Top-level cycling is an especially unpleasant form of self-inflicted torment, so it stands to reason the mind often wanders.
Particularly when the sport approaches something very like a self-contained philosophical system, as it does for six-time Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes.
“When I did the time trial at nationals [last June], it was so hot out and so hard, it was 39 minutes of suffering, but I remember at one point I was on the course and a robin flew across the road. I was thinking: Don’t worry little robin, I won’t run you over, but I’m going fast, so watch out. Stuff like that passes through my mind,” Hughes laughed in a recent interview.
Avian distractions notwithstanding, Hughes won.
The copper-haired 39-year-old is now in Europe putting the final touches on preparations for her first Summer Olympics in 12 years, entered in both the road race and the time trial.
Should she win a medal, she’ll stand alone among Canadian Olympians – male or female – with seven. Hughes is already the only athlete in history to win multiple medals at both a Summer and Winter Games (she has two in cycling, four in speed skating), and though it’s not in her DNA to entertain such questions, there is an argument to be made she is among the greatest women to compete in the Olympics.
Sports historian Bruce Kidd, a former Olympic track competitor who teaches at the University of Toronto, warned comparisons across sports and eras can be misleading, but added, “In any galaxy of stars, Clara Hughes has to be among the most luminous. … She’s as good as it gets.”
Citing her versatility, longevity and success in making herself into a world-class athlete in two unrelated disciplines, Kidd said Hughes’s accomplishments would garner a higher degree of recognition had she been born in Manhattan instead of Manitoba, or if she competed in a marquee event.
Former Canadian rower Silken Laumann added, “From the perspective of sheer athletic achievement, Clara really goes down in history – Canadian history and probably international Olympic history as well.”
Laumann, whose bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics barely 10 weeks after shattering her right leg in a training accident ranks among the greatest Canadian performances in history, said what really sets Hughes apart is her “generosity of spirit.”
“The way she conducts herself as a human being is equally impressive,” she said, summarizing Hughes’s rare ability “to be the athlete, while also realizing the power to implement positive change at the height of [her] athletic career.”
Like Hughes, Laumann is involved in Right to Play, an international charity to promote youth sport, but the first time the two met was at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
“She came up to me and said how much she admired me, which was very touching. I would certainly now return the compliment,” Laumann said.
But considerations of legacy are of no particular interest to Hughes, who grew up in Winnipeg (where she was yanked from the path of delinquency by a documentary on speed skater Gaétan Boucher), learned to race bikes in Ontario, and now splits time between her house in Quebec’s Eastern Townships and another in Utah.
“All I think about is I have the chance to inspire. ... That’s really what one of my main focuses is, to show what’s possible when you have goals and when you have dreams and you let yourself live for them and you have the support that allows you to live them out and to discover what the possibilities are,” she said. “I get to inspire young people and older people and I think inspire to live with an open heart, that’s really all I hope for when I think of what it all means, what it all has meant.”
If she is Canada’s most-decorated Olympian – a distinction she shares with former speed-skating teammate Cindy Klassen – she is also one of the country’s most compelling personalities.
After an eight-year break from big-time bicycle racing and soaring to the Olympic podium in speed skating, Hughes decided to return to cycling in 2011, winning the national time-trial crown and placing fifth at the world road racing championship.
It seems like an awful lot of work for someone who, after all, has done everything. But Hughes couldn’t put aside her bike even if she wanted to.
Cycling has long provided solace for Hughes, whose struggles with depression have led to her a public advocacy role she values as much or more than any athletic accomplishment.
Her attachment verges on the poetic.
“I always keep my senses open to what’s going on around me. When I was speed skating, I had this awareness that this beautiful movement was happening through me, a sense of wonder, almost. On the bike, it’s definitely an attachment to nature. … There’s so many places where I’ll preride a time-trial course and I’ll see there are lilacs in bloom on that hill. And when I’m racing, I’ll be, there are those lilacs! It passes through my consciousness, it’s a connection to the landscape,” she said.
That’s all well and good, but Hughes isn’t a modern-day Thoreau on two wheels, she’s also preparing for London with a specific goal in mind: delivering the race of her life.
Whether that results in a medal isn’t really the point.
“Just completely emptying myself within the two races I have. Really that’s all I think about. I don’t think about winning, I don’t think about losing,” she said.
It’s a dichotomy that Hughes freely acknowledges – there are two Claras on the bike – and it’s an essential part of her ability to focus on a task she admits feels different this time.
Hughes speaks as if these will probably be her final Olympics, although fans know better than to take her at her word.
The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where she won a bronze in the 5,000-metre long-track speed-skating event, were also supposed to be her last.
Hughes has worked tirelessly in the past 18 months to adapt her body to the bicycle – she’s lighter, for one thing – for one more shot at glory.
And that’s what allows her to maintain a level of focus she feels is unprecedented in her career.
“What I’m trying to do is next to impossible,” she says. “The sport that I’m in is so gruelling and so cruel.”
She acknowledges the temptation to feel good about her past accomplishments or get sentimental about her final hurrah, “but I put that on the shelf. The here and now is not only a wonderful opportunity. ... I need every ounce of fire that I have to light up on those days.”
At the same time, Hughes uses the prospect of finality as motivation.
“Next time I set foot on Canadian soil it’s done. I really look at it in that sense, when I’m back here it’s done, I don’t have another chance to live this: What are you going to do?” she said. “What’s it going to be?”
As for what happens after that question is resolved, the best Hughes can offer is a laugh.
“I have no idea. I like to joke that [husband] Peter and I are going to become nomadic reindeer herders and live in a yurt in Mongolia,” she said. “You never know, maybe that’s the next step.”