Gary drags up an obscure Neil Young reference and gets all soft about Big Tex
Last night, I dug out my copy of the “Lance Armstrong – Seven in a Row” DVD set. It was at the bottom of my every-growing pile of cycling movies, reflecting the somewhat jaundiced view I’ve stated previously on the blog and that we spent a fair bit of the first dozen or so episodes of the Pod battering poor Colin with. Anyway, it was just some bike viewing to while away the time and the ironing pile.
Despite (or perhaps finally because of) the fact that the Novitsky case is rumbling on, Lance has been fairly quiet of late so I was watching almost afresh. In fact “fresh” was very much how you’d describe that pre-cancer beta version of Big Tex. Footage of the unbridled joy at an unexpected World Championship in a rain-soaked Oslo (the cynical argue that half the field was on its arse). The spine-tingling tribute to fallen Fabio Cassartelli in 1995 as his escape into Limoges stuck and he finally bagged a second Tour stage after his first in 1993. The genuine desolation at losing a dead-cert win to Serhiy Utchakov 6 days earlier.
The 1995 Lance still strikes me as a young man still many way in wonderment at cycling, even despite the tragedy of that year’s Tour. He may have lost out to Utchakov in that sprint in Revel but his eyes sparkled even as he sought to put into words the desperate disappointment he was clearly feeling. Tactical naivety was maybe his undoing that day but you knew he wouldn’t be making the same mistake again. Lance was still learning back then. But around the corner was illness, recovery and the rest is pretty much history.
There was perhaps a different sense of wonder in 1999; the wonder of simply being alive, you might hazard. But it was still different then. The US Postal Bus was little more than a camper van with an awning (Jonathan Vaughters referred to his (then) team as The Bad News Bears). Then he only went and won the bloody thing.
“Wonder” and “joy” were words that you don’t really associate with subsequent Tours, for all the stage and GC wins that followed. Winning became the norm and stage victories were in some respects greeted by a steely-eyed “job done” face. After the miracle came Lance Inc. It in turn spawned LiveStrong and millions of yellow bracelets, bodyguards, lawsuits, innuendo, black-listed journalists and the occasional bullied rider when cycling somehow managed to get involved. The nearest I saw to the simple happiness was probably when Lance snatched victory from Andreas Kloden at Le Grand Bornard in 2004, long arms thrust outwards then up almost in surprise at shading the German on the line. This would be his final road stage victory.
Since that first final afternoon on the Tour podium in 2005, many of those of us who had chosen to “believe in cycling” no longer believe, at least in that chapter of cycling’s history. Watching footage of Lance battling with Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, et al invariably elicits a hollow laugh. The “future of the Tour” – in Lance’s words that day in Paris – would subsequently be implicated in Operacion Puerto, Basso serving a 2-year ban and Ullrich retiring from cycling completely.
Comeback 2.0 came and went with much sizzle but no steak and as I type, the final chapter in the Lance Armstrong story has yet to be written while the middle bit may yet have to be re-written. But those early years even to a born-again cynic looked remarkably innocent, utterly vibrant and – actually – very happy indeed.
And that actually makes me kinda sad.