The Antidisestablishmentarianist

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Colin Edwards announced his retirement from MotoGP on Friday at the Motorcycle Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin, Texas. It was unexpected in the way that inevitable ends always are – this was a long time in coming, but it’s hard to be fully prepared for the moment of hearing the speech and reading the words. Even Edwards acknowledged as much – he started the announcement tentatively: “I don’t even know how to say it, I rehearsed it so many times…”

Part of Colin’s longevity is down to his popularity among fans, and that popularity comes from a forthright demeanor. He has cleverly cultivated a persona (or, if you’re less cynical, been himself) in a way that allows him to get away with swearing regularly in press conferences (From Friday: “I’ve been in Europe since 1995, and these young bastards have been kicking my ass since then”) and shooting from the hip (“I might say some things that some people don’t like. Sponsors, probably“). I mean “shooting from the hip” literally, too – the man is an avid gun owner.

His bike has carried American flag themes on more than one occasion. The Lone Star Flag is embedded in his number, and stars have long been part of his insignia. He swears, he drinks, he hunts, he has a drawl vaguely corrupted by years in Europe. He made his name on dirt tracks. All signs point to him falling in the tradition of bike racing’s great American hicks gone abroad.

Maybe he is. But that conclusion is the easiest one. This is a thing about sports and aging and retirement, right, but it’s also a thing about perception: The “Texas Tornado” is 40 years old, and he’s been a fixture on the world stage for 22 years. He has raced for three factory teams and won two world championships. He’s sat alongside great riders (Aaron Slight, Noriyuki Haga, Valentino Rossi). He has won great races (both World Superbike rounds at Imola ’02). Somehow, he’s managed to do all of that without winning a MotoGP race, carrying the smoked-out torch of American dominance in its twilight. If Colin Edwards is just a backwoods redneck, how did he outlast so many others?

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It’s not the longest word in the English language, but the novelty of discovering “antidisestablishmentarianism” in grade school can stick with you. Its utter impracticality is impressive for a pretty simple premise that emerged in 19th century England: adhering to a doctrine of opposition to the social and political establishment from within. The doctrine suggests that the establishment’s agenda effects a loss in connection with its people, thereby dismantling support and the systems the establishment was put in place to protect.

Colin Edwards is like that, a subversion from deep within company confines. For all of the dimwitted Straight Talk Express posturing, the man is one of the most deeply respected riders in the paddock because he is smart, delivering unparalleled feedback. Yamaha retained him as a rider and kept him on or near their payroll long after Rossi could stave off having Jorge Lorenzo as a teammate because his ability to develop a bike was widely coveted.

He makes it sound simple. “What you feel in your ass is really the most important thing, and how you translate that.” But his work on the Hondas of his headier World Superbike days was formidable and, later, his time with Yamaha allowed Rossi and Lorenzo to win titles to make that marque the preeminent force in 00s grand prix racing. This may not be the imprint of a prima donna A-list rider bound for eternal glory, but it is an essential component that enables other, more bloodthirsty riders to reach such great heights. He never would have lasted as long as he did if personality was the only measure. That he made it more than two decades says he is more than just a survivor, too. That he’s spent a dozen seasons in the top flight without a victory is the ultimate subversion.

There were rumors of his retirement as early as the summer of 2007, when Yamaha signed Jorge Lorenzo for ’08. There was talk of him going back to World Superbikes or returning to America to win a domestic superbike title in the AMA (back when they had money and an actual series to market, though that’s another story).

Yet, he stayed. He stayed with the satellite Tech 3 Yamaha team for four seasons. In 2012, he joined Forward Racing to become the first high profile signing to MotoGP’s doomed CRT class. Why? “It was an opportunity to build something,” he says, which is misleading. The CRT experiment wasn’t just an opportunity for Edwards to build. It was an opportunity to destroy MotoGP’s established hierarchy. Only now, indirectly in 2014, are we seeing the fruits of that labor with Aleix Espargaro’s imminent success and the rise of the Open class.

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Everyone will have a favorite image of Colin Edwards when he’s done. It may be him in his youth amid the gaudy neon glow of his early 90s Vance & Hines AMA rides or at the height of his powers aboard the Castrol Honda. It may be his American-themed bikes. It may be some gala he spoke at or a family moment with his wife and kids. It may be the time his Aprilia caught fire at the Sachsenring.

I already know mine; I have for years. The above image was taken at the final corner of the Dutch Grand Prix in 2006. Context is superfluous, but his modesty afterward spoke to his professionalism. “Unfortunately, I ran it a bit too tight onto the grass, and the rear just spun up as I opened the throttle and it threw me off.”

The rawness of emotion that can only be captured in such a moment of intense focus, struggling to get the bike re-fired, spoke volumes more. I remember watching this on tape delay that summer (they all were in those days) and being caught up in the moment after the moment; obviously, you can’t recognize the anguish from a terrible international television feed except in a very abstract sense at such heightened speeds.

It wasn’t until a day or two later that I saw this. The high resolution of the original is worth a look because it allows for more engrossing examination. I always felt that it was something in his eyes that said everything about the gravity of the situation without knowing anything beyond the frame. It’s something that makes you productively angry, something that suggests fearsome revenge, something that makes want to tear everything down from the inside. It’s something that makes you want to keep going.

It’s something about perception. Where Colin Edwards finished then, as now, is not important; what’s important is that he’ll always be an inspiration. If you’re looking for that among history’s race results, you’re looking in the wrong place.

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