Back when Lance Armstrong was just beginning to earn a name for himself as an astonishingly talented triathlete, before he switched to cycling full-time, during those hot and humid summers of the mid-eighties, I was already hooked on the Tour de France. My brother had recently taken up cycling, while I had taken up, um, the latest issues of G.I.JOE and THE UNCANNY X-MEN, but I did like Saturday morning television, and so it was that cartoons were temporarily pushed aside and we found ourselves glued to the set each and every weekend, mesmerized by the coverage of CBS Sports, energized by John Tesh’s electrifying score.
(Hey, I’m serious here! Before John Tesh became an Entertainment Tonight anchor, before John Tesh blessed the world with his musical compositions, he covered the Tour as an on-site reporter, and, in an odd convergence, he also composed the music for the TV coverage. Over-the-top it was, both his reporting and his music, but hey – at nine, ten years old, over-the-top is what you want. And when the aforementioned music was combined with commentator Phil Ligget’s breathless, dramatic delivery, forget about it.)
I didn’t cycle (still don’t), so it wasn’t the cycling per se that held my interest. (Full disclosure: I have no idea what the hell ‘per se’ really means, or where it comes from, but I use it anyways.) No, it was the scale of the event itself, the personas involved, the sheer heart and ambition and sweat that somehow seemed to make the TV itself sweat.
The enormity of the Tour is what continues to fascinate; over three weeks long, through hills and mountains, watched by spectators so close to the action that they sometimes alter the action, a marathon of cycling each day, ever day, with the fastest cumulative time winning.
Novelist Norman Mailer, once touting the superiority of the novelist over the practitioner of the short story writer, commented that a good short story writer only has to be good for one, two weeks, tops. A good novelist, on the other hand, has to be good day after day for months and months and years and years, never truly knowing whether the work itself will eventually collapse.
Same with the Tour, oddly enough. It’s not enough to be fast and strong for one hour, one day. You have to plot and plan and endure and react and triumph day after day, week after week. To win even one stage of the Tour de France is the dream of many a cyclist; to actually win the Tour itself, well, that’s entering into fantasy-land. To win it seven times, in a row, is well, plain ridiculous. Unless you’re Lance Armstrong.
But before Lance, there was Greg Lemond, America’s great cycling champion, and it was his battles with fellow teammate Bernard Hinault that made for riveting, heartwrenching drama. It was their battles that gave me respect for the Tour and awe for the Tour. Friendship and betrayal, lies and deceptions – the two of them battled each other for love and respect and victory. (Just go to www.wikipedia.org, type in their names, and you can read about their legendary battles.)
Lemond won the Tour three times – and, like Armstrong, he had his share of personal setbacks, to say the least. Like, getting accidentally shot by his brother-in-law while going out hunting, almost killing him and forcing him to miss the Tour (quite obviously). He came back and won the Tour two more times. At the time, America was more than a little indifferent to cycling, and I still think it is; what America likes is Lance.
In recent years, Lemond has been quite vocal in his suspicions of Armstrong’s alleged use of illegal performance enhancing drugs. I’m not naïve; I believe that a huge number of athletes in cycling and track and field, in particular, are on the juice. (Marion Jones, please step forward.) With Armstrong, however, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; I think, perhaps idealistically, that Armstrong is one of those humans genetically gifted from birth (with an abnormally large heart), and that, coupled with his ferocious drive and determination, he has been able to do the impossible, consistently. I also think of long-jumper and sprinter Carl Lewis as one of those chosen few who were blessed with physical gifts and then trained their asses off like no one else before them to actualize those gifts.)
What separates Armstrong from Lemond, however, aside from Lance's seven Tour wins to Lemond's four, is cancer. Getting accidentally shot while hunting is not something that most people can relate to, or worry about. (I can, however, being the son and brother of avid hunters, but that’s another post.) Cancer, though. Even the word is daunting. Everybody knows somebody who has cancer or has had cancer. Everybody worries that it’s a possibility for them, too.
Armstrong was given less than a fifty percent chance to live due to testicular cancer that later spread to his brain, a prognosis that even his doctors admitted was inflated so as to not make him overly depressed. Losing a year in cycling is not like losing a year in any other sport, according to Greg Lemond; the margin of error is so small, the competition is so great, that being thrown off your game, being robbed of your training for so long is tantamount to involuntary retirement. To beat cancer (if one can beat such a thing), to return to cycling, to win the Tour once – that, in and of itself, would have been something close to a miracle. To do it seven times, is, well...
David Foster Wallace, the insanely talented author of Infinite Jest, was once a pretty good junior tennis player, and he once wrote an article for Esquire profiling the tennis player ranked 100th in the world, whose name escapes me. Which was the point of the article, though; we think somebody ranked 100th in the world as being not that special, but as Wallace points out, somebody ranked 100th is amazing beyond any normal person’s rational ability to perceive. Think about being the 100th best person in the world at anything, Wallace posits; these people, these athletes, are operating at levels mere mortals cannot comprehend.
So when we try to appreciate what Lance Armstrong has done, we can’t. We literally cannot. Somebody once said: “Talent is doing what ordinary people find difficult; genius is doing what talented people find impossible.”
That’s the only way I can approach somebody like Armstrong. His cancer made him vulnerable, approachable, human – but the Tour has made him a genius in the realm of athletics and the realm of life, and, if not immortal figure, if not a mythic here, he’s as close, in this modern, cynical era, as we are going to get to one.