Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ride On, Lance.

For whatever reason--for whatever perfect storm of national calamity, difficult personal circumstances, ceaseless high temps, and general malaise that's decided to descend upon us--this summer has been tough for most people in my life, myself included. Maybe it's because, in the last few months, the news from abroad and at home hasn't been good, and never seems to get better. Maybe it's because, since Memorial Day, the heat never seems to cool, and a run in the steamy humidity of 6:30 am feels just as unbearable as one under the relentless noontime sun. Maybe it's because jobs keep not materializing for friends looking for work; maybe it's because clumps of Deepwater Horizon oil could start washing up on the East Coast. Or maybe it's because, all other factors aside, sometimes the only expression that best fits so many of these things is that frustrating and nebulous adjectival phrase, plain old "bad luck".

With this in mind, and as friends and family members know, I tend to retreat for three weeks in July to watch the Tour de France; by retreat I mean I hibernate with my flat screen and clunky window air conditioner for hours and hours in order to watch the peloton circle to Paris. I look forward to the Tour all year--the first week of August is when I experience my post-Christmas morning crankiness--and even in a year like this one, which showcased the Olympics and the World Cup, my excitement has remained unabated. Particularly as this summer has progressed, the Tour has loomed like an athletic oasis, and one in which the event's characteristic unpredictability, epic nature, and challenging geographic context would be most welcome to a doldrums-lingering viewer like me.

The Tour, suffice it to say, has not disappointed, but the ways in which it has not disappointed have of course defied my expectations. I'm neither the first nor the last to state that all one can expect of the Tour is the unexpected, and I embrace the fact that every year the Tour holds true to this maxim. On its 97th journey through the French countryside, the Tour seems to be adhering to the same Boethian cycle that the rest of us have; in other words, Lady Fortune has not looked favorably upon most of the riders. For the first time in years, the Tour de France had to neutralize the results of a stage because so many rides crashed spectacularly on a freakishly oil-slicked descent, a decision the Tour organizers haven't even made when riders have died. Garmin-Transitions lost its team leader, its sprinter, and its lead-out man in a matter of days. Frank Schleck--his GC brother's most trusted lieutenant in the mountains--kissed his Tour goodbye after a collarbone-snapping crash on the unforgiving cobblestones of Stage Three; that same day Lance Armstrong began to lose his maillot jeune dreams with, of all things, a flat tire. Cadel Evans attempted to hide his broken elbow--sustained in yet another crash--on his one day bearing the yellow jersey in the stony Alps, and later broke down on the steps of his team bus as the reality of its loss sank in. And in a move that will be hotly debated by Tour viewers and participants for years to come, Alberto Contador attacked and won the maillot jeune from Andy Schleck not because the Luxembourger betrayed a moment of physical weakness, but because Schleck dropped his chain.

True, for some this Tour has been exceptional; French riders, for example, have won a commendable six stages so far, including an extremely difficult one by the petit blanc Thomas Voeckler, who famously wore yellow for ten days in 2004. Similarly, Thor Hushovd, that sprinting Norwegian "Hammer of the North", continues to defy gravity and re-capture the green jersey on mountain stages poorly fit to his ballast-like frame and fast-twitch muscles. And Clean Bottle man, perhaps my favorite TDF mascot in years, has landed TV coverage on almost every stage (it can't be easy to run up the edge of the Col de la Madeleine in a faceless, full body water bottle costume!). But on the whole, the general mood of most riders and the seemingly non-stop freak accidents--flats? dropped chains? oil-slicked roads?--seem to fit the overall wtf? ambiance imbuing the summer of 2010.

Which brings me to Lance Armstrong. Lance, as the cycling-obsessed public knows, is riding his thirteenth Tour, and hoped to win his eighth. He's thirty-eight years old, but there are older riders this year--Christophe Moreau and Jens Voigt among them--although none were gunning for the podium. He had every single teammate from last year's champion Astana squad (with the obvious exception of Contador), plus he had Johan, the mastermind behind every one of his Tour victories. He began training and racing earlier than he had last season, when he commenced his comeback and placed third; he even had a brand new sponsor. In other words, Lance possessed everything he needed to be a serious contender, and a record podium finish seemed tantalizingly within reach.

And yet...despite acing everything that's within his control, like placing fourth in the prologue time trial, nothing seems to be working right. The man who always seemed to glide by misfortune, even down the side of a mountain, has been caught in crash after crash after crash, including one on the way to the starting line. The man who flicked off any little mechanical like an annoying insect had to wait by the side of the pavé for almost a minute for a new wheel. The man who ruled the peloton as a legitimate patron now works as a domestique for Levi Leipheimer, an amazing cyclist in his own right, but one who as a Postal rider ten years ago wasn't even selected to ride for Armstrong on his nine-man champion Tour squad. It's almost as if, all other factors aside, Lance spun the wheel and landed on several years' worth of straight up bad luck.

Which is why, as the days pass, I'm rooting for Lance. Not because I think he's going to win, but because he's in the Tour at all. Because he never needed a comeback, but he decided to risk one anyway. I choose that word, "risk", deliberately, because it's a big gamble to chance that the last entry on your athletic CV isn't going to be "seven time Tour de France winner", but could instead be "finished 25th in his last Tour de France with no stage wins". Sure, Lance was hoping that it would say "eight" or even "nine" time winner, but he knew that there was a decent chance it wouldn't. And, frankly, I admire him for that. I admire him for doing everything he could to give himself the best possible shot at another win, knowing full well that it could blow up in his face, and then, when it did, for still showing up every day anyway and racing his bike. Because the fact of the matter is, no one who doesn't want to be racing in the Tour de France is riding in it; it's simply too hard. So the man who already had the perfect postscript threw his hat in the ring again, in spite of his age and with full awareness of the risks, because he loves it for what it is.

And so yesterday, as I sat on my couch with my clunky window air conditioner running full blast, I watched Lance attack on the hardest stage of this year's Tour, a stage that justified the Pyrenees' nickname "The Circle of the Dead Men". The peloton released him and the nine other riders who eventually joined him; none were a threat to the overall standings, not even one of the most celebrated Tour winners of all time. Up the Tourmalet and then the Col d'Aubisque he attacked and counter-attacked. He was visibly tired, and in the finish line sprint, he simply wasn't fast enough. He knew it, too, but he sprinted anyway. And as I watched, I remembered watching him win the Limoges Tour stage fifteen years ago, when I was half the age I am now, in the middle of a foggy San Francisco summer. It was only a couple of days after his teammate Fabio Casartelli died, that gifted Italian cyclist whose memorial the peloton passed just earlier this week. Lance, despite winning the 1993 world championship, was no GC rider at that time either. He took off on a solo breakaway, and the peloton let him go; he crossed the finish line alone, and pointed his finger toward the sky. I think now, upon reflection, that these are two of the greatest Tour stages I've ever seen.

"It was a tough day", Lance said later yesterday at the finish line. "I paid for it at the end [...] I warmed up a little bit before the race and it went right at kilometer zero. 200 km at the front took it out of me. I had no sprint at the end. But I tried".

You sure did. Ride on, Lance.

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