Photo by Jacky Naegelen REUTERS
Lance Armstrong the cyclist, not the cancer survivor, activist, or seven time Tour winner, caught my cycling spectator’s eye when he won the Junior National Road Race Championship in 1991. The road to becoming a professional cyclist is littered with youngsters that had early success racing, but couldn’t quite keep up with the big boys when it came time to get paid for spinning pedals for hours on end. So Lance’s first big win, in and of itself was nothing to get excited about, it was how he won and how he handled the success. It was clear that he was not done winning. He had that something that many elite athletes possess…they have it. It is the thing that separates spectator from competitor.That it is hard to pin down, but we all know it when we see the attributes. Joe Dimaggio and Ali to name a couple. Barry Bonds and Michael to name a couple more. You don’t have to be arrogant, dismissive of others talents, or a jerk to be the best in your field, but those qualities sure seem to be present in most of those who achieve that high mark in their sport. Lance, partly due to his young age, was characterized as brash. Whatever the moniker, he had it, and he had my attention.
Lance went on to become World Champion at 21 and he earned the right to wear the coveted Rainbow Jersey on his uniform for the rest of his career at an unheard of young age. He won multiple Tour Stages, European semi-classics, and everything on this continent, seemingly at will. He brought me to tears as I watched him win the Tour stage into Limoges’, pointing to the heavens, just days after the tragic death of his Motorola teammate during an earlier stage. I believed in him.
He signed a big contract ($2 million plus) with an established French team, Colfidis, and was later unceremoniously dumped by the same while he was undergoing treatment for his aggressive testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Over time, word started trickling through the cycling press that Lance was recovering and was going to survive. Reports had him training, but most cycling fans were surprised to hear he was preparing to come back to racing. I remember reading the web reports with disbelief as Lance finished 4th overall in the 1998 Vuelta Espana, Spain’s Grand Tour. I tore off the cover of Velonews (a cycling magazine that covers European races) that covered the race and taped it on my basement wall next to my bikes. The cover featured Lance pedaling out of the saddle, soaked with rain, covered in grit. I looked at the photo before each of my rides.
Shortly after the Vuelta, it was announced that he would compete in the following year’s Tour de France, an unbelievable attempt to be sure. I had seen the photos of how cancer had ravaged his body, I had read the stories of how old ladies passed him on the road during his rides at home during recovery, and where in the middle of six-hour training ride in the rain in the North Carolina mountains he realized that he still loved riding his bike. Competition in the world’s toughest, fastest stage race seemed impossible. I believed in him
After the Le Puy du Foy Prologue in 1999, I ran like a child from the living room into the kitchen where my wife was washing dishes in the kitchen to yell, from 3 feet way, that Lance was in Yellow! During Stage 2, I watched the ruthlessness of his team’s attack on the slippery causeway Passage du Gois, a causeway in France that is only traversable at low tide, when a crash caused a split in the peloton (the French name for the large group in a race). Lance capitalized on the misfortune of his competitors as they hit the deck or got caught behind the carnage with no way to move forward. Lance’s team went ‘full gas,’ in cycling terms, to put a time gap on his competitors that they would never make up. It was maybe the first glimpse for many Americans of what the Texan would do to win a bike race. The aggressive tactics were chalked up to “that’s racing”, but we came to understand with time and hindsight that the guy that so many looked up to, only to later let us down, would do almost anything to win.
There were whisperings of Lance’s cheating at his first Tour after returning from cancer, and the first glimpse of his go-to tactic of intimidation and ostracizing anyone who went against him did not endear. However, it seemed very unlikely that someone who had just gone through a life threatening illness would do anything to jeopardize their health, or so his fans and defenders quickly responded to counter the insinuations. How could you put that into your body after what you had just been through? It didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t. He couldn’t really bring his kids to the podium and share a moment of glory that he achieved by cheating could he? He wouldn’t say, (paraphrasing) “why would I cheat because I have to look my kids in the eye,” would he? He did.
Cycling was supposed to be the sport that was doing more than any other major sport in finding and tossing out the cheats. The governing body (UCI) was catching the cheaters in all the disciplines of the sport. Olympic Champion Filip Meirhaeghe in mountain biking, numerous road racers (Mueseeuw, Rasmussen, et. al), and even championship riders in Cyclocross, a fringe sport of a fringe sport (3x world champion-DeClerq). The fact that so many were getting caught, made it easier to believe those who were telling the press and the fans that they were clean. I believed them.
During his racing years, there was an interview with Tyler Hamilton (Tour rider, teammate of Armstrong, and 60 minute interviewee/lid blower-offer) where he talked about refusing to turn on the air conditioner on his car trip back from a race in Spain because he felt that it would wreak havoc on his respiratory system. The guy who later was found putting someone else’s blood into their body wouldn’t turn on the AC?! Who would have believed it?
It’s easy to put yourself into a self-imposed media blackout during the Tour. Essentially you just have to stay away from one cable channel and you’re almost assured of not getting surprised with any results. It even a pretty safe bet that opening a newspaper or watching ESPN won’t jeopardize your DVR efforts. You don’t even run the risk of overhearing race results at the water cooler at work, because not very many people follow the sport. So in 2006, I had taped Stage 17 of that year’s Tour. The day before, American Floyd Landis (former teammate, sometimes characterized as a friend Armstrong) self-destructed on that day’s stage and fell eight minutes behind and seemingly lost all hope of winning. I got up at about 4:30am to watch the previous day’s stage, before I went to work, without a clue as to what had happened. In a dark house, with just my sleeping cats and hot coffee to keep me company, I watched Floyd Landis’ epic solo break away.
The day after Landis lost his yellow jersey, he came within 30 seconds of taking it back with just a few days remaining in the race. I was in tears. It was astonishing and was one of the greatest sporting exploits I’ve ever seen. Robbie Ventura, Landis’ coach during his ‘winning Tour,’ who currently has a job commenting on cycling for TV (please shut-up), had fans convinced that the “thing that I just saw” for his rider’s ‘unbelievable’ exploit was due to Landis’ efforts of constantly pouring ice water over his head. Ventura stated, that by keeping his core temperature down, Landis was able to keep his up his peak output (450 watts) for longer. Days later, Landis was caught cheating as well. That moment in a dark house, with tears in my eyes, was stolen. I couldn’t believe it.
There are lots of moments that have been robbed, dimmed, or tainted since the dam opened up over the rampant cheating that occurred within cycling throughout the 90’s and early 21st century. Moments when I invested my time, money, and spirit to watch extraordinary things on a two wheeled machine and a chain. I still remember the wins on Sestriere, Alpe du Huez, and Paris-Roubaix by riders who I followed, but the memories have lost a little luster. I’m a little bitter that I gave part of my heart to these guys. A little foolish to have stood up and cheered their exploits. A little embarrassed to have defended them for so long. The governing bodies have taken all the titles away and given them to the next placed rider or in some cases pretended that no one won. The races were run, the races were won, and during that era it is clear that most of the riders with a Pro-Tour License (the highest Professional UCI category) were part of a doping program. How far are you going to go down on the list of finishers? 10th? 50th? It seems pointless.
Lance, after steadfastly denying his cheating–while at the same time intimidating or humiliating his accusers–went on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network to confess and explain himself. Sorta. I can’t think of another orchestrated confessional that has failed as miserably. He went from bad to worse to hated in just a couple of hours. He told Oprah that the hardest part of this whole process was telling his kids that everything that they know about their father’s racing success was based on cheating. I believe him.
There are times that I still slide on my Livestrong bracelet, but it no longer serves as a visible indicator of support for Lance. It has come to symbolize something personal on a couple of levels. The first, the silicone yellow band helps to remind me that I love riding my bike. I certainly don’t need a visible reminder, I’ve been riding/racing for over 20 years, but after a long ride it reminds me that I did something I love and sought the happiness and fulfillment a bike ride can offer. When I’m wearing it, it also helps to remind me to lay off the donuts.
The now mocked, once ubiquitous band, also reminds me of a co-worker with whom I made a personal connection with during the 2003 Tour de France. That Tour, for me, was the most exciting in years. Lance was making all kinds of mistakes and he seemed to have some real competition for the overall win. Bob was the electronics manager in the retail store that I managed, so he was usually the closest employee to where I had camped out near the wall of TVs that somehow, was showing the live race coverage from France. Everyday Bob came over, at first by obligation, so that I could explain what was going on and how the day’s race might unfold. I tried to explain the unexplainable to the uninitiated. I’d follow Bob out to the store’s patio where he would take his smoke break and I’d would try to impart all of my knowledge about the Tour and all of its races with the race. Very quickly though, Bob was hooked. As the race went on, I didn’t even have to turn the TVs to the Outdoor Life Network’s (now Vs.) live coverage of the race, because Bob had already taken care of my job. He would come in asking how Lance’s competitors might make up their time deficit. I gave Bob his first Livestrong bracelet. Bob’s career progressed and he moved on from my unit, but whenever we saw each other we always talked about who was going to wear yellow that year.
Quite a few years later, during July, I received an email from Bob’s wife. She introduced herself and asked if I’d give Bob a call. They had been watching the Tour the day before while he was awaiting his latest chemo treatment and he had mentioned my name. The previous month, he had gone to the doctor for a persistent stomach ache. A little more than a year later I was hugging his wife and shaking the hands of his three children at his funeral. He was 51. I don’t wear yellow anymore because of Lance, that connection only reminds me of the diminished memories of worthless battles on a bicycle. I wear that stupid little bracelet because there is one that cannot. The yellow is his. Mine.
The Tour de France was raced long before Lance Armstong clipped into his pedals at the Grand Departe’ and it will be here long after his ‘wins’ have been stricken from the record. The Tour will continue and his ‘heroic’ efforts a footnote in a dark era of the most grueling, beautiful, breathtaking sporting event in the world. Despite Lance confiscating the color yellow over his seven year run of Tour de France victories, yellow was never really his color. I took it back.