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Hangin' With Lance: The Ride for the Roses
 
By Staff
Date: 10/28/2003
Hangin' With Lance: The Ride for the Roses
 

Editor's Note: Dave Shields is the author of a new novel about the Tour de France called The Race. The prologue of this novel is available here on the Daily Peloton, as Dave entered it in our recent Vuelta Writing Contest. Some of our staff have read this novel and say it's absolutely riveting (no pun intended). We hope to be able to carry a review of his novel in the near future. Dave is currently looking for a publisher for The Race. If you would like to contact him, please email him here.


Hangin' With Lance

Article and photos by Dave Shields

What a Dump!

As our bus rumbled through the Austin suburbs, the atmosphere inside was electric. We Peloton Project Members were being transported to a “secret location” for a gala western affair. The passengers were thrilled about this pre-Ride for the Roses event specifically designed to thank those who had raised $5,000 or more for the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF). I overheard rampant speculation about where we were headed. Lance’s house? Dead Man’s Hole, the waterfall made famous in Every Second Counts where Lance likes to leap off forty-five foot cliffs in order to prove to himself that he’s alive? Or maybe his all-time favorite restaurant?

I was hoping for the waterfall myself, almost looking forward to stripping to my boxers and taking the leap, (and, no, we hadn’t even caught sight of the open bar yet). But even sober, how could I have resisted such thoughts? Here I was surrounded by all this generosity simply because of a good break. My name got drawn from a barrel of Daily Peloton readers [who contributed to the LAF] and that made me the lucky soul who was experiencing the event first hand.

I’d felt on the flight to Austin, somewhat unprepared – or maybe a better word is unworthy. You see, I haven’t survived cancer. I haven’t even really participated in a battle against the disease. How would I look these people in the eye who had been through so much and justify crashing their party? What would I say when the conversation turned to stories of battling for life?

At the hotel check-in desk, the couple ahead in line wore 2002 LAF t-shirts. Old pros. Good! I’d milk them for some info.

“Excuse me. What’s the best way to get my bike to the start of the ride on Sunday?”

“You load it in our Blazer. We have extra room and it will save you thirty miles of biking.”

I wondered if they saw the relief on my face. This season I’ve been forced into an innovative training program. I’ve almost totally substituted wriTING for riDING. You should see the muscles in my knuckles. I can “control, alt, delete” like it’s nobody’s business. My TING/DING ratio is so out of whack that only foolishness compelled me to sign up for the biggest chunk of distance The Ride for the Roses offers -- 100 miles. An additional 30 to get there and back. No thanks!

“Wow, thank you! By the way, how do I get to the convention center from here?”

“You ride with us.”

I spent a lot of time with this couple. They made it easy for me to become comfortable. I’d soon learn that as wonderful as these people, John and Beth Eichberger were, they were in no way unusual for Peloton Project members. They were both Washington D.C. based lobbyists. This was their third year attending and they were confirmed LAF addicts. John was even initiating plans to bring an LAF event to Washington, D.C. and raise “at least half a million.” The Eichbergers simply couldn’t get enough of being around people who savor life, and that’s why they keep coming back. And they weren’t cancer survivors or people who’d been particularly affected by the disease, either. They were simply people who cared. Maybe I wouldn’t be such an outsider in this group after all.


John and Beth Eichberger

My seatmate on the bus was a beautiful woman with a wide smile named Debbie Cole. She explained to me how joining LAF as a volunteer had rid her of her anger. This woman angry? Hardly. She was as happy as everyone else I’d met. But cancer had stolen her mother and she’d only learned the things she really needed to know after the fact. The lessons that changed her outlook had come courtesy of LAF.

The bus rounded a corner into a chain-linked area labeled TDS.

“What’s TDS?” people asked.

The locals knew – Texas Disposal System.

“Hmmm. What’s that?”

“The dump.”

“The dump?”

With a communal expression of concern we wound past trucks unloading their waste into high tech looking depositories. I’d barely started taking it in when there was no more garbage to be seen. Instead, we were momentarily delayed by a herd of gazelle crossing the road, and then a pair of ostrich. We drove past free ranging zebra, ibex, fallow deer, and many other animals I couldn’t name. Then we disembarked at a beautiful ranch house. Music, food, a silent auction, and games of all sorts set the mood. As the western sky turned red I found myself thinking, “We ought to hire their exterior decorator for the dump in my home town.”

Fat Babies Have No Pride

My plate overflowing with mouth-watering Texas fare, I listened as the woman beside me, Katy Schofield, explained why LAF was important to her. “I’m a twenty-one year cancer survivor. I defeated it when I was 18.”

My writer’s brain attempted a series of quick mathematical calculations as I listened. Maybe I carried a digit wrong somewhere. This lady looked 25.

Katy continued, “I wish this organization had existed when I was diagnosed. They’ve taught me so much.” Around her neck she wore the highest-level credential – yellow. Her husband, Scott, wore the same color. That meant $40,000 plus raised between the two. Wow!

As Lance took the stage, the audience erupted. He joked around and deflected attention until even from my seat near the back of the room it seemed as if we were enjoying an intimate conversation. We laughed hysterically as he let us in on Lyle Lovett’s coffee drinking abnormalities. He’d learned them while rooming with the rocker as the two slummed through Baja. Man, I wish they’d thought to invite me on that trip.

Soon afterward, we were gathered around Lyle as he strummed his guitar. The most amazing music crept out the corner of that crooked mouth of his, and relaxation settled over the throng. I thought to myself, “If this guy could locate a hairstylist capable of doing anything with that crazy mane of his, he just might make it big.”

Lyle had gotten wind of the stories of coffee misbehavior Lance had shared. To get back at his friend, whom Lyle calls, “Hero Boy,” he called Lance on stage to sing. Lance stumbled through the lyrics:

Cause fat babies have no pride.

Fat babies have no pride.

Fat babies have no pride.

And then the kicker (which Lance seemed nearly incapable of spitting out):

But that’s all right. Who needs pride?


Lance and Lyle singing.

 


Lance and Lyle

See Lance Scribble

Whenever Lance descends from a stage everyone crowds around him. It’s amazing to watch how willing he is to put an arm around strangers and smile into their cameras. Everybody knows him well so it makes sense that they figure, “This is the face of a friend. Let’s have a photo taken together, Pal.”

It makes less sense to me why they’re always trying to get him to sign things. I mean, you wouldn’t say to a friend, “I just got this beautiful new cycling jersey. Will you scribble on it with permanent marker for me?” In fact, your friendship might be in danger if they did. Lance must be a pretty good friend.


Lance in the crowd

But, even I will admit, that there is something alluring to being acknowledged by a guy like Lance. One time as he plowed through the crowd that encased him like a queen bee crossing a hive, I yelled to him. I reminded him about a minor event and previous contact we’d had. He looked at me and smiled. “Yeah, I remember.” And then the hordes swept him off.

While waiting for our group photo session with Lance, one guy couldn’t resist the delay as the photographer repositioned for another shot. He held out a sharpie and thrust forward his shoulder.

“Will you sign me, Lance?”

As if there were nothing he’d rather do, Lance took the pen and scribbled his name saying, in the nicest tone possible, “What are you trying to start here, Buddy?”

Nearby people were already riffling through their stuff looking for something in need of an autograph. This time, Lance was saved by the photographer.

“C’mon people, please look at the camera. Now, on the count of three, say ‘SIX’.”

Everyone’s smiles were big, but I’m guessing Lance’s was biggest. It’s obvious he wants a sixth Tour de France victory real bad.


Lance in the crowd

During the photo session, I asked more people about their stories. Jerry Lambert, a 62-year-old New Yorker I’d happened to meet in Vegas two weeks earlier when I commented on his “I Love Lance” t-shirt, was also at this event. His pride was obvious as he recalled the moment, back in 1993, that he heard Lance had won the World Championship.

Kathy Jackoway of Los Angeles told me of the events in her life that had transformed her from full time mother to adventurer. This year she climbed the highest peaks in North and South America in order to raise money for LAF and honor her cancer-surviving sister. Like so many others, she’d been to this event before and planned to keep coming back.

Maybe it was with relief that all these people heard Lance say, “This is fun, isn’t it? I’m going to keep holding this event as long as I’m alive.” They sure did cheer and it only got louder when they announced the Peloton Project totals for this season - $4.3 million!

Is That the President’s Son?

On Saturday evening LAF hosted a sneak peek at a documentary they helped fund which will air as a six hour special series on PBS in 2005. The title is, “A Lion in the House – Stories of Survivorship”. The one-hour excerpt we saw focused on the experiences of three young patients and their families. The screening attracted a huge audience. The movie opens as Jen, a lively six-year-old girl who has lost most of her hair to chemo, explains to her mom what she’ll be experiencing with her upcoming spinal tap.

“I curl up in a ball, and then I count to three. They won’t stick the needle in before I say three, will they, Mom?”

She’s obviously been through this before. The next scene is the actual procedure.

“One… two…” then Jen bursts into uncontrollable tears. Suddenly, when all seems lost she squeaks, “Three!”

If your heart doesn’t break in two at her show of bravery, then maybe you don’t have a heart.

If you can keep a stiff upper lip while watching another scene where the family of a valiant twenty-year-old boy finally decides to turn off the machines to conclude a ten-year fight, then you need more flexible lips.

If you’re strong enough to hold back tears when Alex, the funniest damn kid you’ll ever run across, finds out he’s got to skip summer camp in order to go through yet another round of chemo, then it’s possible you’ve been exercising the wrong set of muscles.

After the movie, Lance moderated a panel that included Alex and his mother, Alex’s oncologist, and the film makers. It was an enlightening discussion, maybe especially for someone like me who had never contemplated the numerous issues beyond the disease that those affected by cancer must deal with. Alex, for instance, had fallen behind in school, and since he lived in poverty, there had been no resources available to help him catch up. His doctor hit the nail on the head when he said, “It’s one thing to give people their life back, but another to give them their quality of life back.”

When an audience member asked Alex what it was like to have a camera follow him through the most difficult experience of his life, the extremely dark skinned jokester knocked the audience out of their seats one final time by answering, “Sometimes it was tough, but there were good parts about it, too. People would see me strutting around and they’d think, ‘Is that the President’s son or something?’”

After the movie I spoke with Lee Walker, Chairman of the LAF Board of Directors. He’s a giant 62 year old, 6’10” [208 cm], and even more imposing in his omnipresent black broad-brimmed cowboy hat. Lee was obviously shaken by the film we’d just viewed.

I told him my impressions of the people I’d met so far, and explained how I’d assumed this organization would be focused on sickness and death. I’d been surprised that instead it was about savoring life.

“People who are truly alive know how to pay attention. They put their time where the leverage is greatest,” he said.

In talking about Lance, his love was obvious. I asked him if it was a father-son relationship.

“Sort of, at least for me. Lance didn’t have a dad. Sometimes I get to be his papa bear.”

I asked if LAF’s success surprised him.

“I didn’t posses the imagination to see where this organization was going when we started out. Who could have predicted Lance would have won one, let alone five tours? And in our society where people put sports stars on a pedestal, that has translated into many accomplishments. Lance has used his fame in an honorable way, and this Foundation is the happy result.”

Here’s to Bowlegged Joe

After my interview with Lee, I wandered back to my hotel in a sleep-deprived state. It had been a whirlwind few days. I hadn’t even found time to assemble my bike yet. I’d better do it now. It was 10:00 p.m. and my wake up call was set for 5:30 a.m.

I struggled with installing my pedals, finally deciding that I’d just have to force them on. What choice was there? One hundred miles without pedals wouldn’t fly. When I finally got them on I decided I’d better take the bike for a spin around the carpeted ninth floor Embassy Suites catwalk to check the fit.

But something was wrong. Now I couldn’t get my shoes clipped into the pedals. Slowly it dawned on me that I’d put them on the wrong side. I had to complete tomorrow’s ride! That meant I either needed to get my feet remounted pointing in the opposite direction, or I needed to risk removing the pedals from my freshly destroyed cranks and hope I could force them into the opposite side. I chose the latter.

Amazingly it worked – sort of. Each pedal performed a double wobble on every stroke. I’d ride with a hitch in my giddy-up, but at least the pedals seemed secure. It would have to do.

At the race start, we were greeted by an uninvited extra -- a cold front complete with the requisite wind. Ninety-degree weather had plummeted nearly thirty degrees, and the intermittent drizzle chilled the bones. But the 5,000 plus cyclists lined up at the start weren’t about to let an unexpected obstacle defeat them. I watched thousands of cyclists head off down the road while our lane was still held at bay behind an impervious strand of yellow tape. The competitive side in me could hardly take the long delay.


Cyclists at the start - Lance is the speck on top of the finish tower in the center of the
picture, just above the white helmet.


The start - Lance is up there on the tower


PA announcers telling the crowd to check out the upcoming article on DailyPeloton.com

On course, we first faced a crosswind, but it was impossible to find shelter in the pack because many of the riders had no clue what it meant to hold their line. I found I had to stay to the upwind side because that was the only place I could find clear road.

I continued asking people why they were participating. Those with photos of loved ones pinned to their jersey related memories, and I already understood much about the commitment of the ones in the LAF green, polka-dot, and yellow jerseys, but now I also discovered a new crowd.

A man from Kansas told me he travels the country seeking long, organized rides. This was the best of them, in his opinion.

A local college kid had recently bought a bike from a buddy. He’d quickly become addicted to the sport and looked forward to his first century ride.

I met firemen lugging enormous backpacks filled with emergency supplies, couples on tandem bikes pulling kids in trailers, well-oiled teams fighting for speed, and just about every other kind of cyclist you could dream of. It was a rolling festival.

Despite concern over my weeble wobble pedals I knew that weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, so I kept passing up the cut-offs to the shorter routes until finally I was committed to the hundred-mile circuit. I wondered which never before tested muscles were getting their first workout as the result of my crazy pedal stroke.

I’d better conserve some energy, so I tucked in behind a broad-shouldered guy whose large wind-shadow I figured would suit my purpose. I thought it was funny that he had a little custom blue and yellow California license plate hanging beneath his seat. It said, “Joe”. There was lots of time to study Joe’s backside as he unknowingly dragged me through the wind. His muscular legs bowed wide. Lance ought to try following this guy. He wouldn’t feel a breeze.

Eventually, I decided to scoot past. A rest stop was nearing and visions of port-a-potties were dancing in my head. Waiting in the long line two guys who noticed my press credential assumed I must have the inside scoop on the race organization. They’d read a widely distributed primer on the ride that referred, over and over, to the dangers of wearing white cycling shorts unless you were an Italian named Mario.

“I don’t understand the problem,” one said.

I explained the joke. I told them how Mario Cipollini is an Italian sprinter with rare style. The ladies go crazy over him and he looks good in clothes an ordinary man would be shot for wearing. I told them how he once held the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and showed up for the stage wearing matching yellow shorts. He got fined for it, but I admitted he looked awesome. I thought I’d done a good job of explaining things, but then the second man, a somber expression on his face, asked, “And just because of that black shorts are the only color anybody’s allowed to wear at this event?”

Underway again, I looked for a new wheel to suck, and who should appear but Bowlegged Joe. I tucked in behind, resisting the urge to interview him as I had so many others. Joe always kept his eyes forward and his pace rock steady. The perfect draft.

Eventually I lost him in traffic, but we’d reached the turnaround and the lovely tailwind made his services obsolete. I flew down the road, taking in the Texas scenery. My favorite sight was three frazzled hound dog mutts behind a fence. How could they have known they were waking to such a nightmare day? They’d been bred to bark at bicycles, hadn’t they? And the supply must have seemed endless, the universe had been turned on its ear. They lay, jowls in the dirt, but still doing their duty, hoarsely barking. Their heads propped back each time they yelped by a reflex they weren’t capable of controlling. It was a sad sight. The funniest damn sad sight I think I’ve ever seen.

The road made an inexplicable turn into the wind and I prayed for Bowlegged Joe. Suddenly he streaked past. There is a God. That much is now obvious to me. He wears a green cycling jersey and hails from the Golden State. I stood on my pedals and sprinted into position. Maybe I ought to interview him. But I evicted the thought again. Why mess with the stuff of legend?

I don’t know what Joe had eaten at the last rest stop, but I should have snarfed some too. This time I couldn’t hold his wheel, and I wanted to cry as he streaked into the distance.

A mile later I slogged past Joe again. There he was, crouched beside the road repairing a flat. It was the last time I’d see him.

At mile 82 when the inside of my right quad seized, I immediately knew just which underutilized muscle fibers came into play with my soon to be patented pedal wobble system. I stretch and massaged and finally got things right, but at mile 83 the left inside quad from groin to beneath the kneecap did the exact same thing.

About the time I fixed it I reached “The Hill”. I’d heard this obstacle spoken of with trepidation, and I will admit it was several times more imposing than anything we’d encountered so far, but where I come from it would be a laughable pimple with an inferiority complex.

Climbing it felt good, and somehow delivered my second wind. From that point on I streaked down the silky smooth road passing cyclists like they were mailboxes. I cruised beneath the finish banner feeling as content as I ever have.


People crossing the finish line

And why shouldn’t I? I’d learned that my lack of exposure to cancer was a non-issue to the affected participants. From the moment I arrived they were too busy including me in their joy of living, too intent on expanding their happiness by widening their circle of friends. You see, these people have a secret they want to share. Friendship is joy, and it’s one thing you never get, or give, too much of.

Anyone can reach out to cancer. You don’t need to wait until it knocks on your door. Once you see the powerful lessons it teaches, you will, like me, want to get involved. After all, why let these strangers hog all the fun of giving? Wouldn’t you rather turn them into friends? I would, and that’s why I’ll be returning to Austin next year.

More Photos


Cold people at the start

 


Morning prep - click for larger image

 


Commemorative bike at Power Bar Health & Sports Expo

 


The Power Bar Health & Sports Expo


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