Friday, April 11, 2008

About Lance - in 1999

I wrote this as Lance was winning his first (of seven) Tours de France. Then as now he was an easy target, easy to criticize. In the last couple of months, Trek has severed its relationship with our other US Tour winner, Greg LeMond, for suggesting that Lance may not be above suspicion of doping. And Lance has opened a Trek bike shop in Austin not far from existing Trek stores.

I admire both guys and cringe when I hear criticism of either. I'm sorry about what happened with Trek and Greg, and I wish Lance the best with his shop and his other pursuits. Good guys, both of them, I'd say. I don't feel any different about them today than I did in '99.

The Truth

As this is written, Lance Armstrong is about to win the Tour de France. A cancer survivor will win the toughest bike race in the world.

We will have had TWO U.S. Tour winners in a decade, Lance and Greg LeMond. Both of them won Tours after surviving terrible misfortune.

Someday, perhaps, we'll have a homegrown cycling hero who has only his opponents to defeat. Hard enough, winning the Tour de France, without having nearly died from testicular cancer or from getting shot.

I met Lance in Italy in the early '90s, at a U.S. National Team training camp near Bergamo. I'd heard his name, heard that he was from Texas, had been a star triathlete and was hell-a strong. At that time, I believe he was still living in Plano at his mother's home. Austin came later.

The National Team guys were about to begin the Settimana Bergamasca, a hard pro-am stage race. Lance, totally unknown overseas then, won the Settimana. He stunned the Euros, and not for the last time, eh?

When I got to the pizzeria/hotel where the team stayed, a couple of the guys on the team greeted me warmly. Someone pointed across the room, paused and said, "That's Lance."

He was already set apart just a bit because he was so awful strong. You knew he was going to do great things. And he did, winning the Pro World Championships in '93, still a young guy.

But the cycling press was not good to him. He was portrayed as a brash young guy, maybe a little short on consideration, a shooter-from-the-hip. He didn't always show proper respect, was the feeling you got. He was not Greg LeMond, the gracious, smiling sweetheart.

And he wasn't Greg LeMond, not ever. He was always Lance Armstrong, and that wasn't always easy in the immediate post-LeMond era. The press didn't help. You wondered where the critical attitude came from.

He has clear eyes and a steady gaze. He looks at you and listens when you're talking. So he can seem a little intense. He is never, ever loud. He doesn't badmouth people. He always, always remembers his friends.

The cycling press made him out to be a cocky Texan nonetheless. Until he got sick. Now, he's a different guy. Now. Now he's stared down death and not blinked, NOW he's a good guy. NOW he's sweet, NOW he's the boy scout he could have been all along. What crap.

Lance Armstrong has been a good guy all along, a guy you'd be proud to have dating your sister, if he were a big star or a burger flipper.

I'll tell you a couple of stories about Lance, stories I know 'cause I was part of them; you tell me if he wasn't a good guy all along.

Before a Tour du Pont stage in '94, Lance, in his rainbow-striped World Champion jersey, pedaled over to me to chat. We were saying hi when a fan with a camera walked up.

"Would you mind, guys," he asked us, "if I take your picture together?"

"I'd be proud," Lance said, pointing at me, "HE's famous."

The fan sent me a copy of the photograph. I tell the story and pass the photo around when I do appearances. Lance said that, I say.

A year later, I lost my motorcycle driving job at the DuPont. I was devastated. I couldn't imagine not being there. When the TV race coverage began, I couldn't force myself to watch.

One day I did watch. I'd had the TV on five minutes. The camera was following Lance and a few friends as they pedaled along early in a stage. I thought at one point I heard someone onscreen say my name. How could THAT be?

But it was my name. Steve Hegg and Lance were talking about ME on TV, Hegg telling Lance that I'd lost my motor job.

Lance, World Professional Road Champion Lance Armstrong, America's hope, turned to the camera. He told the hundreds of thousands that the guy he and Hegg were talking about, their friend Maynard, was not at the tour.

"We miss Maynard," Lance said. "The race isn't the same without him. We want Maynard."

THAT was the greatest recognition anyone's ever given me. I hope the same sort of thing happens to you sometime. I get choked up even now thinking about it, five or six years later. Lance did that.

Later that same year, Different Spokes, the big San Francisco gay-and-lesbian bike club, asked me if I could get a signed jersey from Lance. They would auction it off to raise money for the fight against AIDS.

Seems strange now, doesn't it, that Lance was so willing then to help fight a disease...but he sure was.

He over-nighted me a gorgeous World Championship jersey, Motorola logo, only jersey like it in the world (only one World Champion on the team). He'd written: "Thanks for helping in the fight against AIDS" and signed it.

Lance did that.

Don't believe it took some near-death experience to turn Lance Armstrong from a cocky kid to a good-hearted grownup. Someone who could benefit from controversy invented that change, someone who cared more about stirring the pot than telling the truth.

You're reading the truth right here.

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