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Lucky 7.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom Demerly with Sheila Tormina in Hawaii.

If Lance Armstrong wins the 2005 Tour de France it will be his seventh consecutive victory. He holds the current record at six consecutive victories. It is unlikely any cyclist will repeat that record during our lifetime.

The last six Tours de France have been historically significant for a number of reasons. More has happened in the evolution of the event during the last two decades than in the previous seven decades, and the last six years in particular. Some of that is because of Lance Armstrong, some of it isn’t.

First, Armstrong himself- the character:

Armstrong represents aspects of our sport and culture both good and bad. He is the product of a broken marriage. Quite predictably as statistics suggest, he himself is now a single father. Athletic ability, work ethic and economic privilege are not adequate credentials for maintaining a family the “old fashioned” way. This is not a criticism, it’s an observation, and it says more about us as a culture than it says about Armstrong as a cyclist. He is a slice of American pie. It may be the deviation from an increasingly fictional societal “norm” (married families with 2.5 children) that makes him a bit more of an accessible “everyman” character to all of us that come from a broken family.

The adverse beginnings Armstrong overcame were like a black smith’s hammer on a steel blade. The harder the blows, the sharper and tougher he became. Another reason this may be the secret to his consecutive victories is that during the late seventies, sixties and fifties Tour de France heroes were mostly from rural, blue collar backgrounds raised in traditional family settings and with families themselves. One has to only compare the pastoral disposition of a Miguel Indurain to the incendiary temperament of Armstrong to see the stark contrast. Only Bernard Hinault shared the same rough-edged intensity of Armstrong.

A core value in today’s American culture is the “Win at almost all costs, easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” ethos. That’s Armstrong. In an age that salutes single-minded devotion and relentless pursuit of success Armstrong is an icon. That thesis has a negative tinge to it, but it is not so much a commentary on Armstrong as it is our culture. He only typifies that, he is a product of it- and that is a big part of his notoriety. He is the poster child for kicking ass against the odds and never settling for second. And like our society and culture, the character of Lance Armstrong is also fraught with contradictions.

And then there is the cancer.

It’s very possible you and I will die of cancer. We both know people who have. Armstrong slayed the invisible dragon and gave a generation hope for doing it themselves. More than mountain passes and time trials, that is his legacy. He took the image of the cancer patient from the pallor of the balding chemo victim bent over in a pastel hospital smock to that of a man battling back to a level far beyond mere survival. Armstrong isn’t a cancer survivor, he is a cancer conqueror. The grim reaper called Armstrong on his cell phone and Armstrong sent him to voice mail. If there is a single thing that defines Armstrong, that is it.

Imagine yourself as another bicycle racer looking down the start ramp at the beginning of a time trial in the Tour de France. Armstrong is going off one minute behind you. In the back of your mind you know that if cancer couldn’t kick his ass, then you have no chance of doing so. The determination hard-wired into Armstrong far exceeds what is necessary to win the Tour de France, and that is the cornerstone of his success. That represents the greatest of human traits: Perseverance. Armstrong is all about perseverance, perhaps at the cost of other things.

Armstrong’s legacy is also a resurgence of road cycling and a corresponding increase in awareness of the Tour de France. It is only partially Armstrong’s because the coinciding emergence of Internet media and cable television helped make Armstrong the visible character he is. This new media, emerging at the same time as Armstrong’s rise, increased awareness of the Tour de France and rekindled interest in road cycling. In and of himself, Armstrong is certainly a sensational character. But a sensational new media was needed to put a bike racer in the headlines. Had it not been for cable TV coverage of the Tour de France and real-time Internet media that tracks the race from every desk top, the race would have remained a fringe sport in the U.S. consciousness. Internet and cable TV happened the same time Armstrong was happening, and it brought his victories and tribulations to our living rooms and desktops in real time. The big three U.S. television networks spent decades ignoring it, the emergence of Internet and cable TV made Armstrong and the Tour mainstream in the U.S. as they themselves grew to mainstream media.

The awareness bracelet is another part of Armstrong’s legacy as he begins his one month victory lap of France. There are bracelets for Leukemia and Lymphoma (purple), Breast Cancer (pink), bringing home the troops (green) and nearly every other worthy cause. Fund raising and charity is nothing new, but Armstrong made it fashion, and fashion made it bigger. In contradiction to his single minded, win at nearly all cost approach, the bracelet and cancer philanthropy establish Armstrong as a humble but powerful character. Both political candidates sported the yellow “Livestrong” bracelets during the campaign. Both made a point of being seen on their bikes. That’s no coincidence. Lance Armstrong’s rise from death and resurrection as Tour de France legend produced a modern day crown of thorns in the form of a yellow rubber bracelet, worn by almost everyone crucified by the horrible suffering of cancer. While the rubber cause bracelet may have lapsed into trendy-ism, the message of what it stands for will never be trivial. Those of us who have not had “The Talk” with their physician can never fully understand the importance of those little rubber bracelets.

A dark part of Armstrong’s legacy is the looming specter of implied performance enhancing drug use. Like artillery rounds in a barrage the positive tests have fallen on cyclists all around him: Richard Virenque, the Festina Affair, Marco Pantani, Tyler Hamilton and others have tested positive for banned substances. The sport has got a bad rap. But Armstrong has never taken a direct hit, only accusation shrapnel from the media. He reportedly never has tested positive for a banned substance. No evidence published in the U.S. documents any impropriety with regard to performance enhancing drugs. The fact of the matter is: no one can prove Armstrong has ever used performance enhancing drugs. Still the whispers and not-so-whispers continue. A book published in French that is an alleged expose’ on Armstrong has not been published here in English. Controversy surrounds the so-called “evidence” in the book. But Armstrong has never tested positive. That is a fact. We are Americans, and so is Armstrong. America is the land of the former President who had no sexual relations with the intern, the former President who isn’t a crook, and the new-age Betty Crocker who did hard time on the inside for insider stock trades. Is he guilty by association? No. He is innocent by the preponderance of evidence. We are Americans, and that is how it works in America.

One feature of a race that is 21 days long is the tightly sprung steel jaw trap of rotten luck. Armstrong has had it, sometimes in droves, and he has always chewed his own leg off and crawled away to fight again. He’s crashed, had bikes break, team mates jump ship and the media harangue him. He’s had personal struggles, teams and sponsors bail on him and he always finds a way to minimize the damage, or in fact, use it to his advantage. A 1960’s horror film called “Kronos” featured an enormous alien robot that absorbed the energy from atom bombs earthlings dropped on it and only became stronger. Armstrong is like that: The more he suffers, the stronger he becomes. Suffering is the plutonium of his reactor core, and in The Tour de France, there is plenty to go around.

The Tour de France before Lance Armstrong was steeped in mysticism and lore. Armstrong brought it into the modern world. Greg LeMond hinted at technological changes to come in the Tour, but Armstrong facilitated the use of technology to a greater degree than any previous Tour de France champion. In the old Tour de France tactics were decided by cyclists over mineral water and between Director Sportifs during late night meetings in team hotel hallways. Armstrong employed a cartel that communicated via cell phone, high frequency secure scrambler radios and up linked physiological data via satellite. The tactical communication methods employed by Armstrong’s Motorola, U.S. Postal Service and the current Discovery Channel Teams are more similar to the ones used by a Navy SEAL team than by a bike racing team in the mid 1980’s. Armstrong brought to the Tour de France a level of sophistication, preparation and organization never seen in previous years. Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett once commented that he preferred the Tour before the era of televisions in the Director’s car, radios in the rider’s ears and squadrons of aircraft orbiting above the peloton along with satellites in orbit to facilitate race tactical communications. But Armstrong did not come to the Tour to honor quaint tradition, he came to kick ass.

In anticipation of this seventh and final chapter in a revolutionary decade in bicycle racing history one thing we know for sure is to never underestimate Lance Armstrong. Never count him out. He tells the media he goes there to win, and likely that is because he means to. I doubt Armstrong will be happy to pass the torch gracefully. It doesn’t seem a feature of his complex and sometimes contradictory character. I wager we will see a repeat of previous years. He will race with reserve and cunning, strike when necessary and display his uncanny penchant for side-stepping bad luck. And on the last day of the Tour, for the seventh time, he will likely take the Yellow Jersey to Paris.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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