Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The first Race for the Roses

I wrote this in '97, after Lance Armstrong got sick but before he became a household name for his appearance in Dodgeball - A True Underdog Story. He had at that point not won his first Tour de France. No one was sure how his racing would go.

Cynical as we all are today, it's easy to chip away at his feats, his style and his commitment to clean cycling. Then - we were in awe. I still am.

Saying that The Race for the Roses, more properly The Ikon Office Solutions Race for the Roses, was a March 23rd century in Austin is like saying Lance Armstrong rides a bike. Doesn't tell the story.

Austin itself is part of the story. Austin has made Armstrong its own — and he has made Texas' capitol a center of US cycling. Lance moved to Austin from Plano (north of Dallas) and became a favorite son, a local hero. Austin loved Lance in triumph and in health. Then he got sick.

And Austin drew him to its heart. Go there and walk around with him, eat dinner with him in a crowded Mexican restaurant. See how he's treated, how folks enjoy seeing him and knowing him and kidding around with him.

In the week before the race you'd hear a radio commercial for the Roses ride featuring Armstrong and beloved ex-Texas Governor Ann Richards. In the ad, Richard quips that she's won some races and lost some, and wonders aloud if a cycling helmet will fit over "all this hair."

The Race for the Roses was a chance for the rest of us to meet Lance and get to know him a little, maybe ride with him, kid around with him, see for ourselves that he's okay, so we can stop worrying.

He is okay. He has a full head of short hair, no scars visible. His color's good, his eyes are bright and he is optimistic in what seems to be a realistic way.

His friends remark on changes in his behavior. They say he is more mature and attuned to others as a result of his illness and recovery. He cannot know if he can take up his career where he left off. No one knows. He can live with that doubt; he is happy just to be living. People say life-threatening illness can give you that kind of clarity.

Sometimes, even in a crowd of people, Armstrong's attention will go away briefly. He'll look past those people and gaze out into the distance, focused on infinity. What's out there? Who's to say?

Armstrong wasn't the only star at The Race for the Roses. He asked some friends to come by, friends who might want to help him raise money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation at the foundation's first big fundraising event. Virtually everyone he called appeared and rode.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation raises money to promote awareness of cancer, particularly testicular cancer, which often affects young men (like Lance Armstrong) who may not feel vulnerable, thus may put off getting examined. "Cancer? Me?" Well, maybe...

You met Lance's helpful friends in the Austin Hyatt Regency when you lined up to register for 10, 25 or 100-mile events. If you rode the 100-mile distance you saw them again on the road.

As you walked through the registration line, you could buy a T-shirt, jersey or poster, beautiful stuff, and you could get that T-shirt, jersey or poster (or a free postcard) autographed by one or more of your heroes. There were heroes aplenty.

Speedskater Dan Jansen was there, and another speedskater, Eric Heiden, multi-Olympic gold medalist, the first US Pro Champion and one of the founders of the South Club, the organization behind the 7-Eleven and Motorola Cycling Teams. Doctor Heiden is currently serving an orthopedic fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama.

Downhill mountain bike champion Brian Lopes was there signing away, and Davis Phinney was mobbed. Lance himself was in that line. Next to Lance was Sean Kelly, yes Sean Kelly, and you could chat with him or shake his hand and he would graciously sign the six T-shirts you'd bought for yourself and the guys back home.

Kelly is bigger than you expect, quiet-spoken and not as chatty as you expect Irishmen to be. He is racing weight or not much more and wears his hair short. He wore a golf-style shirt and a sweatshirt or sweater thrown over his shoulders with the sleeves down the front.

Kelly's eyes are everywhere; you feel he misses nothing. He says he's excited about the Tour starting in Ireland this year and is working on that project. He told this reporter he felt that he did indeed realize more power from the clips-and-straps he favored well past their expiration date. He was clipless in Austin, nonetheless.

Jim Ochowicz was there behind the scenes. Jonathan Boyer. Chris Carmichael and Sean Petty from the federation. Paul Sherwen did the start-line announcing. Phinney and Jeff Pierce were there representing Bicycling Magazine.

None of the above merely came to sign autographs on Saturday; they all rode the Roses ride, mostly the 100-miler, leaving with the second (Been There Done That) group that started shortly after the Top Gun fast guys.

Giro, Nike, Pepsi and Oakley were among the event's sponsors and sent people who helped out and rode their bikes. Lance's buddy, retired motorcycle racer Kevin Schwantz, was there and rode the 100-mile event.

Riders came from Texas and nearby states plus New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania and who knows where else. A group from Maryland donated $5,000 in memory of a cycling friend who'd recently died from cancer.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, 500 riders did the 100-mile loop, 1500 did the 10- and 25-mile rides.

If you left with the correct group, you could ride up next to Lance or Sean Kelly or Davis Phinney and say hi. You could, if you looked as if you would not crash anyone in the next few hundred meters, sit in with guys you thought you'd never meet, and you two would chat, riding side-by-side through the rolling, sun-warm Texas countryside. Imagine.

It is the fervent hope of everyone who attended this year's Race for the Roses that it become an annual affair. Perhaps it will be difficult for Lance Armstrong to attend each year, because he will be busy makin' 'em hurt in Europe, another fervent hope.

Whether he is there or elsewhere, if future Races for the Roses are even pale imitations of 1997's event, you won't want to be anywhere else. See you in Austin in March, '98. Buy ya a Shiner Bock.


BikingBis said...

I paid my money and rode in that first Race for the Roses. I also met one of Lance's good friends and staunchest supporters -- Greg LeMond -- at the criterium a couple of days before the Roses ride.
Funny how things change.

Maynard said...

No kidding, bikingbis...

I like and respect both of those guys. Both are taking lots of heat these days, huh? I know that the Trek association was a really good one for Greg. I wonder if he realized fully that he was walking where the ice was thin - when he spoke out about doping and about Lance. I hope some other outfit jumps on his brand and makes great LeMond bikes.
Thanks for reading and commenting,

Corey said...

I remember that ride fondly. I did it on a tandem with my buddy Bob on the back. Any we DID have the chance to ride a bit with our heros. It was a fine day. Thanks for reminding me.