PROLOGUE – How I got here began at Christmas. My wife wanted to find me a book about a cyclist who battled health problems so naturally found The Happiness of Pursuit by Davis Phinney. The book follows Davis’ life and career and is part about his cycling career and part about his battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Davis also wrote about his father, Damon Phinney, who died from prostate cancer. Damon founded a group called Cyclists Combating Cancer (CCC) and I was intrigued.
It was hard to find an Internet presence for Cyclists Combating Cancer but I did. I got on an email thread for CCC and they were looking to purchase a table for ten at the 15th Anniversary of Livestrong. They had nine and needed a tenth. I replied that I would attend “in a pinch” but preferred they still look for a 10th. I’m not sure if they tried to find a 10th or just informed me that I was in. So I flew to Austin for the LIvestrong Anniversary Gala.
It’s not about the bike — is both a Lance Armstrong book title and a frequent comment of cyclists. But it’s not about the cyclist either. Arriving Friday for the Livestrong Gala was a bit weird. With a damning USADA report just released outlining years of doping and Lance electing not to defend himself, this would be his first public appearance since the report. But nowhere would people be more supportive than at the 15th Anniversary Gala. If Lance had friends then he was among friends.
I was conflicted as I knew I would be. Lance, the founder of Livestrong deserved the benefit of the doubt. But fresh in my mind was the report detailing 15 years of cheating. Of lying. And yet I knew.
Two years ago I celebrated being cancer-free by flying to France to ride in France and to see the last week of the Tour de France. I flew my daughter, Ashley, over to meet me. She was in Business or First Class on American Airlines from Dalles to Paris. She was with a Vice-President for Amgen and the VP turned the conversation to doping. And then she asked rhetorically “Who do you think supplied Lance with his EPO?” That was strange for this person to offer such a statement unsolicited and I never told anyone else this information. But the truth would eventually surface.
With all of Lance’s teammates lining up to take admit their part, the time was right for him to take responsibility. But he seemingly never addressed any of the allegations other than to rely on the tired statement that he passed 500 drug tests.
From backstage Lance appeared and the crowd stood. I wanted to remain seated but also wanted to see so I stood too. It was weird for me. During his prepared remarks, he only talked about Livestrong. But there was a technical glitch so he and Matthew McConaughey appeared together and Matthew referred to the past few weeks. Lance said he has had better days – but he’s also had worse. That seemed sincere until …
…This morning I was in line with the 100-mile group to roll out of the Palmer Event Center for the Livestrong Challenge. I couldn’t quite see the stage but I could hear Lance. And he told the crowd that he has had better days – but he’s also had worse. It left me wondering if it was just a line that his PR people came up with.
But it’s not about the bike. And it’s not about the cyclist either. Livestrong is about the 28 million people with cancer (or is that fake too?).
Yesterday I made a “bib” in Memory of Jake the Hero and promptly hung it at Livestrong. I made another. I hung it there too. I made one in my hotel room and the wind tore it off. I made a fourth.
We rolled out of Austin on a warm morning. The temperature was already in the mid-70s. I never felt comfortable in a pace line and did very little riding on others’ wheels. If I was going to I was scared off around Mile 22 when some guys started to pass me and when one got right beside me to went down hard and took out three riders with him. He just missed taking me down.
The wind was quite strong but never so much that I complained. I love riding with the wind in my face — maybe not quite this much, but it was fun.
The elevation was listed as only 2,200′ for 100 miles which seems like almost any flat ride would have that. I expected more and believe that was off by at least half.
At Mile 48 we were riding on the flat plains when I could see cyclists ahead climbing a “wall.” My initial thought was “What in the hell is this?” followed by “Alright!, finally a real hill.”
I’m not that good. But I like to climb. And this one was formidable. It wasn’t overly lengthy, maybe 3/4 mile, but it went from the valley floor to what must be a butte summit and rose quickly. I had not used my granny gear and never thought I would but seeing this hill up ahead knew that I would.
Only about 200-300 yards in they had painted “16% grade” on the road and I’m sure it was. I would estimate that fully 2/3 of the riders I saw were walking at some point. I passed many — slowly, but I passed. I would not let a hill beat me.
At the top was a rest stop manned by the Texas 4000 — the University of Texas group that bikes 4,000 miles from Austin to Anchorage. I had met some of the kids yesterday at check-in and a couple even called out my name. That was pretty cool actually.
The Livestrong Challenge is well-supported with a rest stop about every 10 miles. And I stopped at every one to fill my water bottles. At each stop, I’m sure stronger riders kept on going so I may have lost my place in line with faster riders. Actually, when I lined up at the start I was at the end of the 100-mile group anyhow so basically anyone faster than me I probably never caught. I was here for a relaxing and reflective ride.
Around Mile 70 we pulled into Blanco Vista, a new suburban community. While 3,999 riders stayed on the street, I took to the path/sidewalk which was about 20 feet wide. I curved back and forth making for a fun ride. Riders looked at me leaning into the curves of the empty path. I told them this was lots more fun. I was feeling great!
At Mile 78, I decided I could lift the pace a little bit. Once I hit the road I started pulling back people for the next 20 miles. Not once did I get passed by anyone. As I approached an intersection a policeman slowed me down to let out opposing traffic but told me not to stop and lose my momentum. Once traffic cleared he waived me on. I popped out of the saddle for an extra burst and he said “Wow! You look like you just started riding.” I told him I felt good.
And I thought about that. Maybe all the fast riders started before me and were gone but this is the place where lots of distance riding kicks in. For those riders who were pushing themselves beyond a typical 20 or 30-mile distance, the body simply isn’t used to it. And I actually felt better at Mile 80 than at Mile 10. For him to recognize that meant a lot.
For the next 10 miles, I just pulled people back until I came to an intersection with about 30 cyclists waiting. Once we got the green I moved past them all except one rider, Mark from Irvine, California. He came with me and sat on my wheel. He told me he was glad I came along. He said he just wanted to follow me (in my draft) as long as he possibly could. I obliged. I don’t really know if it costs me anything in terms of energy doing all the pulling. Usually, we would swap off but I felt that strong I did all the pulling. I even backed off at a couple of rises in the road so I did not drop him.
With one mile to go in city traffic, we were in with other riders we caught. And after feeling good all day with no signs of cramping — it hit. A severe cramp in my right hamstring. I could not pedal. We were going downhill and I unclipped but any position hurt. I thought I might have to be sagged back with a mile to go. But I would crawl to the finish line first.
We came to the last light before entering the riverside park at the Palmer Center where the finish was. I unclipped, and put both feet down. When the light turned green the cramp was gone and that was that. Mark and I rolled into the finish, I stayed to the right for survivors.
At the Philly Challenge, the survivors’ finish was a separate chute to the right. And that was special. In Austin, it was just staying to the right. Still, the announcer called out my name and I was handed a yellow rose.
My friend, Vanessa, came down to meet me at the finish. And that was special. It was the first Challenge where I had someone at the finish.
I don’t know the future of Livestrong. But I hope it remains a vibrant cancer-supporting organization. At the heart of the fundraising are the challenges. They are wonderful events – to ride – to reflect – to remember.
As for Lance, I had a great day on the bike. When people passed me I didn’t feel challenged that I had to beat them. And over the last 20 miles, I averaged more than 20 miles an hour – solo — which is the best I think I ever have done at distance by myself (wind-aided). But it never was about beating every person I passed. It was simply me having fun. I hope that someday Lance can ride a bike for fun. Maybe Lance can find peace on a bike.