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Coureurs and Cowboys

July 4, 2011

“Most opposite of a pro-cyclist: a Colorado cowboy.  Both ride, but whoa, Wranglers way different from bike shorts.”

I tweeted this while thinking about a lunch with Gene, who lives in La Veta in south-central Colorado.  I’m interviewing him and getting to know the area around La Veta as part of a series of essays I’m writing about small Colorado towns.  Gene, an octogenarian, has worked as a cowboy; now he writes about cowboys.

When I visited Gene last week we ate in Gene’s favorite Huerfano county café, George’s Drive-Inn.  It’s in nearby Walsenburg, holding up the middle of a gritty strip of shops and motels catering to travelers just off I-25.  Opening  the door to this breakfast and lunch eatery was like stepping into a sunrise; shiny orange Formica tables and booths reflected the late morning light.  The waitresses wore cotton tops similar to  1950’s housedresses, and patrolled the tables every two minutes with full pitchers of iced-tea.

It was easy to pick out the visitors or tourists, especially the women.  Their shorts and  summery tees looked  crisper.  They were pale faces.  Like me, they ordered sandwiches with vegetables stuffed inside.

Gene has been teaching me about real cowboys.  For example, they always wear Wrangler’s, never Levi’s.  They won’t touch chicken unless a hostess offers it to them; standard fare is beef and taters.

Gene ordered the green chili burger.  I ordered a turkey Reuben.  Then I scanned the plates on the other tables; four out of five contained a green chili burger in varying states of demolition.

Immediately I wished I had chosen a green chili burger; the fact that I hadn’t reinforced how different I, who had grown up in the New York City suburbs, was from the cowboy-like local folks enjoying their beef in George’s.

As we waited for our food I glimpsed a road bike on the roof of a car in the parking lot.  It struck me that nothing could be further away from the cowboy aura in George’s than one of my passions, professional cycling.

Professional cycling is flashy; the cyclists, the bikes, and the team cars and buses are brightly colored, sometimes screaming neon.  The folks enjoying chili burgers at George’s wore cotton, the men in long sleeved shirts and pants for protection against the sun and the brush.  They bounce around in pick-ups on dirt roads or on animals who pick their way between candlestick cactus.  Pro-cyclists stream along (for the most part) smooth roads on delicate carbon-fibers.

But in the week since I have seen Gene, similarities between pro-cyclists and cowboys have been asking for my attention.  Both sit on saddles all day and wear something on their heads when they work.  Cowboys and pro-cyclists work outside, traveling over the land, regardless of the weather.  And their ability to earn a living doing what they love is under threat: for cowboys, from the breakup of large ranches into 40 acre ranchettes and from potential federal land grabs; for pro-cyclists, from sponsor reticence to support a sport associated with doping scandals.  Maybe it’s because they are both in trouble that I’m so fond of both of them and the places where they work.

While I’m starting to get the feeling of Gene and cowboys, I’m still searching for my niche in the world of pro-cycling writing.  To succeed, I believe I’ll need to take a cowboy approach: independence and no chicken.

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From → Essays, Pro-Cyclists

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