Tales from the peloton, August 5, 2004
In one of only two post-Tour criterium appearances, six-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong chose to race in the Czech Republic, the event coinciding with a visit to the cancer wards at the Motol hospital in Prague. Andrew Rogers relives a memorable day.
Lance Armstrong arrived Friday morning to confront the unglamorous job of entering into a world that represented his former nightmare. No, not to refute the recent book claims of doping, but rather to continue his tour of cancer wards visiting patients at the Motol hospital in Prague.
Lance met a hero's welcome by the patients, staff, and fans alike. In fact, "The Boss", as he's called by European newspapers, has the status of a rock star here. One impossibly long-legged (even by Texan standards), gorgeous Slavic fan who was waiting outside for Lance to sign his autobiography (for her American boyfriend going through cancer treatment) asked me if I could help her obtain his autograph. Picture Eva Herzigova (the Czech Republic's best known export since Pilsner Urquell) asking you to do her easy homework for her as her smile and clipped Czech accent rivets your existence.
Likewise, the press morphed into a mad groupie rush at him, brazenly body-checking each other with camera equipment and pens while jockeying for the front lines, where I originally planted myself (reminding me why I loathe shooting the Parisian Couture fashion shows). Meanwhile, three icy Slavic bodyguards counter-attacked the press breakaway by pedaling fiercely through the media mob headwind, flanking and cranking Lance past us to the ante-chamber adjacent to the press conference room.
It was the only moment I saw a flash of fear in his eyes.
When Lance sat down and fielded our questions, it seemed like none of the photographers have ever invested in a zoom lens, preferring to stare him down with cameras in his face preventing me and a few other TV crews to discretely shoot while he's waiting for the translator to whisper in his ear. It was pop-a-mole moment every time I tried to shoot as some overzealous journalist would ruin the shot and literally jump up and stand in front of Lance and shoot point blank, reluctantly ducking down when pulled away! I'm convinced they were groupies posing as press who, like junkies, craved the endomorphic rush of being as close to him as possible to really experience "The Lance Rush".
Indeed, it was an English-free zone save one female Irish reporter sitting next to me, who opened the meeting up with three bricks for questions. Lance handled himself with seriousness and ease in tandem with her opening Q&As:
"Are there wedding bells soon?"
"How many more Tours will you win?"
"I could win another one... "
And lastly, her albatross: "There has been a recent report from a French newspaper that you recently tested positive for drugs... "
Surprised (she never mentioned which paper reported this allegation), Lance responded: "This is the first I've heard about this and it is totally false."
The remainder of the questions were in Czech, so I glance around the room and recognized the only other English native speaker in the house: Unnoticed by any of the press sitting right behind me was Mr. Nonchalance: George Hincapie. Asking George if he's playing hooky from tourist activities and ready for the criterium today after the TdF turned his legs into spaghetti, he smiled and cranked out his signature wry grin with hand signal: "Sure, man!"
Finally, Tomas Hozneder, a young athlete with the same diagnosis of testicular cancer that Lance had, came to the mike to thank Lance for writing his book, which turned this young professional hockey player's life around; despite his shaved head from chemo, Tomas looked fit. Soon after, Lance had another PC for Nike in an hour, so he was hustled out to another hotel and we headed for Wenceslas Square.
July 30 - Prague Grand Prix Criterium: Wenceslas Square, 100 laps of an 800 meter loop, 80 km
Looking for Wenceslas Square, I found a circle, or better put, an oval track in the heart of Prague's beautiful shopping district. I first staked out a post for a good swooping angle of the cyclists leaning into the last corner. The street was tough on the cyclists, as the last 300 meters coming out of the hairpin curve threw them into pure cobblestone hell, underscored with a slight uphill grade.
The crowds quickly thickened and my corner of the race was already uncomfortably close to the tram tracks. When the next tram came and rang its warning bell, I was pinched on the dividing criterium fence from the massive non-cycling fan gawkers standing right on the tracks and then rushing in to save their ass; I swear, one American man who looked like a football coach came up to me with his point and shoot and asked me which one was Lance. I told him he's wearing the yellow jersey. He said, "Yellow? That's a sissy color for such a stud."
Needless to say, both he and the near tram-slam compelled me to hit another vantage point, so I climbed up on top of a road maintenance trailer roof, perfectly situated over the race - and all alone. After grabbing some overhead shots, the 12th monkey syndrome kicked in round the oval, and suddenly I was very popular atop the trailer - so I swung down and hit the press pit near the start/finish line.
Meanwhile, the drama below thickened: There were no places to store bikes, so if any rider had a problem they either fixed it right there on the track - or stopped riding. After only three laps, it happened to Hincapie; the horror of bike betrayal: he was finished. But no, Pavel Padrnos, the only Czech rider on the US Postal team, gave George his bike and Pavel sat out the race while Rubiera maintained steam for the mini-Postal train which didn't get its groove until the last 25 laps.
Then again, Pavel's job is sacrificing his personal efforts for the team, and I noticed as soon as George finished the race he pedaled back into the crowd and kindly retruned the bike and thanked Pavel for saving his ass. There should have been points awarded for domestic domestiques, bravo Pavel.
The second screw-up was the press stand located 20 yards in FRONT of the finish line, so we would be able to grab a perfect BACK shot of the finish sprint, grrrrreat planning - I LOVE catching the winner's backside and fists pumping away from my lens!
I noticed all of the shooters were fenced in like bovines inside the ill-placed grandstand, so I surreptitiously crawled around our designated corral, laying low enough to duck the cameras and shoot from the ground without having bad haircuts and cameras blocking my shot.
Panicking, I thought: 'If only I could speak Czech I could find out how many laps were left!' I looked up at the finish line but no electronic lap counter was there for cyclists or the crowd. When I went into pantomiming numbers, I finally got a response from a flag-waving Czech who pointed to a 8 by 10-inch chalkboard hidden in the corner of the finish line written in faded chalk: lap 85, 15 left.
Now I could fully focus on the drama unfolding, with Gilberto Simoni, Lance, Hincapie, Rubiera, Axel Merckx, Ondrej Sosenka (Czech Champion, Acqua & Sapone), and Tomás Konecný (also Czech, T-Mobile) trading places each lap after lap 86. Then with about 10 laps to go, Hincapie and Merckx were dropped, and it was down to the Czech mates (Sosenka and Konecný), Simoni, Rubiera - and Lance.
But suddenly, Lance ran out of steam after 96 laps with four to go and became the middle man. Lance the liaison between the lead group and the peloton - an unusual position to see him alone but not in front. Nevertheless, the crowd went wild, chanting, "go Lance!", despite their homeboy battling it out with Simoni and co. Seems the crowd came to cheer their imported hero, not their local ones, and despite Lance not being able to catch up to the lead group, the crowds cheered him on all the way to the finish as if he did. They LOVE LANCE, truly madly, deeply - just like they do their soccer team, despite losing the semi-finals in the European Cup a month ago in Portugal.
The battle for the sprint was fairly close, but I wouldn't know - when it was time for the money shot, a peloton of pubescent volunteers from Nike sprang up with their Tesco happy snaps (Czech version of Walgreens' throwaway cameras), forming the tee-shirted Great Yellow Wall of indifference - and deference to the cyclists. The press let out a chorus of profanities at the boys who were too excited to care or understand their faux pas. We shrugged and admitted it didn't matter much. After all, Lance, the lion, came in a distant fifth but he was still the money shot - and a collective shot in the arm for a race that had many organizational flaws, but enthusiasm wasn't one of them.
Simoni almost stole the fire at the finish line from the Czech Champ, Sosenka, but size mattered today and the tall sprinter pulled it off.
While the crowd and MC was absorbing the experience of being in Lance's close presence, (unlike the TdF, where I encountered hordes of pushy, loud, autographites hounding Lance's camp), this crowd stayed quiet, smiling and waving as if their bliss was complete even in the face of Lance admitting defeat. When asked why he didn't win today, he shrugged it off and smiled to the crowd saying: "I can't win them all!"
If there wasn't Simoni right behind him in his dark-red Saeco outfit, you'd swear it was a big blow-out Texan BBQ, complete with taller than thou Slavic blonde goddesses, and men in tank tops and cut-offs, all beaming drunken smiles. I talked to Gibo (Simoni) slouching happily on his bike in a good mood, and he admitted jokingly that at least he beat Lance in a sprint. Then suddenly, the MC announced his name, lighting up Gibo; Lance turned around smiling, thrusting out his hand to Gibo. They had a laugh and posed with Václav Klaus, the Czech president, all smiles.
All three radiated like a happy cult, confirming what the crowd felt: what a perfect day it was to be in Prague, in the presence of a courageous man who gave the crowd and the cancer patients more than another amazing cycling race drama. Yes, Lance exemplified the true definition of victory by standing tall on the podium of life's uphill climbs and sharing the prize of life with us, while humbly admitting that nothing is certain as he reminded us at the news conference.
"Being diagnosed with cancer was the wake-up call for me," he said. "It reminded me that we only have one opportunity in life and in that sense it was a good thing for me."
For this one day, the crowd understood that Lance's life and words stood for much more than winning a sixth straight TdF or losing this one. The biggest battle he's already fought and won, and has become their remedy for hopelessness.