I think it was Stage 17, and Lance Armstrong was in yellow, signifying he was the race’s leader. Earlier that day, we had all climbed the epic Mount Ventoux. We were exhausted and hungry. I could not make out the French commentary, but it was a grueling stage and Lance’s U.S. Postal teammate, Floyd Landis, had put in a heroic effort to isolate the Tour’s premier riders.
As Floyd began to fade near the finish, Andreas Kloden, the German national champion, sprinted ahead of the elite group for what looked like an assured win. But out of nowhere, Armstrong put his head down, dug deep, and with Jan Ulrich in tow he closed the gap. With less than 50 meters to go, Lance jumped to his left, sprinted even with Kloden and pushed his front tire across the line to take the stage victory. It was AWESOME!
Our group erupted in cheers, applause and high-fives. “Lance!” we screamed. A couple of women even had tears in their eyes. You would have thought that we had won the race. The sneering shop owner briskly walked to the counter, climbed atop a chair, reached up to the TV and slammed his finger into the power button. The screen went black. Gesturing with his hand and turning his head, he tried to dismiss our unabashed American celebration. I remember exchanging glances with several other riders in our group and, instantly, we all knew what had to be done. Silently, every one of us set our intended purchases on the counter, turned around and headed for the door chanting, “USA! USA!”
That’s Lance Armstrong to me.
Apparently, I had no idea how unhappy I have been over the last eight years.
Finally, the record is set straight, kind of, thanks to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. I can’t wait for the sound sleep to come.
No athlete has ever been penalized without testing positive for banned substances. In unprecedented, exhaustive investigations that uncovered no physical evidence of performance-enhancing drugs, USADA is making an example of a man who, at worst, did nothing more than anyone else in the peloton. Jan Ulrich, Ivan Basso, Landis and Kloden were all in that final break in 2004. All of these riders have been implicated or tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Lance has not.
I know that Lance has never had a positive test. I don’t know if he cheated or not.
What I do know is that he worked harder, trained smarter and raced more aggressively than anyone else in the field. He honored those who came before him and upheld the traditions of generations, but he spoke his mind, stuck out his American chest and kicked some serious you-know-what … for a long time. That kind of stuff will never get old to me and will not be diluted by this latest development.
As if stopping to pay for legally defending yourself after 10 years of constant harassment is any kind of admission of guilt. Look at the cancer-treatment photos of Lance with the shaved head and the big scar across his scalp, the skinny arms and the gaunt complexion, and tell me again how he was a cheater. I see a fighter, a survivor, an inspiration.
Lance made me want to try harder. To work harder. To train harder.
He looked like me (no snickering, please); his height, his weight, even his skin color. I think I have better hair, but you get my point, Lance inspired me to want to be better. I can’t dunk a basketball. I can’t leap 28 feet in the air. I can’t bench press my car. I can’t throw a football 50 yards. But I can ride a bike. And though I can’t ride as fast as Lance, I can try as hard.
This witch hunt will not change that for me.
Anniston resident Terry Phillis is a member of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association.