The alarm went off.
You woke up. Maybe you were fully awake with the adrenaline of anticipation by the time it started; maybe you were still half-asleep and in a daze of obligation. Friends congregated around a television – you could have been one of them – or you just kept your phone charged to ensure you got the texts as they rolled in. You had cereal, or you started in on the drinking. Grease was standing by as a coping mechanism. You were decked out in the attire of a country you’ve never visited and don’t know anyone from, or just your pajamas. Your Twitter feed was open. All the quips from strangers you’ll never know rolled in. And you remember where you were when David Luiz scored after 18 minutes. The knockout rounds had truly begun. The day was just beginning.
For you, anyway. Somewhere else, I was already in the process of interviewing the first of four candidates for a position at my radio station. I had already traveled an hour north from my apartment by the time of Luiz’s goal. My cereal was long gone. I wasn’t watching. I had been up since 4am. I had already seen genius again.
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I understand as well as anyone that soccer is the world’s sport and that there is no better time for someone who has been skeptical of it to embrace the event, such as it is, than right now. This isn’t about minimizing or dismissing that, or about hampering your enthusiasm; I don’t want you to get less upset about not seeing another Suarez jaw-chomp or Alexis Sanchez sideswipe on the world stage. I know that the US plays Belgium on Tuesday and that this is incredibly important to fans of soccer in America or fans of sports in America or fans of America or maybe just people who like to get wound up. It’s worth celebrating. It’s worth criticizing. It’s worth thinking about.
This isn’t here to set you off. It’s just to remind you that, like soccer, great moments in sports don’t necessarily happen when you’re noticing them. The passes back and forth, the one-touch trigonometry or aimless long balls across field or stray kicks out of bounds that set up throw-ins – these are the foundations for wrinkles in time and space that allow greatness to happen. They are greatness by extension. Not everyone sees it.
Marc Marquez won his eighth MotoGP race in a row at the Dutch Grand Prix in Assen yesterday. He hasn’t lost a race this season. The last time a rider started off this perfectly was 1971. This is greatness the likes of which four generations could not equal. And unless you were up at the crack of dawn in America, you would never have known.
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You wouldn’t have known for two reasons. First, you don’t care about motorcycle racing. Second, you went to bed on Friday night confident in the assertion that Marquez would win it and there was nothing to wake up for.
The frantic action on the grid in the minutes before the start of the race would not have suggested that. Assen is one of the few places left on the calendar that retains an aura about it both for being the only continuously used circuit since 1949 (hence its nickname as “the cathedral of motorcycling”) and for being reliably unpredictable weather-wise. 2014 was just such an occasion: Rain factored into tire choice heavily and, as MotoGP does nowadays, the race was a flag-to-flag affair – riders would have to come into the pits and change bikes with different tires and settings if the track got too dry and they needed to swap out.
I watched it all transpire behind a 13″ laptop screen from some illegal Spanish feed. Or maybe it was British, or maybe it was going through a Libyan server like Bit.ly did for a while; I have no idea. All I know is what I could see. And after the gradual drying-out of the track after the first few laps, I could see that the race lead would be a brief tussle between Andrea Dovizioso’s Ducati and Marquez’s Honda.
Dovizioso’s only MotoGP win came in the wet and Ducati have always done well in those conditions. He led a few laps but, as the track dried, increasingly fell back into the clutches of Marquez. When Marc went by for good on lap 16, you knew as a viewer that it had been coming the entire race. From his tire choice to his gravity-defying leap of one bike to another to his recovery from an early trip to the runoff area, the victory was hardly metronomic but enthralling and inevitable all the same. And what can you do but laugh to yourself because no bar anywhere is open at 7am for you to share in the joy of watching motorcycle racing’s greatest rider win again? The first World Cup match wasn’t until 11, after all.
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Marc Marquez, like all of sport’s greatest talents, is a comedian in the great tradition of sprezzatura, an Italian term for studied carelessness. It’s as if he makes mistakes to make it look like he isn’t trying, to make it look like this whole top-level grand prix thing is a lark. He did a makeshift breaststroke across the line to take the checkered flag, pure showmanship in a race where he’d already demonstrated enough of that to keep crowds entertained many laps later than he needed.
Understanding this wizardry isn’t quite the same as appreciating it, but it’s a gateway drug. If you understood Assen, maybe you could understand and eventually appreciate Barcelona two weeks ago, or Mugello before that, or Austin, or Qatar, or Austin last year. Or, further back, the mystique of Valentino Rossi’s early years with Honda. Or the ruthlessness of Mick Doohan. Or anything, so long as it’s recorded and there’s a torrent or a YouTube rip out there of it. The appreciation can be acquired given the right race.
It’s easier to get sucked in that way. You find yourself watching races you didn’t know were important. You download torrents on sites that require invitations. You immerse yourself in all the hidden coves of the Internet. You suddenly uncover hidden 250cc talents like Anton Mang or Tetsuya Harada. You know where to find things and you know how to watch them live for free. Alone and in the middle of the night, mind you, but you know. It feels like part of the joke.
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The alarm went off.
I struggled to get out of bed, stumbling to the chair at my kitchen table to fire up the laptop and get to a stream in time to watch the Moto3 opener. Races can be a great exercise in curing insomnia because of their rhythms; unless someone is crashing, bike racing is, fundamentally, a bunch of people riding around in elaborate loops with only slight variation. You don’t need to be fully awake to know what’s going on at face.
That’s why I’ve always had trouble remembering MotoGP riders as youths. Moto3 is the breeding ground for future greats; the problem is that it’s always first on the bill, so if you’re not paying attention at 4am, odds are good you won’t recall any but the most distinctive names (step forward, Enzo Baldassari and Enea Bastianini). Even those feel made-up. Even those don’t feel quite right.
The Moto2 race later seems more tangible. The names are more concrete, more singular (Xavier Simeon, Thomas Luthi, Nico Terol). The sponsors are more prominent. It’s still a dream but it’s just that little bit more real – just ask Anthony West, who won his first race in 11 years at Assen. “Maybe someday,” you think, not really sure if you’re saying it to the riders or yourself. The thought goes unfinished.
By the time the MotoGP bikes get underway, it’s easy to think of Supriya Nair’s words from a few years back that, “Someone somewhere must be dreaming this.” You look out the blinds and see the sunlight in the cloud cover, checking the time as Marc Marquez slips under Andrea Dovizioso and begins to pull away. But even half-asleep, you know better: There is a shred of reality to every dream and it’s okay to laugh because you’re tired and truth takes many forms. It’s okay to laugh because Marc Marquez just swam to another win. It’s okay to laugh because he is the truth, even when no one you know is looking.