July 06, 2003

The great bicycle race has started again, and I will be at least a little distracted by it for the next three weeks.

This has become one of my favorite times of year, each morning a little adventure as I live vicariously through the boys riding the roads of France. Mom and Dad have cable, so I watch with them, carefully picking the days likely to be the most important.

It is the mountains that matter, both because that is where the Tour de France is won and lost, and also because that is where the human drama lies, as the boys push their bikes up impossible slopes through tunnels of wild fans.

That is where we first really met young Lance in the summer of 1999, when the fresh and endearing novelty of a plucky cancer survivor survivor turned into something else on the slopes of the Galibier, high in the Alps.

''I think before today there were some questions about my abilities in the mountains, so I think it was important to show that the team and I are strong in the mountains,'' he said after his easy victory over five climbs and 213.5 kilometers (132.5 miles) from France to Sestriere, Italy.

The American leader of the U.S. Postal Service team said he had surprised even himself with his show of strength. Not an overwhelming climber in earlier years, he has worked at his power and lost a few pounds to help get over peaks.

I wrote a couple of years ago about what that tour meant to me. I have talked before about why I am a cycling fan, about the dignity and elegance of the sport, but I was forever bonded to the thing when cancer boy rolled off the line at the 1999 prologue and showed us all something deeply special. Apologies for redundancy, but it bears repeating:


If I were a sportswriter, here is what I would write.

I got interested in cycling during the 1995 Tour de France. Jimmie, a crusty old-fashioned road bike rider, sat next to me at work, and began teaching me the lore of the race, the tactics and the strategy. 1995 was the year Fabio Casartelli died in a wicked descent, and I came to understand the Tour's grace and elegance the following day, when the Tour's riders rode the stage silently together, eschewing racing in Casartelli's honor. They allowed Casartelli's teammates to ride to the front for each of the stage's bonuses, collecting the prize money for his family.

And then the following day, a young rider named Lance Armstrong, a teammate of Casartelli's, rode a ferocious sprint victory for the win, raising his arms and his face to the sky as he crossed the line.

I lost track of young Lance, and paid little attention in the following years as he battled cancer.

And then, on the day of the 1999 prologue at Puy du Fou, Lissa and Nora were travelling and I sat alone at home watching the Tour on television.

I had no notion of Armstrong as a contender. I cared about names like Zulle, people I'd grown to understand as the great champions of the stage race. Armstrong I understood simply as the man who had survived cancer, not as a sporting figure.

When he won, I wept.

"It's a long way from Indianapolis to Puy du Fou," Armstrong said after the race. Indianapolis is where he endured the ugliness and devastation that is the best medical science can offer cancer patients today. That became my email signoff quote.

I wept because he stood there at the start line for my wife Lissa, who survived cancer. When I saw the pictures they showed on TV of a wasted Lance Armstrong in a hospital bed, I saw my Lissa. Every time I see those pictures of him (they show them again and again, year after year now) I clutch. I took no picture of Lissa in that hospital bed.

Surviving cancer requires no courage and yet all courage. One has no choice. One simply does what one must do. Lissa survived it with all the courage she had, much she did not know she had, and all life after it is, for us, icing. She now can see Nora grow up.

Whatever Lance Armstrong has done since is icing. Winning that dinky little prologue at Puy du Fou - no, simply riding in it - will always stand for me as the towering achievement, just as every birthday for Lissa is.

I imagine him able to power up the climbs of Sestriere or L'Alpe d'Huez beyond anything Ullrich or the others can do because he is not riding against them. He is riding to beat back something bigger. Perhaps this is a romantic notion, or me projecting, but that is what I see when I see him jump out of the saddle and fly up the hills.

Armstrong passes five years of survival this year, one of the statistically arbitrary markers of "cure" the doctors give patients.

Lissa has passed 10 years, and I rarely think about her cancer any more, except to occasionally thank her for not dying.

But every summer now, the Tour reminds me of the power of survival.

I wrote that two years ago. It seems as though they don't show the old pictures of Cancer Lance very often any more, and they don't talk about the cancer, but the bike. In many ways it now is about the bike. But I will never forget. I had that emotional clutch again this year as I saw him roll out of the start house under the Eiffel tower yesterday, cancer boy in the yellow jersey.

I no longer idolize Armstrong. He seems in many ways an unpleasant man. But he is a great bike rider and his committment to cancer survivorship makes me willing to forgive much. There are other voices to be answered in the bike race this year, Ullrich especially, and the brash Simoni and the impishly enthusiastic Hamilton. I hope they give the Texan pause.

So I will be perched in front of Mom and Dad's television set many days over the next three weeks, but especially on Sunday, as the boys push their bikes up the Galibier and L'Alpe d'Huez.

Posted by John Fleck at July 06, 2003 09:01 AM