We witnessed the death of Lance "Killing Machine" Armstrong yesterday at the Tour de France.
Hey, wait. Wow, you Livestrong fanatics need to calm down. I wasn't talking literally. Does cancer kill your sense of humor too?
I have watched literally hundreds of hours of Lance Armstrong riding in the Tour de France. Over the course of his seven victories I don't remember him getting a flat tire; I don't remember more than once or twice he didn't have team-mates ready to do exactly the work he needed at the pace HE wanted; and I only remember one other time he hit the ground - the famous climb where a musette bag snagged on his handle and he then got back up (briefly pausing to fall on his top tube - good thing there was only one in the way - tube I mean, what?) and marched away from Jan Ullrich to win yet another Tour.
Today, a different Lance appeared. One that was human, fallible and subject to the whims of fate. This Lance was not the one at the Prologue. That one was doing the mind-f__k to Contador by being 5 seconds ahead of him when he was scheduled to be behind. After that, however, the same thing that happened to lots of great athletes on great teams happened to Lance - he fell victim to bad luck.
Today's second crash (the first one he didn't hit the ground, just road onto the grass and had to hope back onto the road) may have been telling. He clipped a pedal on a curb. Easy to do, right? Happened to lots of us and it has happened too many times to count in the Tour itself. What hasn't happened, however, is that it happened to Lance. In the past, you had the impression that the curb might know better than to get in his way, or that Johan would remind him of a particularly dangerous curb, or that Lance had scouted and memorized the entire route so that he knew to avoid that specific curb. Today - a different story. Maybe Lance was distracted - which didn't happen much in the past. Maybe Lance was tired - another thing that didn't happen much in the past. And maybe it was just a touch of bad luck - which rarely, rarely happened in the past.
One of the things that you get from watching a million miles of bike racing is that luck plays a role very often. There is a saying in cycling (my kids are yelling right now, "You can't win from the front" - even spindly-legged, never-won-a-sprint-in-his-life Schleck proved that Sunday) which is that the strongest rider rarely wins. The romance of Paris-Roubaix is that the strongest rider who doesn't have bad luck does win, but in most every other race, the winner is the one who has the right combination of strength and luck. You have to be in the right position at the right time and not have poorly timed problems.
I don't care what you think of the pharmacology issues, you have to give Lance credit or at least recognize how extraordinary it is for any rider to put together the right combination of luck or lack of bad luck and strength and team-mates and weather and stages and mountain climbing versus time-trialing and everything else to pull off repeated victories in a race as long, complicated and tough as the Tour de France.
And it is that particular version of Lance Armstrong that was put to rest today. I really thought he was going to be right there on the mountain stages right to the point the group got down to the few contenders, but whether or not he came with that fitness (he certainly came with the determination and mental strength), sometimes you have to bow to the fates. It is the problem with being mortal.
Most champions stay around until after they are champions (Favre, Jordan - I'm looking at you), but some handle themselves with class and aplomb as that happens. I hope that Lance proves to be one of those champions, and then while we say goodbye to Lance Version 7.0, we can see what kind of person Lance Version Post 7.0 proves to be.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, may Henri Desgrange bless and keep you, Brother Armstrong, and may your fans and your ego be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen.
Rev. Rider Three