Friday, August 24, 2012
in the summer of 1997, i moved to virginia to work for a landscaping company. the heat was sweltering, the ground-level ozone at an all-time high, and i was working for six dollars an hour, averaging 14-hour days. as usual, i was in for a hard-ass learning experience, and my one big saving grace was my family.
my family dropped me off on a humid june night, just a day after my last high exam. i watched with a heavy heart as the tail lights of the beat-up suburban faded into the dark, and i was left with two people i didn't really know and a summerful of the hardest work i hadn't yet done.
i would come to grow up in that house, living with my boss and his beautiful, pregnant wife, fighting it out in their newlywed year, making a business take and grow, tolerating the heat, and me, and that endless seeping humidity.
about an hour and a half away, somewhere up the 270 corridor, my uncle was hashing out his life with his young family. he had been my favorite uncle growing up. we had spent summers together. he taught me how to draw and he gave me my first road bike frameset, a glorious fat-tubed cannondale with red paint and a steel fork and enough acceleration to kill a horse. every weekend, my uncle would pick me up, and take me to the washington d.c. area to be around the rest of my cousins and aunts and uncles. this saved my life.
we were sitting on the floor of my uncle tom's house one weekend, watching bits of the tour de france highlights, talking the interspersed talk of people who get interrupted by chubby children and the proceeds of dinner melee, and my uncle asked me if i had heard about lance armstrong. i told him i had, that i had seen his picture on the cover of bicycling in the world champion's jersey, that he was barely older than i was. my uncle told me that lance had cancer.
i was floored.
this was not the first time i had heard of cancer. this was not the first time i had heard of cancer affecting someone i knew of, or even knew. this was the first time i had heard of cancer affecting someone so young, someone who did the same thing i did, on two wheels, as much as possible.
obviously, i didn't know lance. he is just a bit older than i. he was the most naturally talented adolescent athlete america had seen since greg lemond. maybe the most talented because he could do so many sports so well. i happened to ride bikes, slowly, and had grown up with the names merckx and lemond. lance was new and brash and interesting, but not a classic, not yet. and then he was diagnosed with cancer. i remember feeling a sense of despair at the time, a vague sense, at the way that a lot of stars seemed to hold a great deal of promise, and then have that potential taken away by one force or another. AIDS. Cancer. things that shouldn't happen to anyone. (and i only really knew a little bit about the privileged developed-world people to whom these things were happening, to say nothing of the rest of the world and its large-scale tragedy.) people were dying.
lance didn't die. in fact, he went on to become the most successful cyclist ever to come from america. he raced hard, and dominated the field, in a charismatic and flashy and exciting way, in the dirtiest years of a doped-up sport: professional cycling in the 1990s and 2000s. blood doping. EPO. dirty doctors and webs of lies and covered up controls and bags of blood. HGH. everything everywhere, race horses and 'trainers', careening through the dark. the rest of us cheered in ignorance, adopted or true. and on top of it all, on top of the world, lance armstrong took his handsome face to the primetime view and told us all that he was doing it clean.
just yesterday, news broke that lance was giving up his handsome face fight, that he is done with the courts and allegations and legal proceedings and WADA and USADA and tygart and non-believers. i figure he probably doped. i was never there when it happened so i don't know for sure. i figure there were once dinosaurs. i wasn't there when it happened so i don't know for sure. and i haven't built my cycling passion on armstrong and his charisma. this is important, because armstrong was a huge kick in the ass to the sport of cycling in north america. i know people who started riding because they saw him do it, and do it with the panache and boldness unique to american pride. armstrong was not subtle. he went big, american big, and he commanded the attention of millions. he had heroic qualities, he was born-again, he was a survivor of one of the most widespread diseases of our time, he shaved his legs and wore spandex, he wore oakley and nike, he rode a bike made in wisconsin. he was an all american hero, and he used this to his advantage, and to the advantage of his cancer-fight-funding foundation. he became an american celebrity, something generally unheard of for athletes not in the major leagues sports like baseball or football. for people who shave their legs and wear spandex and get things thrown at them from the windows of passing pick-ups while they practice the sport they love, the celebrity and machismo of armstrong was a bit of a beacon. and now, here we are, faced with the fall of the hero.
lance didn't get me into cycling. my dad did. and then my uncle gave me his hand-me-down kit. and that beautiful red cannondale. and my dad built it while i worked for it, hour for hour, him inside stringing cables and housings, me outside catching rough-cut lumber off a portable saw mill. i built my first wheels for that red cannondale, and they're still rolling today, almost 20 years later. i learned to wrench bikes from my dad. our first christmas in canada, my dad got up with us at 5 in the morning and set to work unboxing and assembling four brand-new bicycles i'm almost positive he and my mom could not remotely afford. i will never forget his blue coffee mug, the stubble on his chin, under the profound smile that only comes from giving someone a bicycle.
it sucks that lance probably doped. it sucks that everyone in the peloton at the time was probably doping. it sucks that positives must exist among negatives in order to be positive. but i know that my children want to ride like their mama, like emily batty, like clara hughes. they want to ride the ride for heart and the tour for kids, because the money they 'get' goes to people who need it. and i want to ride because i love bikes. i love remembering rides with my dad. i love riding with my girls. i love the sound of tires revolving over pavement, the wind in my ears, the feeling of sweat dripping off the end of my nose, the washing off of road grime from my shins. i love the ker-chunk of my chain dropping into a faster gear. i love leaving and arriving, each moment at a time. and none of that is tainted.