I remember it like it was yesterday… well at least I think this is how it all went down. February 22, 2009 – the final day of the Tour of California and yet another beautiful day in the San Diego county mountains. I had ridden my bike partway up the first climb of the day, Palomar Mountain, and had found a place alongside the road to watch the race pass and snap a few photos. Those were simpler times for fans of professional road cycling, back before nearly every cyclist of a generation was exposed as a cheat. The party atmosphere on the hill that day was absolutely electric with multitudes of rowdy fans lining the roads for miles, especially up on Palomar.
In 2009 the Tour of California was set to become one of the first salvos in Lance Armstrong’s comeback war against all the doubters and naysayers that had long whispered that he had used performance enhancing drugs to win his seven consecutive Tour de Frances. As is well-known, Lance had pledged to do the remarkable: make his comeback and shut up once and for all those that spoke against him.
But the only truly remarkable thing that happened that day had nothing to do with the cyclists themselves. Little did those of us standing alongside the road know that a seer walked among us. No not this guy with the surfboard (although he was backing the correct rider as Levi Leipheimer did end up winning the tour that year) – someone else stood along the road and spoke the truth.
This Nostradamus of the cycling world was nowhere to be seen as the iconic television commentators Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett heralded the arrival of Andy Schleck in the early attack as monumental and thrilling. As gripping as that drama might’ve seemed while watching TV, out on the lower slopes of Palomar the approach of the peloton was announced only by the concussion of the television helicopter blades as it flew slow and low over the breakaway. It was like watching OJ heading down the 405.
This was the first time I had ever witnessed a pro road race in person and the speed at which they rode was truly amazing. Fans ran alongside the riders, thrilled to be a part of it. Car horns blared and the beer flowed freely. Three or four miles up the road near the summit, a fan laced up his sneakers and readied his costume fashioned like a giant syringe for his moment in front of the TV cameras (I saw it later on that day when I viewed the TV coverage). The place was a zoo. The riders were almost an afterthought, mere props in a play.
Schleck drove the pace hard up the lower slopes of the climb, a pawn riding at the limit sacrificing himself to set something up for his brother Frank later in the race. But as effortlessly as he seemed to move when viewed from a distance, the pain of the effort clearly showed on his face as he neared. A few moments later the peloton rode by in a mass of anonymity and a roar rose from the crowd. As quickly as they had arrived, they were gone.
Most everyone knew that Cole Grade was where the final attack would occur so once the peloton passed we migrated across the valley to find ourselves a spot along the road and wait for the fireworks to happen. I pedaled up the steep grade and found myself a spot that offered a chance to take a few photos. At first I didn’t notice the man standing directly across the road from me. He was muttering to himself while pacing back and forth along the shoulder of the road like a leopard in a cage. As I settled into my spot and began to survey my surroundings, I overheard snippets of his conversation – one held with no one in particular.
“Just do it, man… Oprah… fool… dammit Lance, why? WHY???”
As I’ve said, it was a party atmosphere so I chalked it up to a few too many beers and waited for the peloton to arrive.
The helicopter slowly moved across the valley, flying so low that it was at first below my vantage point about halfway up the grade. I looked down into the whirring blades and watched the procession of course opening cars snake up the climb prior to the arrival of the 2 lead riders just ahead of the peloton. This was clearly the decisive move of the race yet the cheers of the crowd were overwhelmed by the battering from the helicopter blades and the noise of the cars. The spectacle overwhelmed the moment.
The lead riders disappeared and with them the helicopters moved on. Moments later the chase appeared with Lance Armstrong cracking the whip at the lead. After the commotion of the lead riders, their arrival was almost silent. In what seemed like a dream, the soothsayer stepped to the edge of the road and spoke in a clear voice as if reading from stone tablets.
“Lance, just confess to doping now. You don’t need to live the lie any longer. You’ve caused enough pain to the sport and to others. If you don’t confess now you’ll wind up on Oprah’s couch looking like an ass.”
He continued to speak as Lance rode past: “Your charitable work will be forgotten! You’ll look insincere. You can still save your legacy. Just confess right now, before it’s too late!”
Lance rode on as if he never heard a word the man had said. The moment of reason had passed.
I’m past the age where I have any real sports heroes. I know they are just human. They are not gods. They are humans with flaws (just like me) yet with huge talent at whatever they do and tremendous drive and commitment drive to reach heights I’ll never be able to reach. I was never a “wearer of the golden band” like the legions of Livestrong supporters, but I found his story remarkable nonetheless. I cheered for Lance.
I came of age as a cyclist in the Armstrong generation and sat glued to the TV coverage as Lance, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie (and others) tested themselves in more pressure packed siutations then I have ever (or will ever) encounter. It’s sad to see that all of them were involved in the massive doping scandal at some point in their careers. They gave me someone to root for, a dream to aspire to – not necessarily to be the greatest cyclist on the planet but to push through pain and overcome my own limitations. Still, they lied to us.
Cycling is one of the greatest sports I’ve ever participated in. There is nowhere to hide while racing a bike, and sometimes it hurts. As Greg Lemond famously said about what happens as your body becomes accustomed to the rigors of the sport: “It doesn’t get any easier, you just get faster”. Whether you are the fastest one out there or the slowest, when testing your limits you eventually have a conversation with yourself in which you are exposed to the core. I find it astonishing that Lance was able to avoid his truth for so long. When his arrogance is coupled with the long line of people that he bullied and disparaged in the wake of his own doping deeds, I can openly say that he disgusts me.
Armstrong pedaled up the hill and around the corner to his fate. The stragglers eventually rode through a few minutes later. The zoo of onlookers slowly began to disperse. As I gathered my gear and got ready to hop on my bike and head home I looked across the road at the seer. He sat on the ground with his head buried in his hands, his eyes transfixed at the ground as if he were watching the embers of a fire. Perhaps he was looking for a sign. It was only as I stepped over my frame and clipped into my pedal that he came out of his trance and noticed me staring at him. He looked up, smiled and gestured up the road with his thumb toward where Lance had disappeared.
“Do you think he heard me?” On his wrist he wore a golden band.