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 by: Bill Oetinger  8/1/1999

Reflections on a golden jersey

Lance winning stage 9If you're a cyclist, you'll know by now all about Lance Armstrong's superb victory in this year's Tour de France. Even non-cyclists can hardly have missed at least a passing notice of the event, for as the Tour moved across France, so the story-in the American press-moved from an interior page of the sports section to the front page of the sports section, and finally, gloriously, to the front page of newspapers all across the land, often with human interest sidebars glued to the wheel of the main article. And from the front page, the phenomenon that is Lance sprinted into prime time, with appearances on one talk show after another. Like the US women's soccer team, he has transcended sports and become a media darling.

It's that human interest angle that has captured the attention of the wider public: Lance's "miraculous" recovery from cancer is the stuff of Hollywood scripts. And yet this is not a movie, nor a fairy tale, nor is it miraculous. Miracles imply some supernatural or magical intervention in the normal course of things, and Armstrong's accomplishments owe nothing to magic or mystery. They are founded on the granite of hard work and more hard work, and a mental toughness few of us can even imagine.

I remember when Lance's name first started appearing in the cycling press. There was this brash young kid from Texas...a triathlete. People who claimed to know said he had the perfect genetic package to be a world-class bike racer, and it wasn't very long before he was saddled with the tag, "the Next Greg Lemond"... which must have been like having a pannier full of bricks strapped onto his bike. At first, it seemed as if the predictions might be right: almost immediately, and to the astonishment of almost everyone, he won the World Championship on the rain-slick, crash marred streets of Oslo. Holy cow! This guy's for real!

But anyone who follows racing knows that one-day races-and perhaps especially the Worlds-can produce some flukey results, so the jury was still out on Armstrong. He followed up with some other wins in one-day classics, and he won the Tour Dupont... sort of like hitting .330 in Triple-A ball. But the informed word in the bike world was that he didn't really have what it took to be the best...to win the Tour. Some said, "maybe later," while others said, "never."

In his earlier Tours, his handlers said he was too young to really master an extended stage race, and besides, Miguel Indurain had the event in his pocket at the time. But then Jan Ulrich came along and won the Tour at a younger age than Lance. At that point, if Lance Armstrong had been a stock, he would have been losing value steadily...and then he got sick, and his stock hit rock bottom.

I don't need to retell the saga of his cancer and his amazing recovery. The news media have already had a field day with it. More than the recovery from a devastating disease, the thing that strikes me so forcefully in this is how he has reinvented himself...his personality and his spirit. Not only did he lose 20 pounds, he also lost all the weighty baggage that had so burdened his early career. No longer was he considered-by himself or anyone else-the next Greg Lemond. His attitude and his whole approach to life underwent a powerful transformation. He became more thoughtful and more at peace with himself. So profound were the changes in him, that it might almost be fair to say that the person we're seeing now is not the next Greg Lemond, but is in fact the next Lance Armstrong.

When Lance was at his lowest ebb, during bouts of chemotherapy and surgery, almost everyone gave up on him, and I confess I pretty well wrote him off too. We saw him doing charity rides for good causes-including one with our clubmate Larry Fredricks-and we figured that was his future...maybe a few regional races if he really got lucky, and then a slow, sad decline. Even when he signed with the US Postal Service team, it still seemed like an incredible long shot to expect anything special from him.

One year ago, during the 1998 Tour de France, Lance was winning the Cascade Classic, a one-week stage race out of Bend, Oregon. I recall thinking, "Well good for you, Lance! But Bend is a hell of a long way from Paris..." But then he finished fourth on the Vuelta, and suddenly it was "Holy cow!" all over again. This guy's for real (again)! However, even then...even then...most people still didn't believe: the Tour? Lance? Dream on...

Now, finally, we believe. Not only did he win the hardest, most prestigious bike race in the world-perhaps the hardest athletic event in the world-he won it convincingly, and with panache, like a true champion. The two back-to-back days when he took control-the time trial at Metz and the mountain stage to Sestrierre-were the stuff of legend, and the commentators were casting back down the annals of Tour lore to find comparable moments of such heroic, epic grandeur.

Most non-cyclists have no conception of how hard a race like the Tour de France is. Heck, most cyclists have only an inkling of what it would be like to ride that hard for that many days in a row, to say nothing of winning. Overall, this was the fastest Tour in history, and on one stage, the peloton set a record for the fastest stage ever, averaging over 31-mph on the day. (How many riders do you know who can sustain a 31-mph pace over any distance at all, let alone for 150 miles?) But while the average person might not fully appreciate the magnitude of Armstrong's athletic accomplishment, they do understand and appreciate his battling back from death's door, and they respect his tenacity in believing in himself when no one else would. And that's why this story has risen above the little world of cycling and has become the common currency of the wider world.

Other thoughts on the Tour...

As impressive as Armstrong's win in the tour was, so too was the performance of his US Postal Service team. With little international or big-race experience and no experience in protecting the yellow jersey, his crew of mostly home-grown riders did a masterful job of controlling the race.

Casual observers of cycling might not appreciate what a chore it is to be the leading team in a stage race...always on the front, setting the tempo; always on guard against attacks. If riding back in the pack can save as much as 20% of a rider's energy, then having to always be on the front-keeping the pace high to discourage mischief-must take a great deal more energy.

50571 bytesThe Posties did that, and they did it without one of their strongest riders, Jonathan Vaughters, who was knocked out in a crash on Day 2. Vaughters, an excellent climber and time trialist, had been having a sensational season and might reasonably have been expected to do very well in the Tour. Look for good things from him next year, along with Bobby Julich-another crash victim-and also from Postal rider Tyler Hamilton. While somewhat constrained by riding in support of Armstrong, Hamilton used strong climbing and terrific time trialing to end up 13th overall...the exact same placing Julich had three years ago, before making it to the podium the following year.

Finally: about the drugs...

An editorial in Sports Illustrated bemoaned the fact that Lance Armstrong's victory would forever be overshadowed by rumors regarding drug use. This in spite of the fact that Armstrong has repeatedly tested clean for drugs. Journalists are employing a maddening sort of circular logic on this issue: first they report that Armstrong is drug-free, and then they report that he is hounded by innuendo about drug use, somehow leaving the superficial but lingering impression that there must be some truth to it, if the rumors keep circulating.

But who keeps circulating the rumors? The journalists! They claim to be reporting the news, but really, they're just manufacturing controversy and scandal, which they cynically know sells better than simple athletic excellence. Lance was right on to declare it "vulture journalism."

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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