was too much and we simply wanted to give up, but we didn’t. We too have had times when we were so overwhelmed,or the odds were so stacked against us, we felt like we could not continue, and we knew any sensible person would simply crawl into bed and turn out the lights.
But we don’t. We find a way to get up in the morning, weary with exhaustion, and do what needs to be done to feed the children. We make a mistake with terrible consequences, but we return to the office the next day determined not to be defined by our failure. We are betrayed by someone we love, and the pain is more than we can bear, but we refuse to close our hearts to the world.
There have been times in our own lives when we’ve wanted to give up, but we haven’t. And in those times of perseverance we have discovered something remarkable. We have discovered that life is about more than outcome. Life is about attitude.
Like Talansky, most of the time we’re not going to be able to win the race. Fate, it seems, has decreed for us a different outcome. But when we persevere we discover that while the gods may choose the terrain for this race, we are still here to ride. The gods may dish out the crippling accidents and the bad weather, but we are still here to participate with the best that we have. The object is not to win. In the end, the outcome is irrelevant, and many times beyond our control. What is important is to be on the field or in the race and to play or run or ride with élan and with the utmost investment of spirit until the end, so that when the race is over we can know that we held nothing back.
When we do that, we discover that while fate plays some role in our lives, it does not control our destiny. We control our destiny.
And with that discovery, we finally understand what true freedom really is.