scooterlife - photog's blog

Motorcycles. Scooters. Wheelchairs. Tape. Whatever rolls.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

What 7 Means

I watched Lance ride in the peloton today with tears in my eyes. I will miss that.

For the past seven years I've watched the Tour religiously--every minute of every stage, and through OLN's excellent coverage I've come to love the powerful stories and images of one of the few professional sports that I completely respect, even with the doping scandals and contrived accusations. If you don't ride, if you're not aware of the intimate intracacies of the traditions of the Tour, it probably doesn't make much sense. But in my years on this earth I never cried at sporting events prior to following the tour as an adult--though I did fancy myself a budding pro cyclist as a child. I have seen incredible acts of courage and sportsmanship and determination that unfold over the days of this grueling race that inspire me.

It was seven years ago that I began to have trouble with my joints. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of arthritis, I was at the point where I was barely able to stand up from a seated position. The surgeon told me that despite double hip replacement, I would soon have to accept that I would be bedridden as the disease destroyed the pelvis and worked its way up the spine. The pain was incredible--a nagging, throbbing, stabbing pain in my joints and muscles. People would say "My aunt so-and-so had arthritis and she took Advil and it helped." I would just nod and try not to think ill of their good intentions. With every movement I could visualize the bone spurs in my joints, spine, and ribs that had showed up on X-rays. "You're just eat up with this," the surgeon had remarked. Gee, thanks. As he shook his head and talked about how end stage would bring some pain relief as the joints simply became immobile and I was fused into a prone bedridden lump, the future became bleak.

After some aggressive physical therapy and some slight improvement I decided to try bicycling to supplement the work of Trish, a physical therapist and bicyclist who refused to let me give up. We worked so hard getting stiffened joints and muscles to move again that I passed out from the pain and exertion; I'd come to with her looking down at me, asking if I was okay. Then we'd continue.

I devoured Lance Armstrong's first book, It's Not About the Bike and found inspiration.

Within a year, I had gone from barely being able to walk, to riding my first century--100 mile bike rides through the gentle rolling hills of the North Carolina Piedmont. Weekend rides of 20 or 50 miles were common. The disease was still running its course, but I was fighting back. Six years later, I'm technically in worse shape due to the progression, but with the tools I gained from bicycling, I'm able to cope. I'm a bit more fragile now, and struggle terribly at times, but know that I can climb aboard a bike and ride a bit.

Bicycling is an accessible sport. You don't need the latest titanium or carbon fiber framed wunderbike to get outside and hear the commentary of Phil Liggett in your head as you roll through the neighborhood--any bike will do. Stick with it long enough and you'll find out that it takes more than pure muscle to spin the cranks. That's when the Tour begins to make sense, yet defy description.

If you're a cyclist and/or a TdF fan, skip ahead. If not, here's a bit of insight into what makes it a soul-stirring spectacle.

There are other fine races, but to me, the Tour is the opportunity to watch an incredible story unfold as athletes take on one of the most monumental physical struggles of our time. I've heard the snorts and snickers from those who think nothing of men piloting a bike at 60mph down a trecherous mountain pass on bikes with a tire patch measured in millimeters. Or riding up a grade that's steep enough that you could actually lean forward and crawl up it easier than you could walk. For days on end, these riders ask superhuman performance of their bodies, while carrying on the finest traditions of sportsmanship.

In one fine example--though it has been argued over many beers around the world--Lance's archrival Jan Ullrich waited for him after Lance crashed during a 2003 stage. While this one and other major displays of sportsmanship are well-known, even the smaller gestures bring a tear to my eye. On mountain stages it's not unusual to see riders battle it out in the middle of the peloton, away from the cameras--yet if you watch carefully, you'll see one finally crack under the strain--and then give his rival a shove forward, as if to say "you win--go on and do more". Teams literally sacrifice their bodies so that their leader can win, protecting him physically as well as providing the aerodynamic advantage to keep his legs as strong as possible. And then there are the inter-team rivalries that are occasionally put aside in odd bits of tactical alliances, as riders take a long "pull" that may be repaid later.

With every turn of your crank, you can experience a bit of what they do. Should you want to experience the mental anguish of a mountain stage, travel to Boone, NC and ride where Lance trains--or ride the annual Bridge to Bridge ride up Grandfather Mountain--billed as 103 miles of Hill culminating in a heartbreaking, lung-busting, leg-ripping final climb up to the summit of Grandfather Mountain. During the Tour, riders do 100, 150, and 200km stages day after day that include those kinds of climbs. It is not just a matter of legs, or tactics, or gear--more than anything, it takes the mind and heart working together to get past the scream of muscles and fear of an unprotected plummet down a ravine--riders have died for the yellow jersey--and as elite as that bunch of cyclists is--many of them making less than a low-income worker in the US--the chance to glide effortlessly along a flat, or challenge a hill, is available to us all.

In a few minutes I'll climb the stairs and get into bed--an act I cannot take for granted. I'm here today, and able to move under my own power. Though I'm sore from a day teaching MSF out on the range, a few years ago I couldn't have imagined being able to stand for 8 hours, much less move quickly enough to teach the course effectively. I'm punished more for it than the average person with days of pain and limping afterwards--something I don't admit to other instructors--but I can do it. I pay more for being upright; each movement can be a struggle. But I'm moving.

So is Lance perfect? Probably not, but that's the point. While blessed with some incredible athletic prowess and a bit more drive than most of us, he was faced with the great equalizer--almost certain death from fast-moving cancer--and fought back not only to live but to excel in one of the most physically demanding sports there is. He's felt pain and failure and fear, just like all of us.

Tonight I ran my hands across one of my bicycles--the same bike that took me most of the way up Grandfather Mountain and has inspired me to try to complete that ride before I check out. Slender tubing, delicate-looking but sturdy enough to take the relentless torque and twisting of a climb or 60mph descent, it's a work of art. As I leaned over it, my hips replied with a stab of fire and my chest ached with each breath as ribs ground against scar tissue. But I know that I can clip in tomorrow and spin--slowly at first, then steadily--and get underway. The pain will come and go. But at least I'll be underway and not alone--others are struggling in their own way and I'm sure many of them are spinning cranks to fight for every day they can make happen on their own terms.

Thanks, Lance.