Monday, July 25, 2005

"Vive Le Tour, Forever"

For the first time ever at a closing ceremony of Le Tour de France, the winner of the tour, the guy in yellow, the man in the maillot jeune, was given the microphone to say a few words. It wasn't an amazing speech by any means, but millions were probably glad to see Lance Armstrong say farewell in whatever way he could briefly muster.

Earlier in the day's final stage, as the peloton traditonally starts out slowly and rides a social, honorary non-competitive 15 or so miles an hour all the way to the outskirts of Paris, it was clear that this tour indeed had what some said it lacked - "panache" - tht this tour had indeed been appropriate to history, appropriate for Armstrong AND his competitors, new and old alike.

Lance had announced his retirement months in advance, so at last it could be seen, relieved to be near the end of such a grueling and record-breaking tour, that everyone could enjoy this spectacle as Armstrong's farewell - and not think him greedy.

Sunday morning, as many riders as could rolled by to shake hands with Lance and offer congratulations and thanks. Jan Ullrich rode side by side with Lance for miles, laughing, smiling, obviously recounting thrilling moments and episodes. Ivan Basso did the same. Even Alexander Vinokourov seemed all smiles, after all. Who would have thought then that "Vino" would once again rachet up his famous gamesmanship and pull out one final hurrah, beating the sprinters to their own game on the Champs Elysees?

For years, they called Jan Ullrich Lance's "enemy," but he never was. Perhaps foe, maybe threat, but best of all rival, even partner. Yes, partner. As in all great sport, it takes two to tango, and two greats make it a game worth watching, in cycling especially.

Cycling combines hungry and even angry agression with many more subtle gentlemen's agreements, and both Jan and Lance became bonded over the years in the light and shadows of those agreements and their persistent physical superiority. It takes great competition to make an athletic hero, and for better or worse, Jan was always number one in Lance's mind. Lance has said, 'Jan is the cyclist who wakes me up in the morning.' And Jan has said that he always wanted Lance to be at Le Tour because, he said, 'the tour should always have the best.'

Great sport, great journeys, are not about winning alone and above so much as they are about the covert and overt aspects of competition, of being a hero in the horde. So Lance depended on his team, yes. Stage racing is a team sport, and the team really does make a huge difference. (Perhaps with the preparation, focus, specialization and all-for-one loyalty of team director Johan Bruyneel's Postal/Discovery Team, another man could have won, even more than once in the last seven years. The team is THAT important.) So yes, the team matters, and it's nice to see those magnificent team time trials go off like clockwork and to see Lance's lifelong friend George Hincapie win a stage in Armstrong's final tour. But even the team is subserviant to the dynamics of competing superstars. That's why we gravitate toward a half dozen names, no matter what the sport. We remember the quarterbacks, the star forwards, the pitchers and batters, the demi-god Olympian rivals.

So to forge his amazing story, Lance depended most on his cheerleading, CAN-DO mom. (Mom, bon jour!) Then he depended on no one more than his honorable rivals, Marco Pantani, Joseba Beloki, Iban Mayo, Ivan Basso, Alexander Vinokourov and, above all, Jan Ullrich. It takes other great players to be seen as a superstar, and in the arena of France, these were Armstrong's.

At the podium on the Champs yesterday, Lance, for a moment, stood alone atop at the center, at the top, as he certainly is, alone as in some ways he is, has been and will be, even surrounded by celebrity and an entourage. Then came the charming Ivan Basso, also a dad, with his daughter in his arms. And at last came "The Keiser," Jan Ullrich, smiling again. And Janw hugged both men with what seemed to be genuine admiration and even affection. It was, as so many are saying, the end of an era.

Parting is such sweet sorrow, but cycling must go on, no matter how many cars choke our roads, no matter how wi-fi keypad virtual and couch-sitting these "modern" cultures become. We are still physical animals, men and women, who need sporting challenges not just to watch but for ourselves, in sweat and in spirit - especially those such as Le Tour, steeped in tradition, in history, in rules carefully orchestrated to create thrills and fairness, in gentleman's aggreements to give the event the panache of Honor and human uncertainty, combining muscle and mind - AND, as is the case in cycling stage races, the added glory of scenery, of geography, of mountains, of ups and downs, of climbing to the clouds and descending all too swiftly back down to town.

Thus trite but true, Le Tour de France is like life, and it's OK - GREAT - to be sentimental about Le Tour and Lance today and as we say farewell to this maillot jeune's illustrious cycling career. As Lance said in his little speech (of plainer words than here), he feels sorry for those who've been missing out on how awesome, how intriguing, how beautiful and dramatic, how downright Odyssean cycling can be, those who "don't get it," to use his pedestrian phrase. Maybe more are getting it. Maybe more will feel the urge now and next year and for years to come. Even in a wi-fied, shrink-wrapped, jet-setted, overly electronic and overly processed world of the future, what could be better than cycling? What could be better than those muscles and those mountains?

As Lance was about to hand back the mike and step down from that last high podium on Le Champs, he called out emphatically, "Vive le Tour... Forever!"


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