Looking back to that weekend from the events of this past week, my account of a day-long ride takes on a considerably different perspective. Recalling the personality traits he displayed to those of us in the general public, they were at the time easily overlooked because of his status and power. Now, those same traits have come to define current public opinion of a man wholly focused on winning, at any cost, and with complete disregard for anyone who needed to get stepped on, or dropped.
While my own opinion of the man has lessened considerably in recent years, he’s certainly remained true to himself, consistently brushing off the nay-sayers & skeptics, branding them as ‘haters’, even as the walls of his empire crumble around him.
Depending on how you read it, this story could be about either:
• How one wide-eyed fan got to ride with a legendary Tour de France champion
• Or how a legendary Tour de France champion ignored one wide-eyed fan’s pleas to dial back the pace a notch, and dropped my sportif-journo ass in the last 10km of a charity ride.
• or both
I think the most interesting part of the story comes near the end, where I describe the last 25km of the ride. While most of the riders there were at best ‘sportif’ level, and each made $35,000 contributions to be there, none of that mattered when it came time to drop everyone on the final climb. Lance’s choice of personal conduct was clear.
Below is my original story, as it ran on Oct. 4, 2005.
Riding With Lance: My Finest Dropping
At the Tour of Courage in late September (2005), I got to live a cyclist’s dream of riding with Lance. I’d been thinking about it for months, dreaming about it, and had planned my training for this final peak of my season…
I joined 30 major donors who’d contributed $35,000 to the Tour of Courage cancer fundraiser each to spend two days riding with Lance, George Hincapie, Chris Carmichael, Phil Liggett, and Johan Bruyneel in Lake Louise Alberta.
The organization was top notch – the rides were supported by the RCMP who provided a rolling road closure along the highway, rider safety was a prime concern, even though the group was fit and experienced – including the ladies. But because we’d be sharing the road with other motorists, our peloton was allowed a 500 meter closed envelope on the road – with police closures ahead and behind. If a rider dropped back and out of the envelope, they were picked up and shuttled ahead to one of four feed zones where they could rejoin the group.
My publicly announced goal for the tough Day 1 ride of 127 km from Lake Louise to the Columbia Icefields was to never lose the envelope.
Hey – I’ve got a certain reputation to uphold (or establish?). As publisher of this website, I feel a certain responsibility to be a somewhat accomplished rider. Then there was the presence of Lance and co – I sure didn’t want to disappoint them – (okay, I’m sure they didn’t care one way or the other how I ride… but still, you want to make a good impression.)
My privately hoped for goal was that I’d be strong enough to hang with the group, and even be there at the end when “the move” happened. How cool would that be…
Read this one right to left. The day was all about saving for “The Move”.
The ride was broken into 5 stages – each around 25km, broken up by feedzones. The first 40 km we very civilized, a chatting pace as we climbed 600 meters in altitude to the first summit of the day. After a cold and cloudy start, the sun came out and we enjoyed the glorious day in a glorious setting.
Lance rode at the front and we all took turns riding beside him and chatting.
After the second feedzone at 40km, the next 20ish descended some 800 meters, I saw 72kmh on my computer. My strategy for the day was to conserve, conserve, conserve – I was not the least bit guilty about staying off the front and riding wheels all day. My longest ride this year was 103km, so I had no idea how I’d feel at the end of this ‘epic’, especially since the toughest part of the ride was the 8km climb – average grade 8-10% – came in the last 20kms.
The next 40kms were gently rolling, no serious grades, and we cruised behind Lance and George at around 32kmh. I slotted in behind George, remembered my trip to the wind tunnel when I learned that riding the drops saves you energy even in the pack. I spent as much time in both as possible.
I rode for a long way behind George, and thought about his experiences in Europe, challenging for the Spring Classics, his Tour stage, his experience, and laughed at how life can take you to amazing places.
I rode beside Chris Carmichael and we chatted for a long time. Just two guys riding their bikes… but one of us had much cooler stories about racing in Europe…
The early going was a great chance to meet Lance on his terms… on the bike.
The bunch moved around and then I was on Lance’s wheel. We were surrounded by some of the most brilliant scenery on earth, but I spent most of the time intently watching his wheel – so this is what Tour riders see… Of course I didn’t want to slip up and be the cause of any accidents either.
About 4 hours in, we pulled into the final feed zone and refilled waters and grabbed another powerbar. Lance changed into some dry clothes. “This guy’s serious.” I thought. But then so were a bunch more of us. We’d covered just over 100km and the day’s toughest challenge was upon us.
We rolled out of the last rest stop ready for battle. The “so you think you’re a tough guys” in the group had been sizing each other up since last night (although we never admitted to it), and we were all aware that straight ahead was showtime.
Get Your Move On
A couple of kms down the road, with a cold glacial wind blowing in our faces, the climb began. It was broken into two parts, the first being a long straight 2km stretch at 7%, separated by a 1km flat sweeping into the final 7km stretch the averaged 7-8% grades.
The front group contains about 10 of the strongest donors, plus Lance, George, Carmichael, ‘College’ (Lance’s buddy from Austin) I took up my spot behind Lance, and kept my mouth shut, eyes open, and tried to stay cool. The pace is not that hard, but we’re starting to work more than we have been.
About half way up the climb, George motors by us on the left side, sitting up, one hand on the bars, the other holding his cell phone. “Hi Baby, yup, yup, uh huh. Things here are great, we’re having a great time – miss you too… bye…” he says. He hangs up, then looks over at us laughing through a huge grin. Lance starts giving him the gears, while the rest of us would have laughed along too, if we weren’t breathing so hard.
Between kms 60-100, things seemed to get down to business. I figured Lance’s wheel was almost as good as George’s for drafting, so I hung in and observed a view that is usually reserved for TdF pros – his back wheel.
Not long after that, Lance peels off to the right and slides down the right side, as he goes by me I look at him and say, (feigning complete dismay) “Whoa, whoa – aren’t you ‘sposed to be up there doin’ the work for us?” He looks back and replies: “I’m done workin.”
Hmm. Fair enough, he’s been on the front all day.
Then ‘College’, attacks up the left. Not a serious move I tell myself – this guy’s just too big… We’re still a couple of hundred meters from the top of the first pitch, so I figure he just wants a head start. Lance yells at him but there’s too much wind to hear. The rest of us are silent.
I think our group is now about 12 guys, including Lance, George, Chris, and College up the road.
I find myself too near the front for my liking and duck for cover behind a wheel, as we swing across the flat plateau, around a 180 degree right hander that set’s up the final pitch.
Completing the turn, the strong wind is now at our backs and the first meters of this section of 8% actually seem easier. The climb tracks straight for about 1000 meters before disappearing left around the mountain. I roll into the front as we fan out 3 abreast and keep the pace moderate. I feel pretty good, and consider bolting, but quickly reconsider any stupid ideas as I don’t know how long, or painful this is gonna get.
50 meters up the road, College takes hold of the support car, and Lance considers the wind conditions favourable to recommence lobbing verbal jabs at his buddy. The rest of us think it’s pretty funny, but are more concerned with breathing than laughing…
We climb another couple hundred meters and I notice the workload is getting harder. We’re not jamming, but the constant grade, steady pace, previous 110km, and altitude start to take a toll.
Then Lance and George swing into place at the front of the group and we pass College.
What happens next takes place over 5-10 minutes.
The MOVE: That’s me baby! And for the record, that extra padding around my middle is clothing.
It’s Lance and George on the front, our new Swiss bud Daniel (who’s built like a cyclist and a confirmed hammerhead), and myself riding second wheels.
I’m feeling the effort more now, and know the other guys must be hurting too, so I chance a look around to see who’s still here.
I glance back over my shoulder and nearly fall off my bike… the four of us have a gap. A GAP!
The enormity of this situation fills me with adrenalin. I pretty much start to freak out, but manage to stay cool… THIS is the moment I was secretly dreaming about… that some how I’d still be there when the final selection happened… And I WAS THERE!
As pretty much any of us can imagine, finding oneself in such esteemed company is… well, indescribable.
Back to reality I realize my heart rate is getting pretty high, and I’m breathing hard. Lance and George just keep spinning away, this is no big deal for them. I don’t bother looking at Daniel, I expect he’s in better shape than me anyway.
I’m working hard to stay here as we climb higher, but know this is my 15 minutes of glory, I have to dig deep to find whatever I can to hang onto this group.
So I dig, and dig, and dig some more.
After the dropping: “Can you believe that Pez? … Did he actually ask us to slow down…?”
I dig for 20 seconds straight – and then hit rock … hard pan… the bottom.
I slip back half a wheel, then a meter. I try to regain the group but my legs won’t go any faster. I lose 3 meters, then it’s 5. I’m struggling with everything I can muster but the gap keeps going up. At 10 meters back I admit I’m dropped.
My heart is screaming, legs burning… at least I can still think and devise to regroup, maybe recover and see what happens – maybe they’ll sit up…?
I’m considering the paperboy shuffle when Johan pulls up in the support car. I instinctively veer over and grab the passenger door jam. I say to the guys inside “I’m feeling a bit guilty about grabbing on, but am too tired to care…”
Johan replies: “Don’t worry, how do you think the French get over the Alps in the Tour…” The laughter feels good… any I guzzle in the rest. Johan tows me the 100 meters back to Lance, George and Daniel.
I devise a plan – If my legs can’t do the talking, maybe some talking will save my legs.
I let go of the car and slot into the trio behind George, who’s riding on the front beside Lance.
“Guys, Guys…” I say “Any chance you can notch it back just a bit… I’m dying here.”
Lance looks back over his shoulder: “PEZZZZ… what about those other 30 guys who got dropped… they didn’t ask us to slow down…”
“Well…” I reply, “I don’t see them here begging for mercy…”
Lance says something to George, and I’m pretty sure I hear laughing above the wind.
The pace doesn’t change.
20 meters later I lose contact again… this time for good.
I struggle on the last 10km of the ride by myself. Carmichael and College go past me and I later realize hanging on the car is legal – as long as you don’t get caught. I flail away to the finish, utterly exhausted, but utterly elated.
I just got dropped by Lance and George. I was even one of the last guys to get dropped… I consider my whole season my best ever. I consider it my finest dropping ever.
After testing ourselves against the pros on Day 1, Day 2’s 50km stage was a lot more relaxed.
Later that night at the celebration dinner, I asked Lance how hard the ride was… really… for him. 130km above 5000 feet was easily one of my top 5 toughest this year, but for guys like him and George…
He says: “Dude. That was HARD.” He’s dead serious.
“Really…?” I say.
“It was a hard ride.” He replies.
The Tour of Courage has raised over $6 million in under three years to fund cancer research at the newly renamed Lance Armstrong Endowed Chair in Molecular Cancer Epidemiology. Get more info at the Official website www.TourOfCourage.com
Or contact Joe Dutton at 403-681-5483
See The Video – Also watch the short movie clip of last year’s ride on the Tour of Courage website.
Read more about the Calgary Tour of Courage:
1. Tour of Courage ’05: The PEZ Report
2. Tour of Courage ’05 Preview
3. Lance To Complete “Courage” Cancer Fundraising
4. Lance Back To Cancer Fundraiser
5. Liggett Joins Lance To Cure Cancer In Cowtown
6. Last year’s inaugural event was a huge success
7. Here’s How The Journey Began
8. Tour of Courage: the PEZ Report