• The 5 degree Celsius temps did nothing to cool the enthusiasm of the group.
Back in the Spring I got a call from Tour of Courage organizer (Joe Dutton, excitedly telling me they’d just confirmed Lance’s attendance at this year’s event, and extending an invitation to join them again… I just about coughed up my dinner, but regained my composure in time to graciously accept.
Two Days Riding With Lance
It was clear this would be the peak of my cycling season, and I quickly set about planning my training for the late September dates. I joined the 30 donors (who’d each contributed $35,000 to the Tour of Courage cancer fundraising effort) ready for 2 unbelievable days of riding as part of this very exclusive event.
• Accommodations were first class at the Post Hotel & Spa in Lake Louise. Part of the Relais & Chateaux chain, it’s a classic Rocky Mountain lodge originally built in 1942. The owners Andre & George Schwarz took over in 1978 and began a complete rebuild of the property. Their good taste and hard work are evident throughout the 98 room lodge that also features several bungalows, riverstone-fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs. Just wait till I tell you about the food…
The weather in the Rockies is never a sure thing, and even though the forecast called for sunny but cool temps, the snow falling on the drive to Lake Louise was a little unexpected. At the cocktail reception on Thursday evening, it was clear no one cared about the weather. We were all here to ride with Lance, and about the only thing that could spoil the party would be roads closed due to snow.
Why do I look nervous…?
In spite of the upbeat mood, the temp was hovering just around freezing, and the snow was falling. Snow! Okay, anything can happen in the Canadian Rockies, and more than a few of us had nightmares about the ride being snowed-out.
… this is why.
You can’t fly without fuel… The days began with a huge breakfast spread that included fresh baked breads & pastries, meats, cheeses, fruits, cereals, eggs scrambled, eggs Benny, sausages, bacon, hot oatmeal, fresh queezed juice and coffee and way you like it.
• Friday morning dawned cloudy and cold, but the snow had stopped and the roads were clear. Donors’ enjoyed pro-level bike service provided by the guys from Ridley’s Cycles in Calgary. I was one of several who shipped our bike ahead, and arrived to find it unpacked, built up, and smartly hung in numbered sequence at the start area. Mechanics were on hand for last minute adjustments, of course waiting for us along the route and at the finish to just hand off our bikes for transport back to the hotel.
From the looks on our faces, you’d never know it was 3 degrees Celsius.
Each of the riders also received a big duffel bag from sponsor Arc Resources, stuffed with custom Tour of Courage kit by Hincapie Sportswear, Oakley eyewear, a Team Discovery helmet from Giro, clothing from Nike and more. Pretty cool.
You know you’re at a classy event when your bike gets a number, and they spell your name correctly.
“I left 100 degrees in Austin to do what again…?” They don’t call this the Great White North for nothing.
Day 1: The Ride
The first day’s ride was the big one – 127 kms from Lake Louise to the Columbia Icefields. Although we gained and lost several hundred meters altitude over the first 100km, the real test lay at the end in the final 15km, where a tough 8km climb at 8% awaited. Through the first part of the day, Lance thankfully set a reasonable pace – just fast enough to warm us up, but not too fast to talk. The sun came out, the scenery was spectacular, and the ride was an absolute success.
• The first 40km were a gradual climb of 3% average. Lance set a “chatting” pace, which allowed the riders to wheel to say hello and ask a question or two.
How To Talk to A 7-Time Tour Champion: Rule #1 – even though you’re totally freaking out, do your best to act cool.
How To Talk to A 7-Time Tour Champion: Rule #37 – 7-Time Tour Champs are actually pretty cool – they put their cycling shoes on one foot at a time like the rest of us.
True to Rocky Mountain form, the weather changed quickly – from clouds to glorious sunshine.
Johan Bruyneel with Tour of Courage organizers John Dielwart and Joe Dutton. Johan’s peloton-driving experience made him the perfect man to steer the lead support vehicle. More than a few riders were grateful for a ‘long water-bottle hand-off’… wink wink.
• The Day 1 ride was well supported with the RCMP expertly controlling traffic, broom wagons to shuttle stragglers to the next rest stop, 4 feed zones to take on food and water – and two luxurious motorhomes waiting at the finish to transfer us back.
• After about 5-1/2 hours, we posed proudly (but tired) at the Columbia Icefields.
The Dinner Celebration
• Day 1 was capped by an intimate dinner for the donors. MC’d by the voice of Canadian cycling Steve King, and hosted by that other voice in cycling Phil Liggett, the featured guests were all called on to share a few stories. The mood was relaxed and the room filled with laughter, with Phil his witty self, and Lance lobbing comments and wisecracks out at high cadence.
I was seated at Johan Bruyneel’s table, and over the two days found him also to be quite the joker. He told us his favorite moment of this year’s Tour was in the prologue, when Lance passed Jan.
When Lance took the podium, we were reminded the real reason for our celebration was the Tour of Courage’s incredibly successful fundraising of $6 million over the past 2-1/2 years to fund the newly renamed Lance Armstrong Endowed Chair in Molecular Cancer Epidemiology.
Back To Racing?
Of course the hot question of the weekend was “are you coming back to racing?” Lance stuck to his guns about not returning to France, although I personally never heard him rule out a return to race in Italy, Belgium, Spain, …or any country other than France.
Lance did talk about having fulfilled his cycling goals, and that his two main future goals are his family, and continuing to fight for a cure for cancer.
• The 5 course gourmet dinner was prepared by the Post Hotel’s outstanding kitchen staff and accompanied by 4 different wines from their on site cellar that boasts nearly 30,000 bottles and 1900 labels. In true Alberta fashion, the main course was a choice of bison or caribou. If you get a chance – stay at the Post Hotel – you will love it.
Dessert: Chocolat mousse and vanilla ice cream.
Day 2: Crossing the Finish Line
Saturday morning dawned crisp, with not a cloud in sight. Riders were sore, some a little tired from the previous night’s celebration. The mood was more relaxed than Day 1, with the big ride now behind us. Organizer Joe Dutton told us, in our pre-ride meeting, to treat the day as our own ride into Paris – and soak in the celebration of having been part of reaching the fundraising goal.
What great cycling event would be complete without a self-portrait with the ‘voice’ of pro cycling – Phil Liggett?
• Everyone enjoyed the photo-opp with Lance and George on Day 2’s much easier 50km ride from Lake Louise to Banff. We had a chance to pose with the Discovery boys… riding our bikes of course. Andre Schwarz, owner of the Post Hotel, provides the filling in this Discovery sandwich.
Even against us amateurs, Lance couldn’t hold back an attack. The ensuing chase played out like your Saturday morning world championships, only we were chasing Lance.
Chasing Lance: Again
The pace was easy until the last few kms, when Lance (who’d been taking it easy mid-pack, chatting with riders) snuck up the left side, jumped past the photo-moto and lead car, then swung back into the right lane. I was riding around 10th wheel, and sensed something was up. Then Lance gave one last look at us over his shoulder, and accelerated away. Like the amateurs we are, we hesitated… I moved to the front in hopes of catching a ride with another chaser. Two riders had already gone, so I took off after them. In a few seconds, Lance was 50 meters down the road, so we all wind it up in a futile chase – our only hope to catch him is if he sits up.
I catch one chaser, then the other, and take off on my own after Lance. Here I was, back in the red-zone, why didn’t we just organize a chase? – no time to think – gotta pedal harder. I see Lance looking back and the gap is narrowing – maybe 30 meters – he’s slowing up, toying with us…. I’m almost cooked when George blasts by me. I’m gasping for life and seconds later almost get blown over as Carmichael and Lance’s buddy ‘College’ freight-train it by. Several other riders chase by… and the race is on – we group and regroup on the road, eventually getting back with Lance and a rideable but fast pace.
It’s gruppo compatto, then I notice George dropping to the back of our 10-man group and think nothing of it, until a few seconds later he jumps us all and takes off in full sprint. Thankfully, this time Lance winds up the chase more gradually – so I can hang in as we hit 55kmh – and off we go down the road… I’m working so hard I can’t even wipe the sweat from the end of my nose, but inside my smile is a mile wide… how fun is this?
• After almost 3 years, and some very unforgettable days, Lance leads the group across the Tour of Courage fundraising finish line.
Thanks Tour of Courage
Overall, that was easily two of the most incredible and memorable days of my life, and I’m sure for everyone who was there. The two days were the peak of 3 years work and countless hours of time from the Tour of Courage Organizers.
In all the excitement of the two days, it was easy to forget the real reason we were all there – to lend support finding a cure for cancer, so that thousands more people with cancer will have great opportunities in there lives too. A huge thank you goes to Lance, George, Johan, Chris and Phil, but the biggest thanks must go to the Tour of Courage organizers – Joe Dutton, John Dielwart, Chris Brown, Al Fowler, and Lois Milne – without whom none of the funds would have been raised.
By the way, I did hear Lance say he’d come back to Calgary anytime. So what’s in store for next year…? We can only hope…!
So just what was it like riding with Lance? Stay tuned for a full report on that one…
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 Preview
2. Lance To Complete “Courage” Cancer Fundraising
3. Lance Back To Cancer Fundraiser
4. Liggett Joins Lance To Cure Cancer In Cowtown
5. Last year’s inaugural event was a huge success
6. Here’s How The Journey Began
7. Tour of Courage: the PEZ Report