Sent in from: Nadell!
My recent attempt to sell a sequel to CHASING LANCE was met by indifference in teh publishing world. It seems that no one believes Lance can sell books anymore (as one editor noted: "two words: Olsen twins:). So as his comeback is now underway in Australia, here's a bit from the proposal. Rather see it here than go to waste. Oh, and it's worth noting that if Lance actually does come back, the sequel might still happen. Either way, I'll be at the Tour in July.
My favorite Lance Armstrong story is unprintable.
In fact, my top five favorite Lance Armstrong stories could mean legal action. They are the sort of tales I only tell good friends after one beer too many, because the anecdotes are second-hand and tawdry and revealing in a way that makes me feel slightly guilty for sharing, as if by weaving the story I have admitted something about my own character that I am not entirely comfortable exists.
But I tell them anyway, starting with the night atop L'Alpe du Huez and the startling comment by the British cameraman, and on and on.
Why is that? To be liked? To be in the know? To be accepted?
We'll get to that. But I know this: I'm not alone. Everyone has a point of view on Lance Armstrong. Those attitudes have lain dormant in the four years since he segued from Tour de France cyclist to international playboy. But now they’ll blossom once again as he begins his unlikely return to racing January 18-26 at Adelaide, Australia’s Tour Down Under. Whether you see him as doper or hero or unrepentant bully, your views are likely very strong, and say a lot about who you are as a person.
I believe we've all told a Lance Armstrong story or two in our day.
Here's one I can put into print: July 23, 2005. Lance (we all call him Lance, don't we? As if he pops by the house to borrow sugar) has just won the penultimate stage of the Tour de France, a 34.41-mile time trial beginning and ending in the town of St-Etienne. I'm packed into a large sweaty gymnasium with hundreds of other journalists, waiting for him to give the final press conference of his career. This is a rabid crowd, full of print writers with bad hair and rings under their armpits who've spent the previous three weeks begging for a scrap of time from Lance; and, television types who've just parachuted in from London and Tokyo, looking entirely too coiffed for the surroundings as they dust lint off their lapels.
I sit dead center, and feel blessed -- seriously, that's what it's like; as if some deity has allowed me to touch a cloak hem -- when Lance chooses my raised hand from all the raised hands, allowing me to lob a direct question. I don't remember what I asked, but I do remember sitting there rapt and full of eye contact as his words poured forth. And then -- this is the part that makes me cringe, even now -- I mouthed the words "thank you."
I've never done that before or since. But there's something about Lance's celebrity that made me behave like those school girls from the 1940s, the ones who urinated in their seats rather than get up and use the restroom during a Frank Sinatra concert, for fear of losing their spot.
And I'm not alone. Because at the end of that press conference, that throng of hardened journalists -- cynical, hard-bitten men and women who would sell their mother's eyes for an exclusive story -- mobbed Armstrong. Looking very much like Sinatra's screaming school girls, we thrust our press passes into his hands for an autograph.
This is not done. The press does not kowtow to anyone, and we certainly don't beg for athlete’s signatures. But there we were, looking deflated and a little soiled when he was whisked from the room by his security people after signing a paltry few badges.
That story makes me feel sad. What were we thinking?
Most Lance Armstrong stories have the exact opposite effect. I think of the moment atop Pla D’Adet in 2005 where he hugged George Hincapie after his teammate won his first ever stage. I can see him dropping Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso and the rest of the cycling world on climbs with names like Galibier and Tronador. I remember when he came back to win the stage he wasn’t supposed to win in 2004, the one where he famously encouraged Floyd Landis “to run like he stole something,” in the hope that his teammate would get his first-ever Tour stage win. Later, when Landis faltered, it was Lance walking down Germany's Andreas Kloden with a furious sprint to the line. I know stories about his guts and determination and ability to endure great pain. And I know stories about how I’ve been doing some lonely workout of my own, high up in the hills near my California home, and summon the spirit of Lance Armstrong to push through weakness.
Those stories make my heart soar.
I have this theory about sports. Athletic contests represent not just games or civilized representations of war, but an almost Biblical quest to be our very best. We aspire to compete and be that better part of ourselves that we cherish. And we watch the elites compete, hoping to see some superhuman act of grace or athleticism that transcends our mundane daily struggles. We don't watch to see average. We watch to see spectacular. Because spectacular lifts us up, and fills us with a sense of wonder. The act of witnessing greatness lifts us out of our ruts and mediocrity, if only for a few moments.
I think this is why the world fell in love with Lance Armstrong. He was this cancer survivor who came out of nowhere to win the 1999 Tour de France. Conspiracy theorists like to posit he contracted cancer due to an overload of performance enhancing drugs, which would make Armstrong one of the few such known cancer cases in the world. They say these words through gritted teeth, as if they see something wily and sly in the cancer that ravaged his very being.
They say it as if he had it coming.
My sister died of cancer. That story makes me sad, too. She used to love Lance for his grit, but also hate him for beating the Big C, especially when it became obvious that he had done the impossible and won the Tour after beating his illness, while she was just as surely wasting away to nothing. I can tell you this: nobody has cancer coming. What Armstrong did in 1999 was one of the most remarkable athletic feats in history.
I was there. In fact, I was there with three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond before the pivotal stage to Sestriere, when the past and future American Tour champions shared a laugh before the day got down to business. LeMond was all joviality and good advice, eager to grant benediction to the brash kid with the All-American name. I stood outside Armstrong's inner sanctum, a small mobile home near the starting line, as LeMond went in to discuss strategy with Armstrong and his domestiques George Hincapie and Tyler Hamilton.
There was no one around. Just me and one of Armstrong's soon-to-be ubiquitous bodyguards. That, and Lance's bike. It looked small and hardly the sort of contraption that would rocket him up the mountain into the yellow jersey that very day. If there was one prevailing emotion to define that meeting between LeMond and Armstrong, it was hope.
The Book of Romans tell us that "we must delight in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and, character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us."
In actuality, hope disappoints us a whole lot. We live lives of marginalized dreams and settling for the status quo. Not many of us enjoy the sort of happily-ever-after as adults that we envision our lives will be as children.
Lance was different. Lance was hope, personified. He had suffered through cancer, he had persevered in the Alps and the Pyrenees, he had character and attitude enough for twenty men, and every single time he raced the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005, he won. Hope did not disappoint.
That hope was shared, literally, by millions. Lance Armstrong taught us that anything was possible with suffering, perseverance, character, and hope.
And we believed him. Boy, did we.
I always got a kick out of the bro-mances -- all those middle-aged men traveling to the Tour, hanging around, hoping through some sort of observational osmosis, for a sliver of whatever made Armstrong great.
I remember at one Tour, watching a woman with enormous cleavage linger near Armstrong's trailer before a stage. Her breasts bulged like titans from a blouse two sizes too small. Alongside her was a fan carrying a sign announcing that she was a cancer survivor (like Lance!), a raft of those middle-aged wolfpacks, and assorted people of all nations willing to endure heatstroke or blizzards or any other freakish act of endurance to witness that moment when Lance stepped out of his trailer before the stage, clipped into his pedals, and made his way through the gauntlet to the starting line. They called out to him, waiting for that moment of acknowledgment or even that instance where he stopped long enough to Sharpie a signature. But mostly they wanted to see him.
You'd hear the constant allusion "Lance is a rock star." But he wasn't. Lance wasn't Bono or Bruce or even Sinatra. Lance was Christ. They wanted to touch the hem, follow him like apostles, and recite his sermons. "No bad days," people would say, reverently fingering their yellow LiveStrong bracelet, referring to an Armstrong quote about his worldview after beating cancer.
I said the same things, until one day my LiveStrong band just snapped. I never bought another.
David Walsh of London's Sunday Times was the first to suppose that Lance wasn't all he said he was. I didn’t much like Walsh, and I didn’t like the way he grandstanded, and I got the feeling he was on a witch hunt. I sat in the front row of a press conference in Pau in 2001 as Armstrong heatedly defended himself against Walsh's badgering questions. Walsh believed that Lance was a doper. Until then, only the French had said as much, and we all took that as jealousy (the French, after all, have not had a Tour champion since the mid-80s. So for the Americans to win again and again... why, who wouldn't spread rumors?). Then, that same year, emboldened by Walsh, LeMond chimed in. He made it a point to say that he'd never doped, but that he knew through his sources that Armstrong was a doper.
I called LeMond the night Lance won that 2001 Tour, staying up until dawn doing the interview from Paris and filing my story with a magazine back in New York. LeMond later recanted his version of events. But then he went on to recant that story, too. Now, almost six years later, Greg LeMond seems to spend every waking moment searching for ways to embarrass Lance Armstrong. Most notably, he did a credible Walsh imitation at the 2008 Interbike Convention in Las Vegas, as Armstrong announced his comeback. In the annals of great sports feuds, very few come to mind that match the sheer malice between LeMond and Armstrong. Greg LeMond is like a full-scale shitstorm of malevolence and rage, bent on proving that Lance Armstrong is a doper. The feud between the past and distant past of American cycling continues to this day, and LeMond’s frequent sniping that Armstrong required performance-enhancing drugs to win those seven tours (while he, LeMond, a man who gave his life to a sport where doping has long been as common as taking an aspirin, would never dream of such a thing) is as good a motivation as any for Lance's comeback.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The world was slow to pick up on Walsh's insistence about Lance's alleged cheating, though not for long. More and more people stepped forward to say that Lance had used drugs, most notably former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy. As Armstrong is wont to do, he shut the Andreu’s out of his life once they testified in court about his alleged doping. That’s Lance – when you’re on the ins with him, he’s brash and friendly. But piss him off and you’re done. Total silence. Total exclusion from all things Lance. Siberia.
Sometimes it’s not that straightforward. A colleague of mine once suggested quite strongly in print that Armstrong doped. My friend called me afterward and said that he’d finally done it; he’d finally cut the cord.
There was no Siberia. Just the opposite. Armstrong didn’t banish my friend. He pulled him closer, showering my friend with affection and bro-mance and parcels of the precise insider knowledge Lance wants published. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. This is how a clever man makes the media his lap dog.
As for the Andreu’s, they survived. Frankie was mysteriously fired from his job as director of an upstart American cycling team, but kept his job with a sports television network that specializes in Tour coverage. Frankie doesn’t talk much about Lance. But talk with Betsy, even now, and you will get an earful about why Armstrong is a cheater. She is a wonderful woman, smart and proud of her Frankie. But don't get her started. The woman can go on for days.
In the midst of all this, as the world began wondering if Lance doped and he began spending more time defending himself against those charges in court, hope faded. The faithful still flocked to see him race without a sliver of doubt, but the rest of the world seemed to have their eyes wide open. I'd get back from the Tour and be bombarded with questions about what it was like to meet Lance, see Lance, talk with Lance, and on. Inevitably, they'd ask if he doped. And I'd always give my pat response: "He's never tested positive."
And he still hasn't. The French would say differently, pointing to 1999 urine samples that have lately been retested with more modern technology.
All of this came to a head for me in 2005, which was to be Lance's final Tour. I had chosen to write a book about what it's like to spend 23 days at the Tour de France, chasing an icon around a land known for wine, cheese, history, and a bike race. Chasing Lance was not about Lance, I told all those cycling geeks who demanded to know gear ratios and carb-to-protein ratios. It was about me and my ultimate road trip. In the end, of course, I was wrong. The book sold better than anything I’ve ever written. But not because of my epic road adventure. As with all things Tour and Lance, it wasn't about me at all. It was about Lance.
Which brings me back to why I tell my friends those Lance stories that I cannot tell here. The point of my book's title was that each and every journalist at the Tour devotes an inordinate amount of energy to getting that vaunted one-on-one interview with Lance Armstrong. We chase him. And that was my goal during the 2005 Tour, getting that Lance one-on-one. It would make my book special. It would make me special.
So I bided my time. I spoke to him at the daily post-race conference, surrounded by scores of journalist but never alone. I spoke with him in a more intimate setting with a group of five American journalists. I bumped into him as he came out of doping control, and got a friendly hello. I gnashed my teeth as my friend and rival Austin Murphy got a one-on-one for his sports magazine, and then proceeded to rub it in my face. He was friendly about it, Austin was, but there was no disputing that he ranked higher on the journalistic food chain. And that hurt. Even as I pressed Lance's people for an interview, they treated me like I'd contracted leprosy, telling me that they'd get back to me with their arrogant unsmiling Texas faces. Really, I started to hate those handlers.
Soon I became one of the faithful, just standing outside Lance's trailer and hoping against hope that Lance would nod my way. I stood with the large-breasted women and the cancer people and the people from Texas with their horns and hats and that outlandish stuff that soon made Lance and fellow Texan George W. Bush synonymous in my head.
It got worse. I returned home from the Tour without my one-on-one. I wrote the book. Still no call from Lance. Like any hanger-on, I began to resent the individual who had once given me such hope and inspiration. I wrote mean things about Lance as part of my manuscript, and then watched in horror as my editor scrubbed them out with his red pencil and asked me to reconsider. My idol had fallen and, like Kathy Bates in Misery, I was demanding that Lance be punished.
How bad was it? The stories I can't tell you here, the ones that display nothing more than Lance's humanity -- I wrote them all down. My editor, a man with an eye for a potential lawsuit, scrubbed those out, too.
Then, September 9, 2005. It is the day before my manuscript goes to the printer. I am driving down the freeway when my phone rings. "Hi, Marty," says a familiar Texas accent, "it's Lance."
So we talked, Lance and I. All was forgiven.
That wasn't the last time we spoke. I ran into him a year later in that bar atop L'Alpe du Huez, wearing a baseball cap pulled low on his head while standing next to Jake Gyllenhaal, as if that could somehow hide his identity. We shook hands and spoke about the book, but it was understood that I wouldn't linger.
That was the night the camera man came back with his incredulous tale, the one that reduces me to a gossip.
It must be uncomfortable, being a man like Lance. Being hope. There's no room for failure, whether competitive or moral. Witness the judgment pointed Lance's way about his series of failed relationships with famous blond women. Once that social compact is broken, when you're a symbol of good like that, the disillusionment leads so many people to root for your comeuppance.
Or, when he admits to a very basic human emotion like fear, as he did last November when he stated that he was scared that the people of France might try to hurt him if he raced the 2009 Tour, we scratch our heads. We’re so used to him being a superlative that such a raw confession doesn’t compute. And then I wonder if it’s possible that Lance is like the rest of us now and again, waking up at 3 a.m., only to find himself unable to fall back to sleep, tossing and turning in a black insomniac hell as the irrational consumes him.
Then again, this is a guy staring at 40 and a midlife crisis, who just made the rather abrupt decision to whip his body into shape and race the Tour de France. At some point, despite all that swagger, there must be some element of soul-searching and fear of mortality.
So know this as Armstrong arrives Down Under to launch le comeback: He's a man. An athlete, a rascal, a Texan, a cancer survivor, a rock star.
I need to hear that as much as anyone. I need to be my own hero for a change, finding a way to achieve my own transcendent greatness instead of living vicariously through Lance's.
That’s a story that fills me with hope, once again.
And as for those old Lance stories? Time to put them to rest. I'd hate for anyone to be telling stories about me.
It's time to pick up a few new Lance Armstrong stories. It's time to follow the comeback and see what happens -- for better or worse.