Like Lance

I’m just like Lance Armstrong. We’re both 38, both have kids. True, I have both my nuts and never take a private jet to work, but other than that, we’re pretty much the same guy. Oh, and I don’t do Michelob Ultra commercials. Minor detail. Other than that…difficult to tell us apart.

Like Lance I’ve been sick too much in this early part of the season. I had a chest cold that put me off two wheels in the middle of January. I had the swine flu that cost me a couple weeks, and now I’m into another chest cold. I’d blame the kids, but I might just be that wildebeest at the back of the herd that wonders why everyone’s running away. Does anyone else smell lion?

My buddy Lance must be feeling the same way. Since THE COMEBACK®, things haven’t gone so well. Like me, he’s had some problems with illness. There was a rotovirus that forced him to pull out of Circuit de la Sarthe and then ran him down for Criterium International. His season’s not going so well. The lions are definitely circling. That Contador lion looks especially hungry.

If Lance was disappointed I would fully understand. I was in much better shape in 2005, too. Since then I’ve crossed that invisible border, the one that means you’re more sore the second day than the first, the one that sees your body stop responding quite so predictably to really, really hard work, the one that robs you of fast-twitch muscle fiber, but leaves your competitive brain intact.

Is Lance like a legion of boxing legends, Louis, Ali, Ray Leonard, Holyfield, whose lion hearts were betrayed by wobbly legs and dwindling strength. Is it the peculiar foible of some legends to stay on too long, believing they’ve still got it when they haven’t?

I haven’t got it anymore. Ask the guys I’ve been playing soccer with for the last ten years. Ask my mountain biking friends. Watch me sucking wind up hills I used to trounce. I have replaced power and panache with steadiness and a sense of humor.

After my kids were born, I started crashing more too. For no good reason. I was tired. I lacked concentration. I’ve come to call it ‘Menchov’s Syndrome.’ It’s a degenerative condition. Like life.

Last season, Lance targeted the Giro d’ Italia until a collar bone break (his first serious injury ever … if you don’t count testicular cancer) put off his build up, and he had to turn to the Tour, only to have a teammate demonstrate for him in no uncertain terms just who was the “strongest on the road.” Lance hasn’t won a race yet. This can’t feel good.

Going out on top has this effect. The retired athlete retains this memory of having been untouchable, a knowledge of the techniques that brought such overwhelming success, and the false confidence born of underestimating the growth of the sport in his absence.

“If I do what I used to do, I will succeed as I used to,” he thinks.

I can tell you from personal experience that things are not as they ever were. The last three times I’ve had both wheels of my mountain bike off the ground I’ve ended up in the bushes, picking gravel out of my elbows and wondering what went wrong. I’ve lost half a step, half a pedal stroke and quite possibly one of my lungs. And I’m only five months older than the Lance.

If I could sit with the former champ, he’d have a Michelob Ultra, and I’d have a tonic water with lime. I’d say, “Look champ, there’s nothing back there for you. You can ride. You can place, and you can show. But that top podium step ain’t there for you anymore. So ride as long as you enjoy it, but don’t ride to win. Don’t ride to win.”

A third place in the Tour de France is a great result for a 37-year-old rider just back from three years off. It’s amazing. Raymond Poulidor finished second at 40, but don’t compare results. Don’t do it. Because while it’s only two steps to the top from last year, the steps all lead down.

As I’ve learned over the last few months, there are whole vistas of suffering and disappointment I’ve yet to peer over. I could take this chest cold I have now and ride it into pneumonia based on the fact that I used to be able to ride through minor illnesses. Or, I can take the time off and come back next week. I can spend more time with my kids than my bikes. I could even ride bikes WITH my kids. Life is full of good shit to do, but you can seek the suffering if you want. Sometimes that’s noble suffering, and sometimes it’s vain suffering. The trick is knowing the difference.

I get it, Lance. I get it. Cause I’m just like you.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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32 comments

  1. George

    That was very well said. How many times did we in the US have to suffer through a MJ comeback just to see him slower and less impressive/effective each time?

    Armstrong was a tremendous tremendous athlete. But that just doesn’t last.

    We’ll get a new US hero. I’m sure.

  2. Souleur

    Brilliant point.

    I would add though your not ‘all’ like LA, you got twice the kahoona’s he does:-)

    And, it is true. Watching a GC’r like Lance fall from gracefulness is like passing by that tragic accident on the side of the road that initially grabs your attention. There is a mangled vehicle, skid marks, evidence of speed and power, interest asks what must have happened, and then you see a sheet covering a corpse, we still are looking…weirdly interested, and maybe we can see an arm is lifeless hanging…then the reality of the ugliness of it all makes us regret seeing the fall of someone.

    Seeing a GC’r like lance climb from winning the Tour DuPont to holding the entirity of Americans hopes of winning another TdF, then doing it in miraculous fashion as he did, cumulatively, was life inspiring. The fall however, is ugly, and inevidible.

    But, I don’t blame him. He comes by an alpha GC’r personality very honestly, because HE IS. He doesn’t accept mediocracy at all. He doesn’t accept second. He doesn’t even accept anyone else can ride like him, and afterall, they didn’t for how many years???

    I just simply turn my head, pass by this scene and remember 1999.

  3. Jon

    Okay, so the “COMEBACK” hasn’t gone as planned. However, the cash registers and card swipers still turn in his favor. Trek is back on board with him & he’s been pivotal in launching a new pro tour team, which will keep him in the loop for quite some time to come. But bigger than a TdF ’09 victory, his baby… LIVESTRONG, has grown considerably in strength and market share within the cancer fighting community and its influence is now established as a global cancer fighting entity. Bottom line, Lance Armstrong may not have stepped atop the TdF podium, but from a financial perspective, it has to be acknowledged that he hit every attainable marker. He did grab a win at the Nevada City Classic on Father’s Day last June, but that won’t a lot much tangible satisfaction for a GC’er of his level.

  4. todd k

    If I understand correctly, Joop Zoetemelk won the World Championship in 1985. It was his 17th (18th?) year of cycling at the age of 38. It was five years after he won his only tour victory. It was three years after any meaningful result. He had to use intelligence and experience to accomplish that against much younger foes in their prime (including one Greg Lemond).

    Though not as likely, the dynamics of racing can permit older athletes to surprise us. Regardless, the story of the post prime aging athlete tells us something about them that their seemingly easy successes in their prime did not. If they are able to at least hang with their peers, I encourage them to give it a go if they still have the desire even if it is less likely they will win. They may permit me to learn something new from them and maybe I can apply it to my own life.

    As for my physical decline (it all sounds so dire!)…. I did a range of other sports prior to actively taking up road cycling a few years ago. (Been a spectator forever, though). I tended to mountain bike previously, but only sporadically as “another thing among many things to do”. I took up road cycling as it was one sport that permits you to age gracefully and is an activity that provides goals and challenges that transcend age. From that perspective, I may be fortunate in some respects than in that I can still claim to be on the upswing of improvement in cycling, even though at 40 I am on the downswing in some respects physically.

    Bah, who am I kidding?! At best I am just delaying the inevitable! Thank goodness for Master’s categories!

  5. jza

    You’re not like Lance. Michael Jordan is kind of like Lance. So is Tiger Woods. That’s about it. Maybe Kobe or Lebron.

    There is nothing you, or I, can experience, in life or on a bike that compares to any sensation or perception that Lance has experienced.

    And he will be fine at the Tour. His training is not like yours. Lance has big jumps, miracles, numbers not fit for human eyes. And the world’s best witch doctors. We have steady builds, culminating in underwhelming peaks. And a coach we’re allowed to email, at most, twice a week.

    Lance will be fine at the Tour, he will not win, but he will be fine.

  6. mark

    Bravo. A fine piece of writing, Robot.

    How would Lance fare if he returned to one day racing? Seems like the biggest limiter in stage racing is recovery, which, as we all know, slows as we age. But one day racing requires strength and fitness in equal measure with experience and tactics.

    Few in the United States realize that the Tour de France is just one of many races on the calendar each year. I wonder if Lance is among them.

  7. SinglespeedJarv

    @todd k I’m liking the phrase, “road cycling allows you to age gracefully”. I will remember that and will use it again. Probably just after muttering, Mechov’s Syndrome

    @jza but he came back to win. Or was it to rid the world of cancer?

    @mark Lance knows all about the “other” races. But he’s been adamant since the day he turned pro that he didn’t care about reputations. Maybe that was directed at fellow riders, but it was indirectly aimed at The Traditions. I guess the “Other” races don’t make you as wealthy as The Tour

  8. Robot

    @jza Correct. I am nothing like Lance, either physically or mentally. That was the joking pretense for discussing the way the comeback has panned out, the legacy and the disappointment.

  9. Robot

    @todd k Zoetemelk didn’t retire and then come back. Neither did Poulidor. Those two riders have another thing in common, also. Poulidor was called “le deuxiéme éternel,” the eternal second, for coming second to Anquetil and then Merckx so much, but, in fact, he only finished second in the TdF three times (He was third on five other occasions). Zoetemelk actually finished on the second step of the Tour podium six times.

    Both of those riders are legends, but built into those legends is this enduring notion of disappointment, a feeling the Lance has not, up to this point, had to deal with very much. When Zoetemelk was World Champion at 38 it burnished his legacy, likewise for Poulidor taking second in the Tour at 40. On the contrary, Lance’s third place last year was, though extraordinary, an undoubted disappointment for the man himself and an indication to the peloton that he is no longer the invincible champion he once was.

    1. Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for the spirited comments. Like many of you, I loved the conceit on which the post was based. That said, in all seriousness, there’s a dimension to Armstrong’s comeback that gets overlooked. It has to do with how he was spending his time during his retirement. He’s going to be on magazine covers wherever he goes. The question is, what sorts of things do you want to be noted for. It seems that he’s more comfortable on the cover of VeloNews, even in defeat, than he is on the cover of People for hanging out with Matthew McConaughey. And then there’s the fact that being a PRO bike racer can be way more entertaining than flying around the country giving motivational speeches.

      Armstrong is wired to be a great bike racer. The internal drive, the engine, the strategic thinking, he’s got it all. And I suspect some of it didn’t sit well with what he did when he was away from the sport.

      But Robot’s post begs the question: What constitutes a successful comeback? Do we really know? And should we really count out the guy who arrived at the Tour in form other than what he planned?

  10. todd k

    Robot: Fair call on the distinctions between Lance and the often eternal seconds of Zoetmelk and Poulidor. I was thinking more along the lines of folks aging and not bowing out rather than the retirement factor. We have no meaningful precedent for comebacks post retirement.

    Pdraig: I’m probably in the minority that felt Lance had a successful comeback in that he got to the podium in the Tour and that was notable. Even the competitor himself felt he was not successful, so I know I am going against the grain on this. In my mind such a ridiculously infinitesimal number of folks on the planet can pull off such a feat as getting onto the Tour podium, that doing so is some measure of success, including the formerly retired seven time tour winner in question. I’m the kind of person that will remember and define folks like Zoetmelk, Poulidor, and even Beloki, as great tour riders despite them consistently coming up short in the victory column, so I may be too far off in left field for some folks when it comes to defining Tour success.

  11. Lachlan

    to steal a bit from Greg Lemond: (partly I admit just to stir in an post on Lance!)

    as we get fitter in our youth “it doesn’t get easier, you just go faster”

    and so too perhaps similarly as we get older – we are no less addicted to the bike, we just (all) go slower.

    1. Padraig

      Jonny: Yes, I think that’s on Lance’s mind.

      Todd K: Agreed on all points. If I could climb today like I was climbing in 2001, I’d work people over just to prove I could.

      Lachlan: That is, perhaps, my favorite LeMond quote. It really puts fitness in perspective.

  12. wvcycling

    I’m 24, and fit as ever this season, but all of my local riding partners are old enough to have been my father. They all have this look and grin when I get up the hill faster than them, because they know that time will take it’s toll on me eventually; all while they enjoy the scenery of now. I’m not going to waste these years, simply for the fact that I love riding, and seeing how far I can push myself. When a career or family gets in the way (you like how I put that, no?), then maybe I’ll get a Bianchi Volpe and just cruise around.

    Time is a horrible thing right now. Maybe I will grow to love it.

  13. Henry

    Who knows what’s on Armstrong’s mind. Last year he seemed absolutely convinced he could be standing on the top step. Looking at the photos of him on the podium he sure didn’t look like he was enjoying what was objectively an incredible accomplishment perhaps equal to his 1st place finishes of the past.

    I think he’s back for a second year because he is convinced another year of training and his own team will do the trick. The echo chamber that depends on LA for a living will re-enforce those feelings. Will it be a train wreck or a miracle? This ain’t a Disney movie and back here in reality the young turks are looking fierce so my money is on train wreck.

  14. dacrizzow

    lance wasn’t being honest about his comeback goals. while it was cool that he raced crossvegas and leadville, his whole pretense behind his tour goals either he thought we were all idiots or he was the idiot and didn’t realize it. i think his whole goal was to pass the torch to levi and he got caught up in his own lance/contador drama. while levi is talented. it takes more than talent to win the tour. it takes balls, and even though lance only has one, it’s still more than levi’s two. now he’s just looking petty. good luck, radio shack masters.

  15. Dan O

    Fun read – great post.

    Even if Lance never wins another race, I still consider his comeback a success. He still gets cycling on the mainstream U.S. map and that’s a good thing. He’s also been looser, more relaxed, and downright funny during interviews. He’s down a few notches from being the best in the world, but he doesn’t exactly suck either.

    Seeing him race without winning in some ways is more commendable the dominating everything (at least the Tour). It makes him a little more human and as a fan – I dig that. I’m actually more of a Lance fan now, then when he was on top.

    As far as getting slower as you age – it gets worse, but in other aspects better. I’m 48 and I can feel the changes. I was never officially fast, even 25 years ago, and now – yikes. I joke that I need to train to be crappy. I have the racing mentality, but not the ability. Look pro, go slow – my new motto.

    Even so, I still love riding and suffering during the occasional mountain bike or ‘cross race. You also can’t help but to feel a little smug around non riding dudes the same age as you, who can barely get off the couch.

    So to me, just continuing to ride approaching 50 years old (and beyond) is priceless compared to losing some speed and snap. Sure, some mornings I wake up feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck – but I still love it – and that’s what counts.

    Ride on.

  16. Robot

    @all Excellent points! Part of what I was trying to get across was that my motivations and satisfactions are, in fact, wholly different than Lance’s. When he came back, it was to win the Tour again, full stop. Despite finishing third, which I agree is pretty incredible, he was disappointed. I don’t care what he said in any interview. A guy who’s stood on the top step, doesn’t like standing anywhere else.

    Time comes for us all. Those of us who are mere mortals accept that better than those who have been deities of the sport.

    To my mind, the real shame of the COMEBACK® has not been the lack of results. It’s been the way the former champ has comported himself. His behavior towards Contador has been awful. Anquetil treated Poulidor this way, and all of France hated him for it. BUT…that’s another post.

  17. velosopher

    Robot, thanks for the post. I’m 46, and I won’t bother describing my fitness, because Dan O already did it for me. (“Look PRO, go slow” — I’ll be using that.) It’s a real relief to hear others talk about how Father Time has snuck up on them when they pull down the bedsheets the morning after a hard ride, and — oh. Woah! Yeah, I felt that way twenty years ago — but only after a night of absurd indulgence, and even then I recovered faster.

    I also need to hear more about the joys of “more time with family,” riding slower and enjoying the scenery, and other sweet rewards of age. Maybe there’s opportunity for wisdom and a better life hiding behind my annoyance at my slowing limbs. I’m working on it — “actively.”

  18. Souleur

    What constitutes a ‘comeback’ when your Lance Armstrong?

    Many good thoughts, and I suppose that is where it will ultimately rest, as we all take away from any conversation only what we really want to hear.

    I would consider his comeback as somewhat forgettable at the end of the day, unless he stands atop the podium at the end of July, given his legend status.

    Sure, others will say ‘its the bike’ or ‘its the ride’, but at the end of the day, as a racer, its all who is on top of the podium, ultimately, and that is why we keep score.

  19. Dan O

    You guys are probably right on Lance probably hating grabbing “only 3rd” in the Tour. I’m sure the dude is psycho competitive and needs to win. Nothing wrong with that racing at that level – with the best in the world. I would also agree his relationship with Contador wasn’t exactly friendly. Your really can’t have two guys on the same team eyeing for the same results.

    Some of my take on the Lance comeback comes from the mountain bike side. It’s been damn cool to see Lance get involved racing mountain bikes. If you haven’t seen it – check out Race Across the Sky – great documentary on Lance’s Leadville 100 win. The film is about a lot more then Lance, well worth watching.

    As far as riding with the family – it rocks. Mountain bike riding and racing with my 10 year old son has been huge fun and great father/son time.

  20. Henry

    The sad thing for Armstrong may be that in the end his comeback will be a success for everyone but him. Versus gets more viewers, Livestrong gets more donors, a team of riders gets contracts, his entourage gets squired around another Tour. But for LA there is no substitute for the yellow.

  21. Robot

    @Henry This is an excellent, excellent point, and one I’ve been thinking about as well. All of cycling, mostly, wins from the Lance comeback. Even I, in writing snarky things about the man, gain more attention than I might have penning similar things about someone else in the pro ranks. So, there’s a sort of ironic twist in that even Lance’s detractors, those who wish he’d just stayed retired, get more out of him coming back than he does.

  22. Greg B

    “Lance hasn’t won a race yet. This can’t feel good.”

    Well he did win Leadville, pretty sure the writer can’t win that.

  23. Henry

    Greg, unfortunately for Lance he won’t be racing the writer or his competition at Leadville in Europe. I don’t think Contador and company are loosing any sleep over Lance’s win at Leadville.

  24. Jokeless

    The two cycling “jokes” I was tired of hearing about a long damn time ago…

    1) Armstrong a reference to his testicles. WTF? If you are over the age of 15 you should avoid making jokes about balls.

    2) Boonen and cocaine. So what, he likes to party. He hasn’t destroyed his life and he’s still a great cyclist. Just goes to show everyone that because you like to have some fun once and awhile doesn’t mean you are throwing your life away. Most drugs are what you make of them. Sure, some people who snort cocaine turn into dropouts. Others don’t. This is like theorizing that every fat, lazy, 9-5er who chugs coffee or Mountain Dew means that anyone drinking coffee will become fat, lazy, and apathetic. And it blows my mind how stupid people are about marijuana. “Oh wow, it makes me want to eat!” Stupid. Every drug has a different effect on each person. Some drunks fight. Some cry. Some fall asleep.

    If Boonen likes to party in the off season and can still ride well, I think that is awesome. Which is worse, all of the people using caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, prescription meds on a daily basis, or having some fun once a year out partying? I hate critics who are hypocrites themselves. Cocaine in the off season should have no relevance to his cycling months later, definitely not in terms of performance and I wish he was suspended for it either.

    Enough with mention balls every time Armstrong comes up, you fools. Also, enough with mentioning cocaine every time Boonen comes up.

    1. Padraig

      Jokeless: Okay, so we get that you don’t have a sense of humor. That’s okay. However, I do want to respond to your assertion that Boonen’s coke use isn’t a problem. I appreciate that you can see beyond it, and it would be nice if other folks could as well. The problem, as I wrote in a post for BKW, is that the average person out there doesn’t see an appreciable difference between recreational drug use and PEDs. To phrase it differently, this isn’t an impairment problem, but rather a perception problem. A bad reaction to news like Boonen’s positive test scares the public. A scared public scares sponsors. Frightened sponsors leave. Again, I appreciate that you can see beyond what he does in his spare time, but many, many people can’t and their reaction, the reaction of the majority of the public, is what has the ability to drive sponsors away. And for those of us who are concerned about the health of the sport as expressed in sponsor dollars, you’ll pardon us if we’d like to knock some sense in Boonen.

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