This was the day I let Lance Armstrong down the one time he needed me.
He won seven Tour de Frances and never needed anything from me until today, stage eight, Morzine, the French Alps.
Lance Armstrong has been so strong and so brilliant for so long that it never occurred to me that he might need a lift. The back end of his name said it all: strong, aggressive, impervious to cancer, Contador, the march of time itself. Except for today, the day of final reckoning.
I’ve written about Armstrong for the last year and a half. I’ve heaped praise, defended him, laughed at his blind spots, increased my readership with his name. I’ve made enough fun of him that I’m sure there’s a black mark on some Armstrong shit list.
He’s a complicated character — genuine yet calculating, dead serious yet funny, self aware yet blind, self centered yet altruistic, supremely confident but on occasion completely aware of his weakness.
Though I’d predicted he wouldn’t make the podium, I thought he came into this tour in better form, strong, more confident with a powerful team built around him. He was, as the French would say, going to be a presence in the tour, or to drop some old school 50 Cent— he was gonna get yellow or die trying.
If his death was imminent, I certainly didn’t expect it to occur Sunday at 5pm over a week before reaching reaching the Pyrenees. I was shocked, an unpleasant shock, maximum voltage, wet fingers in the socket. What I’m trying to say is, I screamed my lungs out for him on Morzine because for the first time, he needed me badly.
I never understood how much I was pulling for Lance Armstrong until he showed his weakness, until he became so very human. Big Tex in big need, Mellow Johnny as Helpless Johnny. I needed him today because the world has few heroes and Armstrong, past doping or not, is that rare being, the justifiable superstar.
Today on Morzine I realized that in some way Lance has always been there for me, an inspiration, a benchmark, a man so strong and smart in so many ways that went far beyond the mundane win and loss of sports. I wanted to give him back something — energy, hope, a few watts, but my powers were useless.
It’s the the irony of our heroes — we never want them to succeed so badly as when they’re no longer superstars. When the mountain climb becomes a descent, when they fall from the pedestal. He tumbled back to earth and closer to me. He was just another exhausted rider with a dream his legs couldn’t possibly deliver and I’ve never felt closer to him.
On the cobblestones of stage three Armstrong admitted that some days you’re the hammer and some days you’re the nail. Today was all nail, ugly, painful, pounded with brute force. It was excruiating to watch. Our complicated but committed relationship was suffering.
When he rode past me, big chunks of clock behind Contador and Evans, I tried my best to give him anything I could. Without thinking, the words came out: “Come on Lance, you can do it, you can do it.” I beseeched him to not lose the tour today, not like this, burnt, old and pedaling squares.
It wasn’t to be, he finished close to 12 minutes down, tour finished and even to write the words seems like some kind of cosmic mistake. Twelve minutes — essentially a minute for each year Armstrong is older than Contador. Time for Trek to make a carbon fiber wheel chair. Not the Madone, the I’mdone.
Fans lay so much of their hopes and dreams on their heroes. When they win we share in their glory and feel absolved of our failures. His tweets are my tweets. There’s no doubt in my mind there are many Livestrong supporters in tears tonight.
He’s too old be be broken, too wise to wallow in disappointment. We haven’t heard the last of Lance Armstrong in this Tour de France. But the cruel fact remains that it’s his last Tour de France and the race is not kind to former champions, especially a rider who’s almost 39.
All those amazing wins, the yellow jerseys, the dominance and beauty and inspiration. He failed on stage eight of the 2010 Tour de France. What’s harder to take, is the feeling that the one time he needed something from me, I couldn’t deliver.
(Note: to see all my photos from the tour click the FLickr gallery at the bottom or click here.)