USA, April 22, 2005
Hello my friends at Cyclingnews. Last time I wrote my occasional column, before a long winter's hiatus, it had sentiments about Lance Armstrong, his work with the LAF and the Cancer communtiy. Lance's recent announcement to end his pro cycling career got me thinking full circle and I'm compelled to initiate my 2005 entries for Cyclingnews with a few reflections on Lance's early days.
In The Beginning
The first I heard of Lance Armstrong was probably from my wife Connie Carpenter. She, of Olympic gold medal fame, did a stint as US junior womens coach in the late '80s and came to know Lance somewhat during the 1989 Junior World Championships. As the Junior Women's coach, Connie had not only Dede Demet but also Jessica Grieco under her wing. Dede won the road race in a solo break-away while Jessie took the field sprint for 2nd. It was Gold and Silver for Connie's girls in Moscow.
Connie returned from Russia with numerous colorful tales. She relived Dede's race with relish and then related some anecdotes about the Junior men. "There were these two 16 year olds from Texas, both triathletes (Lance and Chan McCrae), and no matter what the coaches said, they would still head out for a run each morning."Whoa running? You gotta be kidding me!" I interjected, "a cyclist running mid season - unbelievable!", parroting the party line about suppleness of the muscles and all.
She related how, "one day, as was my custom, I rode my bike to the course - with the team - and this kid, Lance Armstrong got right in my face, 'why are you still riding?'.
"Cause I love to ride my bike" she answered, "it beats sitting in the car". "He smirked and said 'I can't imagine riding just for fun. When I'm done racing in a couple years - that's it, I'll never ride', his teenage arrogance coating every word".
Connie continued, "then during his race, he wore his impatience like a flag. He had no time for tactics but approached the race like it was a triathlon - hammer from start to finish. He spent the whole race either pulling the pack along or attacking and riding just off the front. Of course, in the final lap, the peloton predictably went right past him, so while Lance was clearly the strongest rider in the race, he got nothing from his efforts". "But", she emphasized, "he reminds me of LeMond when he was young - incredible engine, dynamic energy, and if this Armstrong kid gets some tactical savvy - look out".
Look out indeed. Lance was a quick study and when my former 7-Eleven teammate Chris Carmichael took over as USCF national team coach, Armstrong had his first true mentor and the ascendance began.
I raced with Lance numerous times during my final years as a pro. When 7-Eleven folded in the end of 1990, instead of continuing with Jim Ochowicz and his new team Motorola, where I would have eventually ended up as Lance's teammate, I chose to stay closer to home, family and business back in the States, taking Len Pettyjohn's offer to ride with Coors Light.
Racing against Lance, as predicted by Connie, was reminiscent of being in the pack with Greg a generation before. As with Greg, everybody in the field knew that Lance was a breed apart. The guy was just better and we knew it. But being competitive, I didn't want to sit back and simply watch the victory ride away. Still, while Coors Light, the dominant domestic team of that era, could occasionally overwhelm Lance with our numbers, there were some days (OK, a lot of days) where nothing could be done.
One such day was the summer before he turned pro, a couple of weeks before the Barcelona Olympics.
We were racing at the Fitchburg Memorial stage race in Massachusetts, and while I had won the overall title in Fitchburg in 1991, the '92 season hadn't gone that well for me. But my form was finally coming around and during the longest, hardest stage, a ride that finishes up top Mount Wachusset, I set out to rectify my poor spring results and really blow the race apart for Coors Light. At least that was the intention.
So we cruised out of Fitchburg and after a flurry of attacks, five of us finally broke free. Working well together we gained two plus minutes on the pack and it felt great - we were rolling - en bloc, as they say. This was before anyone, save Motorola and the US national team, had radios. Old School racing. So I thought we were gone for good and didn't give proper attention when Darrin Baker, a classy rider with the USA team, stopped pulling. No car had come up, not a word had been said. Hmmmm. But through the heavy forest we would glance back, around the team cars and there was nothing to see, no one was coming. So we stopped looking, and we didn't even hassle Darrin, we just kept up the pressure, kept up the pace.
Suddenly though, as we struggled up a short climb, my plans for the race went south. Antarctica south. I heard Andrej Bek, our DS back in the Coors Light team car, honking, then yelling in his deep, polish accented voice; 'Davis … he's coming … GO!'. Seconds later, there was Lance, off the saddle, sprinting past - and he was just crushing the pedals. He'd closed the gap solo, caught us on the hill and without a word, without a pause, kept right on going - as if we didn't exist.
Darrin, with advance notice of the LA cruise missile bearing down, was the only one to respond and kicked hard to get on his wheel. By the time we crested the hill, they were simply … gone. We were all kind of stunned, 'Dude, what just happened?'. It could've been a prequel to the movie 'Dazed and Confused'. 'Damn, that guy is good'. Paul McCormack finally verbalized. 'Uh huh', I dumbly nodded, as Lance just rode off, eventually taking over four minutes out of us by the finish.
There's good and then there's other-worldly. Lance has always been the latter. That cocksure teenager in Moscow progressed at such an astounding rate, quickly figuring out the pieces of road cycling's complex puzzle. By the time I retired the following year he had been crowned world champion.
At that point the future looked blindingly bright for Lance. Tour stage wins, World Cup victories, Tour Dupont titles all followed for him. But then, of course, everything changed. And Lance almost died. Yet incredibly, it turned out to be post-cancer, that Lance coalesced into cycling's version of the perfect storm; a culmination of forces that when harmonized become indomitable, unbeatable. And that is the man we see today. The six and soon to be seven times winner of the greatest test in sport, the Tour de France.
Lance, enjoy your last miles of this long fantastical road - and we'll be there to enjoy them with you.
Oh and by the way, Connie was thrilled to hear that after all these years, you've grown to love riding your bike too. It beats sitting in the car.