“Wait ‘til next year.” That’s what most Bruins fans cried last spring after Philly came back from the dead and erased our three games to none lead. Well, next year is now and the regular season is about to begin.
Which is why Zdeno Chara, the Bruins' bard of the ice, has put away his carbon fiber racing bike and laced up his skates. Hopefully his next serious ride won’t be until late in the spring of 2011. A few days after he drinks deeply from the Stanley Cup and recites an epic poem, one of struggle and redemption that will slake our thirst after so many years of drought.
“I’ve been biking,” Zee says, “since I was nine or ten. My dad was a physical therapist and masseuse for a cycling team. I helped him out and the guys in his club put a bike together for me. That’s how I first got started riding.”
Hockey is a tough sport; up close the action looks like a mashup of tackle gymnastics and NASCAR on ice. So it’s understandable if you think that hockey players and cyclists have nothing in common. Zee begs to disagree. “The mindset is similar,” Zee says. “You have to be disciplined and motivated and work hard. If someone says cycling is not a serious sport,” Zee adds, “then I’d send him out on a bike and say go try those hills. It’s very much one of the hardest sports out there.”
Zee started competing in amateur bicycle races five years ago. “Now I bike in the off-season in my home country of Slovakia, and sometimes in the Czech Republic. I also like to ride the stages of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.”
“The best bike rides I’ve ever done,” Zee says, “were on the same roads as the stages of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. They are hard and exciting, and watching the races afterwards is amazing.”
Zee’s most challenging ride? “Ascending Mont Ventoux (one of the toughest climbs of the Tour de France). I was suffering,” Zee says. “For the last three or four kilometers I was out of it. It was a cold and windy day. At the end I was so slow I looked down because I thought I had two flat tires. I didn’t. I just wanted to quit. I got to the top, took a photo, put on my jacket and turned around.” This from a man who averages over 25-minutes a game on the ice.
Like most serious cyclists, Zee has a number of bikes. “Six or seven. I never used to have that many except that with all of my traveling it was hard to ship my bike. They would come a day or two late or sometimes they would be damaged. If you have an expensive bike,” Zee adds, “you don’t want that to happen. Now I leave my bikes where I need them.”
Even Zee gets knocked down once in a while; a fall on the ice is part of the game. But on a bike a crash can have serious consequences. “This summer I was really lucky,” Zee says. “I was descending a hill I’ve done a number of times, but this time I did it another way. The turn was sharp and there was sand and gravel and I ended up a couple of inches from the edge of a cliff. I almost went over. It was terrifying, my heart was beating so fast.”
Zee does bike around town during the season, just no racing. “I use my bike to get groceries, to go to the post office and to sight see. Everything is close by and I’d rather jump on the bike than drive around Boston.” When he’s not wearing the home team’s black and gold, Zee tries to be green.
Zee is pretty modest about his biking skills. Still, had he concentrated on cycling instead of hockey, I think he could have dropped Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx (the Bobby Orr of biking) with ease. Though as a hometown hockey fan I’m glad he chose skates over wheels.
Even when the Celtics are in town, Zee is one of the tallest cyclists on Causeway Street. So if you’re hanging around downtown and are lucky enough to see a really tall, really fast biker streaking past to grab some groceries, know that it just might be the best defenseman in the NHL enjoying his other favorite sport.
Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.