Marathon effort in New York
I had the opportunity to compete in a new form of racing in November at the New York City Marathon. Along with Boston, Chicago, Berlin and London, the New York marathon is one of the sport’s ‘big five’ events.
When Barilla invited me to be involved in the pasta party for all 35,000 competitors the night before, to help them pack carbohydrates, I said, ‘I would love to be involved, as long as you’re not going to hand me the cheque for 35,000 people.’ The second thing I said was that as long as I am there I may as well do the marathon. They said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I told them I had heard about this hand-powered bicycle and that there was a category for them in the race. They said, ‘Yes, but you’re not trained. It’s impossible. You can’t do 42km.’ Up to that point it had just been a joke, but when they said ‘impossible,’ I said, ‘OK, we’ll go to New York and see if it’s possible or not.’
You can’t go to your local bicycle shop and buy a hand-bike, but fortunately the Maddiline bicycle company read of my plans and was kind enough to supply me with a hand-bike. Still, I didn’t take delivery of it until the WTCC race at Monza in October. I pedalled it for the first time on the roads around the shop and found that I not only enjoyed it but that it gave me a very good cardio workout, which is not easy to achieve without your legs.
I was able to do some good training in October, covering the marathon distance five times, and arrived in New York knowing I could do the distance. The lap time was another question…
In New York many people were very complimentary about me competing, for the way I have faced my… let’s call it adversity. Which is very nice, of course, but I don’t think I’ve done anything special. I’ve just tried very hard to live my life in the best possible way.
As I was riding my bike from the hotel to the start, I realised the steering damper had broken. It wasn’t like in Champ Cars, Formula 1 or the WTCC where the mechanics could just go to the transporter for a new part and replace it. My only choices were to compete in the race knowing the steering would be difficult, or to withdraw, which was not really an option.
At the start I was in doubt as to whether to push really hard to be behind the fastest competitors. I was scared that I could try to chase a train which would prove to be too fast later in the race. Once I saw the top three guys had gone I picked up a kind of collaboration with a guy from Florida. He wouldn’t talk much. I kept saying, ‘Tell me what I have to do. I know nothing about marathons, this is my first one.’
Once or twice he said, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ That’s all he said. At about three quarters of the distance we entered some uphill parts where he definitely tried to pull away. I did my best to stay with him and then in the last part I realised he had given his all. He knew how to pedal but he didn’t know how to take turns, which is where I think I have some talent. In the last corner he took a very strange line and I came out of the turn much faster, so I got ahead of him and when I looked back, he was gone.
Then it was just a few metres to the finish and I have to say I was very happy when the race was over. Because of the broken damper the bike was shaking like crazy, and if you hit a bump – wow! Going downhill, I was scared I would lose control of the bike. That was definitely dangerous and I was glad when it was over. When I did 230mph at Michigan Speedway I wasn’t that scared.
I finished fourth out of 53 competitors in the hand-bike category. Although my time of 1hr 33min 17sec was 15 minutes behind the winner Alejandro Albor, I was 12 minutes faster than my target. I was really happy, considering that three weeks before I didn’t even know how a hand-bike was made!
The marathon reminded me of when it all began for me, driving go-karts as a little kid. I never lost my passion even when I was able, thanks to some luck, to turn it into a profession. It became routine when I was driving F1 cars; even in Indy cars, when I experienced the biggest glory, I never felt that nervous. The night before the marathon I only got a couple of hours of sleep because I was so excited.
I will definitely be doing the hand-cycling more seriously, and I intend to race in New York this year. But that doesn’t mean I’ll quit racing cars – I send that as a direct message to the drivers who are hoping to be in line for my seat with BMW!
The 2007 WTCC season was a little disappointing for me because I was unable to win a race as I had in each of the two previous seasons. Still, I finished on the podium at Brno, my team-mate Felix Porteiro won that race and Andy Priaulx secured the championship for BMW.
With the help of BMW and the BMW Italy-Spain team we are continuing to make improvements to my car to help me compete on a level playing field. At Macau, for example, we used a new device mounted on the steering wheel that enabled me to slip the clutch to keep the engine revs up exiting the Melco Hairpin. I will continue developing my hand-bike skills, too. After all, that 15-minute gap from fourth to first is a long one, but one I intend to overcome when I return to New York City next November.