Sunday, August 2, 2009
A good friend of mine, a fellow pastor-type and bicycle enthusiast, got me going on the Tour de France this summer. I’ve been riding my bike for a lot of years, and one would think that I would have the Tour pretty much on my annual radar screen. It’s taken me this long. Now, thanks to Versus High Definition, I’m hooked.
They call it the single most grueling sporting event on the Planet. I think it’s a big deal to ride a “Century” (one hundred miles). I’ve got one on my calendar for next month. But think of it: twenty-one individual days of riding, for a cumulative two-thousand two hundred miles through some of the most spectacular, muscle cramping, bone crunching, mind bending, heart breaking country-side on the globe. In years past, I think I was confused by all the complicated team competition; the yellow jersey, green jersey, even red on white polka-dot jersey. I knew that Lance Armstrong was a cancer survivor and one of the rare Americans to not only contend, but win a string of victories. I also knew that there has been considerable discussion about doping in the sport, and that the French were quick to suggest that Armstrong depended on illegal substances, mainly because no one thought it possible to perform anywhere close to that level post-chemo.
Maybe it was the pure exhilaration of the stunning high definition scenes from a helicopter following the winding roads up the French Alps through charming villages and broad green meadows and jagged peaks and patches of snow and imagining, just imagining, a human body prepared for such an extreme challenge. Maybe it was the streets lined with supporters all cheering the cyclists on up the hill; or the camera angle from the back of a motorcycle riding alongside the high performance bikes. Maybe it was the head to head competition between two teammates: a Spaniard, young and powerful and brash, against an aging American, old and powerful and formerly brash. Maybe it was the capacity to record each four-hour stage on a digital video recorder, and then speed through enough of it to get a sense of how this event unfolds. I was a couple weeks in before I latched on, but that was enough.
The race built to a crescendo when at Stage 20, the riders take on a one hundred fourteen mile ride, the last thirteen miles of which is a steep climb up Mont Ventoux. The uphill does not end until the finish line. By this next to the last stage, the Spaniard, Alberto Contador (age twenty-seven) had established his place as the overall leader. (In a unilateral and controversial move, he broke from the team’s strategy and attacked early to secure an early, insurmountable lead.) But the question on everyone’s mind was this: could Lance Armstrong, after a three year absence from the race, at the ripe old age of thirty-seven, maintain his position at third place, and get him on the coveted podium in Paris the next day?
Apparently, all of Europe wondered, too. Seems they all showed up along the course to see. Those who were not there sat in front of their television sets, along with an unprecedented number of North Americans. And as the riders hammered up the hill after a punishing first hundred miles, Lance did not disappoint. Even a concerted, powerful effort by the Schleck brothers from Luxembourg, after a surprisingly strong race, could not edge Armstrong out. Lance drew on something super-human, and rode the race of the year up the impossible mountain to the finish line at six-thousand two hundred and seventy three feet elevation. Above the tree line.
Before this year, I was completely unaware that the final stage of the Tour de France is anything but a formal part of the race. It’s a party. It’s been the tradition since the first race in 1902. The one hundred and two mile stage starts at Montereau-Fault-Yonne, ends on the streets of Paris. Along the way, riders chat and laugh, especially Armstrong, and they sip champagne handed to them by admiring onlookers, enjoying the spectacular countryside and on into the City of Light. The route goes along the River Seine past the great Notre Dame Cathedral and into Paris. Thousands of spectators welcome the riders, now worn from well over two thousand arduous miles (three thousand four hundred fifty nine kilometers), honed to optimum conditioning. After three weeks, the riders have zero body fat. They are now pedaling machines, all systems geared for low-level human powered flight. Their wind swept helmets and designer wraparound sunglasses in matching colors give them the look of speed. And now comes the finish. Ten laps around a closed off Champs-Élysées up toward the Arc de Triomph as the crowd roars its approval.
The last sprint provides the final moment of drama. Someone will win the coveted Stage 21. But the real prize is the Yellow Jersey, the overall winner of the Tour de France. This year, it went to the Spaniard, Alberto Contador; his second win. Armstrong, who has won more tours than anyone in the hundred-year history of the race – seven – stood beneath Cantador on the podium claiming Third.
I’m learning more about this Texan who is now credited with attracting the massive crowds; Lance Armstrong – the cancer survivor; the man who has mellowed with age, like a fine Bordeaux, I suppose. I downloaded the audio version of his 2001 book, “It’s Not About the Bike.” His personal life has been tumultuous. His childhood, full of conflict and disappointment. He is very close to his mother, who raised him with tenacity and courage. His biological father vanished. His first stepfather was a church going man who somehow believed he had biblical authority to abuse his family (I hate it when that happens). Lance is cynical about religion. He’s had difficulty sticking with some of the amazing women he’s become attached to.
But I did not know how serious that cancer was ten years ago. It would have killed most people. Now, he says, he lives for something bigger than himself. He’s still convinced – it’s not about the bike. He is a friend of cancer victims. He encourages them to Live Strong (the name of his foundation).
And next year, a rematch is brewing. Headlines are already pulsating. The young Contador versus the Old Man of the Tour. It is going to be big.
I’ll have my high definition receiver tuned in.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009