It’s been about six weeks since he retired, and I still have Tyler Farrar on my mind. With little fanfare and with a year left on his contract with Dimension Data, Farrar stepped off his bike and called it a career after the recent World Cup races in Canada.
None of the major cycling websites had posted the story, but on a cursory search, I read Christian Vande Velde’s post on Twitter wishing his former teammate Tyler well. I did a quick follow-up search and there was the brief news item on an Italian website. In the next day or two, the main cycling sites among U.S. readers posted the story.
It was sudden and unexpected. And I was sad because cycling had lost one of its best ambassadors. Cycling hasn’t been at its best for years. But Farrar represented the good in the sport.
Among the most unheralded American cyclists in history, Farrar spent most of his career as a powerful sprinter who some said was too nice to mix it up in the final 200 meters of stages. But he said he was done. Good for him and salute.
But here’s the deal for me: As much as reporters are taught to be objective, it’s never an absolute. Some athletes you like, some you don’t, most are just people you talk to for your job. At most, there’s a superficial rapport. Athletes, I’m thinking, feel the same way about reporters.
I’ve followed Farrar’s career for more than a decade. He was an easy guy to like, a “go-to” athlete for a quote after a race. He was rarely flustered, rarely controversial, an increasingly rare component of sport, and it was refreshing. Loudmouths and chest-beaters get attention. But Farrar would always be available with his quiet demeanor, the antithesis of many sprinters’ ways.
I still don’t know Farrar well, and I haven’t spoken to him since the 2016 Tour of California. But as his career developed, when he began to win big one-day races and stages in grand tours, Farrar was increasingly classy on and off his bike. His career stats are impressive: 29 pro wins, including stages in all grand tours. He rode in 15 grand tours and 25 classics in 13 pro seasons. He finished the Tour de France four times, the Tour of Spain three times and the Tour of Italy once.
I appreciate Farrar’s athletic skills and I respect him as a person. He’s the first male I’ve known who let his hair grow shoulder length and then sheared it off and donated it to Locks of Love, the charity that provides human hair to children.
Raised in Wenatchee, Washington, Farrar has proud parents who helped their son develop as a cyclist and person. His father, Ed, was a spinal surgeon and is as proud of his son as any father can be. The elder Farrar was hit by a car in 2008 while riding his bike to work. He’s now a paraplegic. The father-son relationship hasn’t always been the easiest since, but in a 2009 interview with ESPN.com the younger Farrar said:
“My cycling is separate from real life. What he’s dealing with is real life. What I’m doing is sport. What he’s doing is a lot more serious. I have a lot more respect for what he’s going through than whatever hardship I’m experiencing going up a mountain.”
Cycling’s dangers struck again in 2011 when Wouter Weylandt, Farrar’s best friend, died after crashing on a descent during a Tour of Italy stage.
At Weylandt’s funeral, a large gathering honored the rider in a massive, ancient church in Gent, Belgium, where Farrar has lived for many years. Teammates wore pink scarves over their dark suits to honor the accessory Weylandt wore in one of his last interviews. The soft-spoken Farrar eloquently remembered his teammate, combining a tricky balance of sadness, humor and love. Weylandt taught him the life of cycling, Farrar said.
Two months later, after several weeks off the bike mourning the loss of his friend, Farrar won a Tour de France stage. As he crossed the line, Farrar formed his hands into a “W” to honor his fallen friend and teammate. Cycling has had no greater poignant finishing moment.
“It’s hard dealing with tragedies,” Farrar said in a Los Angeles Times interview. “Yes, cycling has taken things from me, but it’s also given me a lot, a life I wouldn’t have had any other way. I’m making a living doing what I love, and I have to keep in mind that you take the bad with the good. There have been hard moments, but that’s life. For example, my dad, yes, it happened on a bike. But my father’s accident, he could have been walking down the road. At a certain point, it’s random bad luck.”
In the zenith of his career (Farrar won 11 races in 2009, finished second in 12 and third in 6), Farrar arrived at a training camp for Garmin only the find his image emblazoned across the team’s motorhome. The image showed Farrar’s arms spread wide, like the symbol of a cross, and his face in complete exaltation. It exemplified part of the beauty of watching a sprint finish.
Farrar told me in an interview at the start of a Tour de France stage he was unaware of his team’s plan to showcase his image, and that he wasn’t completely comfortable with the overt presentation. But he dealt with it without a fuss.
For a few years during Farrar’s career, I had the opportunity to report on his Tour de France progress periodically for The Seattle Times and the daily for his hometown newspaper, the Wenatchee World. It was then among the few remaining afternoon daily newspapers in the United States. It’s located in the apple capital of the world, and its masthead features an apple with a map of the world replacing the letter “O” in the word world. It personifies what a small city newspaper does best, local news. The newspaper found a small budget for me to follow the daily exploits of its famous hometown athlete competing 5,000 miles away.
Daily journalism always provides a rush, but working for an afternoon newspaper was further challenging and exhilarating. France is nine hours ahead of West Coast U.S. time. If a Tour de France stage ended at 4 p.m., it was 7 a.m. in Wenatchee. I don’t recall the exact deadline for submitting articles, but it was tight and it was before publications thrived online. Even for a veteran reporter, writing about a sporting event and having it published in print on the same day as it occurred was fascinating.
With Farrar, the Tour de France usually meant two things: In sprinting stages, he would emerge near the front in the last few hundred meters. In the mountains, he’d be at the back of the field, in the grupetto, and hoping to finish within the time limit as struggling riders pedaled across the Alps and Pyrenees.
In either instance, writing a “running” or nearly real time story as the stage progressed was necessary. Within a short time after a stage ended, I had to file a piece. Many of the articles were routine, but there were exceptions. Farrar sometimes had difficulty staying on his bike, including a reported 18 crashes during the 2012 season.
In the 2010 Tour de France, Farrar rode for a week with a broken wrist before withdrawing. In 2011, Farrar won a Tour de France stage on July 4th. He did so with a lead-out from Thor Hushovd, the Norwegian who was then wearing the race leader’s jersey.
In 2012, after an ugly stage in which he crashed four times, Farrar rushed the team bus of Argos-Shimano to confront Tom Veelers, the Dutch rider whom the American accused of improper tactics. It was a rare moment when Farrar’s calm demeanor took a detour. Garmin team personnel pulled Farrar off the other team’s bus.
I last covered the Tour de France in 2011, the year Australian Cadel Evans won. On the final day, Farrar was expected to be in the sprint mix on the traditional finale on the cobblestoned streets on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Within a few minutes of the final lap, I opened my laptop on a small lawn near the team vehicles just off the race course. The wifi systems in the area weren’t working. I had already written a recap of Farrar’s three weeks, his stage win, his crashes and his struggles to get over the mountains. I just needed his final-stage and overall placing to complete the article. Farrar finished fourth behind Mark Cavendish, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Andre Greipel. I had 20 minutes to find a way to email the piece to my editor.
The high-brow Hotel de Crillon is a Paris landmark with rooms that cost about $1,500 a night. It sits majestically not too far from the yearly Tour de France finish. All the hotel staff could do was say no if I asked if I could use its wifi. The doorman, attired in top hat and tails, noticed my media credential and welcomed me into the lobby despite my attire — jeans, a sweaty T-shirt from a long day on a muggy July afternoon, sandals and a baseball cap. A woman at the marble reception counter invited me to sit anywhere. She gave me the wifi login information and asked it would like a cup of coffee.
And so there I was sipping coffee out of fine china, sitting on antique furniture and pounding quickly on a laptop keyboard to email an article from Paris to a sports editor in Wenatchee, Washington.
How could he have ever known? But thank you, Tyler Farrar for the opportunity to further hone my deadline reporting skills. The day represented everything I wanted to be as a reporter. I got the story filed on a nasty tight deadline. The rush was again satisfying.
In the past few years, his winning days gone, Farrar became a road captain and a lead-out rider. When once cyclists like Robert Hunter, Julian Dean and several others rode for Farrar, he now rode for them, most notably Mark Cavendish, a one-time nemesis.
Before a stage of 2015 Tour of California, I approached Farrar while he was warming up his rollers and listening to music. I asked if he might have one more opportunity to win a stage.
“No, I don’t think so; those days are gone,” he said. “I have a new role in the sport.”
Farrah now has another role in life. He speaks a half-dozen languages. He’s traveled the world. He’s 33 years old and married to his high school sweetheart.
I once asked Farrar if he ever considered writing a book. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m not a book-writing kind of guy.”
I disagree. It would be a book about an athlete and person who has a story tell. It would be a book about a classy individual who represented cycling at its best.