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Walls of all sorts

Posted by johnnieraz on October 31, 2015 at 3:45 AM

By John Rezell

Strange how emptiness feels so overwhelming when you would expect no sensation at all.

Yet there I stood, 20 years ago, with a big hole of nothing in my stomach scrambling my brain. What's wrong with this picture? Where's the life?

The picture, or rather, the scene on a morning when the sun couldn't penetrate the smog suffocating everyone in Shanghai felt as smothering as the air.

We had traveled halfway around the world, this carnival of 350 people, to put on the first Tour of China bike race. After a somewhat successful start with a prologue in the much freer city of Hong Kong, we now stood on the mainland preparing for the start of the first official stage.

The circus atmosphere that surrounds bike races in America ranks near the top of the elements that drew me hopelessly toward the sport. With no fences or security back in the mid-90s, cycling offered the most personal experience of any sport on the planet.

Literally, you could stroll right up to Lance Armstrong or George Hincapie or Steve Hegg and say hello as they prepared for a day of racing. You could engage in idle chit-chat, get an autograph or snap a photo. In return, you'd get a sincere smile. You could feel the pure appreciation that you would come out to watch them ride their bikes ooze from the riders. I loved that.

But here, in China, in 1995, we found ourselves immersed in a foreign world.

While our entire entourage went about our business as we always did, riders filling their pockets with energy bars and gulping down another water bottle while mechanics made last-second adjustments to clicking derailleurs, the locals stood silently, at attention, across the street.

There were no ropes holding anyone back. Just uncertainty.

As I made my morning rounds, talking with riders to see how they felt after our whirlwind rush onto the mainland that left us with very little chance to catch our breath, much less get some sleep, we spoke quietly in whispers.

This is weird. Strange. Don't they know they can come over and get a closer look? Don't they know they can mingle?

We felt like a living museum display.

This all played out hours before I captured the photo of the children above at the finish line.

My stomach screamed that this isn't right. This isn't why we came. Yet, I found myself paralyzed and unsure how I could right this wrong. My brain searched for ideas.

And then, well, then something magical unfolded before my eyes. Something I'll never forget.

While a vast majority of the racers had experienced events all around the world with varying degrees of enthusiasm and interaction offered by the locals, at least one did not.

Greg Randolph, a young amateur from McCall, Idaho, only emerged onto the national scene a few months earlier with a spectacular ride at the U.S. National Championships in Seattle.

Literally overnight, Randoph went from sleeping in his car as he drove from race to race, to flying around as a member of the U.S. National Team. His innocence combined with his unquenchable curiosity stirred him to action.

He saw a young man standing aside one beat-up, simple bicycle like the thousands we had seen in our short time riding on buses through the city. Without a word of Chinese in his vocabulary, Greg rolled his $5,000 red, white and blue GT racing bike across the street. Using nothing more than sign language, he negotiated a trade.

Greg helped this tiny man from China onto his racing bike, and pushed him along like a father teaching his son for the first time. The young man's legs could not touch the bottom of the pedal stroke from the lofty perch of the saddle, so he leaned forward and bounced side-to-side as he gained balance and rolled down the street.

What began as a rumble in the crowd soon erupted into a roar, then Greg rushed back and hopped on the beater. The roar turned into pandemonium.

A couple of riders from the Belgian Collstop team rushed to join the fun, grabbing a workcart from another local.

In the blink of an eye, the invisible walls came smashing to the ground.

The crowd stepped forward, into the street, then beyond, across the road.

A band of schoolgirls, all dressed in uniform, rushed toward Steve Hegg, the race leader who won the prologue.

They swarmed him with the promotional cardboard visors begging for autographs and screamling like American teenagers greeting The Beatles for the first time.

Then Norm Alvis, in his stars 'n' stripes National Championship jersey got swarmed.

That's the moment that cycling arrived in China.

You can read the whole account of the 1995 Tour of China in "A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul"

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