This was written before Lance Armstrong's Fall from Grace. It ran in CityBike in the SF Bay Area and in Motorcycle Sport and Leisure in the UK.
Until a few years ago, I did not follow motorcycle road racing, not US racing, not World Superbike, MotoGP or the 500cc class in the two-stroke era. I didn't know what I was missing - a lot of great racing, dammit. Thanks to an old friend who raved about guys named Rossi, Gibernau and Biaggi, I thought I'd watch just one race through to the end - even if I got bored.
I did not get bored; I got hooked and I'm still hooked.
I should explain too that I also write about bicycling and ride my motorcycle as support in top-level bicycle races. So I've come to know lots of people in bicycle sport, including star cyclists. In the '90s I came to know and like Lance Armstrong, both before and after he got sick.
Every year in his hometown of Austin, Texas, Lance promotes a 100-mile charity bicycle ride, not a race, called the Ride for the Roses - to raise money to fight cancer. I rode the first one in '97 or '98. Lance had gotten better by then. He was back on his bike but a Tour de France win was not in the cards. No way. Everyone agreed.
He'd nearly died from the cancer. He'd been weakened by the disease and the treatment. And he wasn't a Tour de France kinda rider. No one would have bet on him to finish on the podium in one Tour, let alone win seven of them.
Because I was in Austin and known to Lance, I was invited to a group dinner at his favorite Mexican restaurant. We sat at a long table in the somewhat noisy place, one of those situations where you can't really talk to anyone more than one seat away. It was all cycling people, or so I thought, all friends of Lance's. I couldn't tell who was local and who'd come from out of town, like me.
A guy sitting next to me asked me how I knew Lance, meaning how I fit into the cycling picture. I'd rather not tell people I'm a writer. So I told him that I ride a support motorcycle at major bicycle races; that's how I connected with Lance. A guy sitting next to that guy overheard our conversation, leaned forward and asked how motorcycles are used to help out at bicycle races. I ride motorcycles too, he said.
Seemed like a good guy to me. Lean and tanned, he looked like a cyclist, a riding buddy of Lance's, probably.
I was not, in hindsight, acting like a hotshot motorcyclist at that table. I was explaining what jobs guys on motorcycles might do in bicycle races. Most bicycle race fans aren't aware of it but there must be a dozen job descriptions for motorcyclists at big-time bicycle races.
As I described what the motorcyclists (or their passengers) do in the races, the guy one seat away seemed especially interested. I thought: He's a local bicyclist who also rides a motorcycle. He'd like to help at races and see the action from the best seat in the house.
What's your name, I asked the guy. Kevin, he said. I live not far away. I'm a friend of Lance's.
At that point, his face started to look just the least bit familiar. I couldn't place him, couldn't decide if I'd seen him before or if he just looked like someone. We talked a bit about what I do in the races. I think I told him about how surprisingly fast the guys go on their bicycles on technical descents and how hard I had to ride to keep up. I'll bet that's right, he said.
I really liked talking with the guy. I felt I'd made a friend I might have for a long time. He had that knack, the rare knack that probably can't be learned. He's more interested in you than you are in him. As we talked, I became surer that I'd met him or seen his face at races...or somewhere.
So I said, hey Kevin, what's your last name. Schwantz, he said.
My heart went to my mouth. I wondered if I'd bragged about my motorcycling skills or experiences to Kevin Schwantz. I decided I had not. Not that I knew who he was, not really. I knew he'd been an outstanding rider. After years of paying no attention to motorcycle sport, I did not know who he was in context and what he'd done in context - ride the wheels off some of the fastest motorcycles in the world.
I knew he was a racer and saw he was a good guy. I did not know, so help me, how many motorcyclists would lop off a limb to be sitting where I was - and relating to Kevin Schwantz as just another friend of Lance's, eating Mexican food with the guys.
After dinner, the group of us went to Lance's house, nice place on the lake. I hung out with Kevin. We leaned on the wall and talked about this 'n' that, perhaps noticing as we did that there were numbers of quite attractive young ladies at Lance's that evening.
Anticipating your curiosity, I don't think we talked about motorcycling much. I remember feeling later that I'd met a super guy, a guy who might never let you know where he'd been or what he's done until you knew him quite well. A guy who seemed to have no need whatsoever to impress you. Who never dropped a name.
What motorcycling story could you and I tell that Kevin Schwantz couldn't top - if he had the slightest desire to do so?
I've thought about that evening a hundred times in the years since. When I see that Kevin Schwantz is going to be a guest here or there or I read something about his racing school, I wish I could be there just to say, Hey Kevin, remember me? We hung out at Lance's.
I didn't know who you were at the time. I figured you were just one of the guys. I was right.