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