Former Secretary of State John Kerry told me with conviction that he was going to have been the first American to win the Tour de France. As he shared this spectacular dream with me, his eyes twinkled, he straightened his long, lean physique and gazed into the distance. He was gone for an instant.
Gone back to a moment in time when things were much simpler for him. Back on the hilly roads of Massachusetts with sweat dripping on his top tube and Euro cycling heroes like Fignon and Hinault fixed in his brain. The monumental dedication it would have taken to beat Greg LeMond to that title of first American Tour champion pales in comparison to the audacious political goals Mr. Kerry ended up tackling instead. He took the hard route.
The pro athlete’s path is lined with trophies. Effort is rewarded with things you can hold in your hand to prove you did the hard work. Professional politicians don’t enjoy the same sort of measured feedback. Instead they compete in front of unappreciative crowds who are more apt to criticize than congratulate. They are the unpopular, brainy ones willing to do the research, the debates and the endless meetings as we carelessly enjoy our freedom while riding bikes.
Instead of Alpe d’Huez, John Kerry climbed the steps of the White House. Instead of cranking out hill repeats, he toiled for a lifetime on Capitol Hill. As a senator he fought for free trade, investment in education and environmental protection. He pushed toward peace in the Middle East as the secretary of state. Recently, he dedicated more support in Laos to help clean up the piles of unexploded bombs that still pepper the landscape from the Vietnam War, a war in which he himself served.
He walks away from the State Department this year beaten, bruised and scarred as any lifetime athlete. He paid his dues and put in the work. He took the punches, the criticism and the losses like any athlete would. And like a champion, he got back up and tried again. He kept going. But instead of striving toward his own dreams of grandeur, his own vision of gliding onto the Champs Elysee, he did the hard work for us. He was aiming for a finish line that would never appear in a job that is never done.
How did he do it? For over 30 years as a politician, he maintained sanity by riding his bike. As hard as his job got, he kept riding. He rode in Asia; Washington D.C.; Europe; and even my hometown of Ketchum, Idaho. He’d drag his Secret Service staff along for rides too. His bike has been the one constant in a wildly unpredictable and demanding career. If he’s anything like you and me, his best ideas came while riding. He found clarity to help him solve the world’s toughest problems while he was turning the pedals. I know that cycling makes him feel healthy and happy. I know this because he told me. And when he told me about loading his bike on Air Force One and the places he’s been able to ride, he got that same twinkle in his eye and that same dreamy look. He may not have realized the dream of winning the Tour, but he most certainly became a champion, and his bike was an essential tool for his job.
As I soaked in his riding stories, I wondered if there was a part of him that wishes he’d taken the easy route so many years ago. Lucky for us, he didn’t. While we all need sports heroes, we need political heroes even more desperately. And now, his well-earned reward for all of the unheralded work is the best prize of all … more time to ride. I know his eyes are twinkling already thinking about the many miles stretched out before him.