Today was the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for Lance Armstrong. Don’t take that the wrong way; it’s just that he never needed anyone’s sympathy, least of all mine. He’s always been quite capable of success without any concern from me – as it should be. And he was always so dominant in the peloton that there was certainly no reason to believe he couldn’t do it again.
I missed today’s stage as I was traveling, but I saw a clip of the first crash. And there were two more, I’m told. I also saw Chris Horner’s interview after the race on-line. I like Chris. I met him back in the mid-90s when we shot a training DVD together in New York City. A real solid guy.
I also met Lance once – or at least tried to. I was at the World Duathlon Championship in Texas back in the early ‘90s. I forget the exact year but it was about October as his race season was over, I recall. I had already raced that day and was watching the pro race out on the course well away from the crowd at the finish. I looked around and saw Lance standing there also watching. He wasn’t well known then but I had been aware of him since the late ‘80s when, as a teenager, he was beating many of the top triathlon pros. But by this time he had switched over to bike racing. My son, Dirk, who was also racing as a cycling pro in Europe at that time, had done a couple of races with Lance. Americans weren’t too common on the European bike racing scene back then and I knew he had met Dirk. So I walked over to Lance during a lull in the race, held out my hand and introduced myself with a quick comment about him perhaps knowing Dirk. He was standing with his arms crossed. He looked at me, didn’t say a word, arms stayed crossed and he went back to staring at the course.
The next time we crossed paths was at the US National Pro Road Race Championship in Philadelphia in June of 1999. I was there as Dirk was racing. Friday afternoon before the race Dirk and I went for an easy ride. We just happened to hook up with Lance, George Hincapie, Frankie Andreu and a team sponsor who were also out for a ride. I don’t think Lance even knew we had joined his small group as he waschatting with the sponsor. I rode with Frankie who was a great guy to talk with. Dirk rode with George. That weekend George went on to win his first National Championship.
The next month Lance entered his first the Tour de France since the battle with cancer. I recall being asked if I thought he could win it some day. I answered “no.” He was too impatient to be a good stage racer. And besides that, how could someone go through chemo therapy and return to race at a world-class level? No way. He proved me wrong. Decisively. In fact, I was so impressed I went to France to chase the Tour in 2003 to watch him join the ranks of the five-time winners. Then again in 2004 and 2005 I went to France to cheer him on to numbers six and seven.
Never was there a crack in his armor. He had it figured out. So this time when I was asked if I thought he could win it I was less sure of myself. Possibly. Looks like I was wrong again. But sadly this time. I recall feeling this way when Muhammad Ali lost the World Heavyweight title and when Michael Jordan retired. It’s the end of an era.