By 1999 Lance was ready to try the Le Tour again.
The race was covered then, on TV, by ESPN2, which put together a daily package that ran in the late afternoon, complete with music. I was faithful. When Lance won the prologue I was hooked, although I was really awaiting the battle between Marco Pantani, the previous years winner, the great il Pirata of the mountains, and Jan Ullrich, born in East Germany, the biggest engine in the field, the 1997 winner, the Diesel.
Then came Sestriere. (That's it, from the annual festival.)
(That's Pantani, who died in February, as I prefer to remember him, from the Daily Telegraph obituary.)
Lance had somehow won the second time trial two days earlier but, we all figured, wait until the mountains. The mountains take a special kind of rider, not one who can manage pain but one who can break completely clear of it, the way Pantani had done. To wait while your legs go numb and your lungs cramp, then to face not hills (as I had) but mountains, real mountains, roads that rise at a 10% grade for mile-after-mile, well, you beat cancer, and youre a great rider, but, uh
Back in Atlanta I was alone that day. Both my kids were in school, their mom would pick them up. I had finished writing for the day, I was sitting before the TV. It was a quiet mountain road, I remember, a hard day, it looked cold, the kind of day that gets under your bike shorts, climbs into your chest, and makes you wish for nothing but the sag wagon and bed.
Yet here came Lance! On the final climb of the day, alongside climbers, real climbers, the slaves of the road, here came Lance, the cancer patient. (Youre not considered a former patient until youve been clear, or in remission, for five years.)
He rose out of his pedals, he swerved around the group, he was using this new pedaling action hed learned, Granny gearing wed called it in Texas, a high cadence in a low gear. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, legs pumping so hard I feared the metal of the cranks might break, the frame shaking from side-to-side under the strain. Bang, bang, bang, bang, up the mountain road, toward the sky, not riding, no, racing. Racing. And winning.
Maybe it was the music. Maybe the announcer set me up. But I cried that day. I cried like I never had before, like I couldnt months later, when my own father passed away 3,000 miles from me, in a California hospital bed. Death was his choice, Id convince myself. Life was mine. Go, Lance Go! Go! Go! Go
When he crossed the line, and he raised his arms in triumph, I felt as though I had won, too. I watched every day of that Tour, saw the drama of his struggles with other contenders, and I watched as he rode every day in yellow. When I saw him stand in Paris and receive the final jersey, saw him turn to the crowd, heard the Star Spangled Banner on the Champs Ellysse, well, I cried again.
Lance Armstrong has now passed into history. He was won the Tour six times, more than Hinault, more than Indurain, more than anyone. He was won it dramatically, he has won it narrowly, and he has won going away. He has mastered every climb, and memorized every turn.
Lance Armstrong has fulfilled the promise Joe saw for him years ago, when he was just riding the FM roads I started on. He is a brand, a household name.
He is the greatest athlete of my lifetime, and as far as Im concerned he has earned every accolade, every dollar, every drop of happiness he can wrest from this life, ten-fold.
And me? I turn 50 in a few months. But I can get to Stone Mountain on my yellow bike, I can go around it and get back home, 29 miles in two hours and change. I can pick my way through back roads to the Atlanta Airport, and find my way home in the same time. Ive ridden the 35-mile loop through the heart of town, past my kids soccer fields in Tucker, and gotten home safe.
But the final question is for you. The question is, what is sport?
For most of us sport is competition. Its victory and defeat. But if sport is just a story, or a TV program, if youre just a spectator, then I fail to see the meaning of it.
Sport is life. Sport is finding yourself, somewhere, maybe indoors, maybe outdoors, on a mountain or underwater, doing something hard you like to do, something you have practiced. Sport is finding yourself alone, with your heart pounding, the sweat pouring down, your breath coming in gasps, and measuring yourself, against the day, the week, the year.
A sport should be your life companion, a second companion if youre blessed with a good marriage. Your sport should bring you home, feeling competitive, riding into middle age and beyond healthy, strong, and vital. A sport should leave you ready for work, whether that work means pounding a typewriter or pushing a broom.
Everybody deserves a sport. For my kids its soccer, and when they come off their fields theyre often followed on by a large group of Mexican-Americans, men hot from hard jobs, some with their shirts off, round bellies browned by the sun, chasing a ball and calling out to one another, joy on their faces and in their hearts.
I pray my children can find a sport that last them all their lives. I pray you will, too. Whether youre on the bike, or on foot, on a court or a field, in a YMCA or off by yourself, the real competition is always against the moment. You may not live longer, but youll live well, youll live strong, and no day of your life will ever be wasted.
Thats what Lance taught me, and I thought about it as I rode home today, not too tired, nor too sweaty, glorious in victory and ready for my day. Thanks, Lance, for getting me back on the bike. Godspeed.