Secretary of State John Kerry broke his femur in a bike crash the day after meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Kerry, 71 and a passionate cyclist, hit the road after bumping into a curb in southeastern France (likely at low speeds). But the incident, especially as reported in the French media, gives the wrong impression. John Kerry is not some feeble grandpa on a bike — he is actually a fairly badass cyclist.
"He and I are 10 years apart and every time we'd ride together I'd always find myself thinking, man, when I'm his age I hope I'm still riding that fast," says Ben Serotta, a longtime custom bike crafter and personal friend of Kerry. Serotta made several of Kerry's bicycles — the image accompanying stories about the crash shows Kerry with an orange bike Serotta crafted nearly a decade ago.
The climb Kerry was attempting when he crashed, the Col de la Colombière, is one of the toughest in the Alps. "Just saying Colombière, it brings chills to my body," says Frankie Andreu, a nine-time finisher of the Tour de France. "There’s three or four climbs that have a name associated with them like that where it's like, oh my god, this is going to be hell. The Colombière is one of them.” Kerry has reportedly climbed the Colombière several times before.
Andreu adds that there isn't an "easy" side to the climb. It's a meditation on misery whether you come at the 5,291-foot summit from the north or the south. Kerry happened to be starting from the north and crashed near the town of Scionzier. From Scionzier it would have been 10 miles to the summit, with the last few pitching upward between an eight percent and a soul-crushing 12-percent grade. "The climbs in the Alps go on forever; they're super long," says Andreu. "And if it takes an hour for the professional guys when they're racing up it, you can imagine how long it takes for a local rider."
However, Andreu says that Kerry is not your average amateur. Andreu has ridden with Kerry at a number of charity rides and says he was repeatedly impressed, and Andreu cuts him some slack for crashing. "Look, sometimes you fall off your bike. It happens at the elite levels with the top, top pros. You hear about them being in training crashes and that's kind of the predicament John Kerry found himself in — he was in a training crash."
Not everyone, of course, views Kerry's crash as kindly as Andreu does, though. "What is a 71-year-old man, Secretary of State, doing riding a bicycle or, alternatively, windsurfing off Nantucket?" asked radio host Rush Limbaugh. He added, "Why is somebody riding a bicycle while in the midst of sensitive negotiations and attempting to secure nuclear weapons for Iran?"
Seventy-one is hardly too old to be riding a bike, especially if you ride as voraciously as Kerry. Ben Serotta adds that, if anything, Kerry is probably better at his high-stress job because of his riding. There's a certain mental toughness that one can only gain from gritting out hard, physical challenges — like summiting an oversized peak. The term Serotta uses is "acute mental sharpness." Put your head down and suffer at the edges of your capacity for an hour and you'll know what Serotta is talking about. Plus, the sport is ideal for stress relief. "Cyclists get why riding a bike fits well with a stressful work life. I relate to his using cycling as a necessary outlet," says Serotta.
Kerry isn't the only politician that finishes off a day of wheeling and dealing with a spin on his bike. President George W. Bush is an avid mountain biker. In 2004, the then commander in chief took a tumble, resulting in some facial scratches but no real damage. Barrack Obama has been photographed on a bike, but it's the kind of photo where Obama looks more like a suburban dad than the most powerful man in the free world. Freewheeling on a granny-style hybrid, with his high-waisted jeans bunching in unflattering ways, it's clear Obama isn't an avid bike enthusiast the way Bush or Kerry are. And Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon is perhaps the House's chief bike evangelist, promoting "bike-partisanship" (his term) in many road safety bills. He's the founder of the Congressional Bike Caucus and it's a rare day that he's not sporting a bike lapel pin on his suit.
Is Kerry the fittest politician on a bike? Without a Strava account it's hard to know. But at the very least, Serotta says he's one of the best guys to ride with. "He's not one of those guys that just talks and talks. When he talks on a ride it's something worth saying. He's the kind of guy who is enjoyable to ride with, so long as you're ready to ride fast."