Monday, July 13, 2009

A tribute to Lance

I marvel at Lance Armstrong’s ability at age 37 to not only compete in the Tour de France but to excel. Almost half way through the 2009 edition of the most difficult sporting event in the world, Armstrong sits a mere eight seconds back of the lead. Opponents and naysayers will hope that the next biking phenom, another litany of hecklers, or convalescing legs will cause him to fall out of contention. I, however, am hoping that he can turn back the clock of father time and add one more chapter to his unique legacy.

What do Lance Armstrong and I have in common? Likely a couple things. Besides a love for biking, we are both riding for a cause, I for the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter and him, of course, for cancer research and awareness. We are both aware that long bike journeys that test the mind and body are attention grabbers by which the public can become aware of issues far more important than ourselves alone.

Will the 2009 Tour de France end with Lance Armstrong as champion again? Today, nobody knows. But Armstrong’s legacy is already cemented. His lung busting climbs over steep mountains on France have conjured up the following image in my own mind...

At the base of the last long hill you peer over your shoulder. A few of the world’s best riders and there with you, ready to put their last bit of energy into destroying your chances for victory this afternoon at Sestriere. This is the race of truth. A first place finish here might cement your bid to win not just any tour, but the Tour de France.

You peer over your shoulder again. The next long minutes of your life will tell you whether the toil of winter training rides will bear fruit. How many bitter rides through unrelenting rains brought you to this race and a climb where the maillot jaune could finally be yours for good. You breathe hard. Your face shows the fatigue, but your competitors do not feel so well either. Their grimaces tell a tale of 213 punishing kilometers cycling through the heart of Europe’s high peaks.

Now you see who will crack. It might be you. You push the stakes higher. You leave the saddle and go. Beltran is the first to fall from the group. Then Escartin is dropped. Two rides dropped, two to go.

The grade steepens and you sense you’ve opened a gap. Another peer over your shoulder to gaze at your competition would just rot your own precious strength. So you focus straight away. You envision the world’s last two drops of energy trickling down into your two massively tired legs. Pain is your only companion. Your vision becomes narrow. The world becomes small, just your legs turning tiny wheels up the jagged road. At the crux of the climb Gotti falls off the pace. The climb boils down to your and Zuelle.

Round the last corner and the finish tape is waving. You sense victory and free your mind for a final glance down the hill. Zuelle is long gone from your wheel. The best riders have been systemically dropped. The sun is drowned by mountain haze but the color is yellow. As yellow as your jersey. Yellow, the color of triumph high atop the slopes of Sestriere.

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