19 Jul 2001 jfleck   » (Master)

If I were a sportswriter, here is what I would write.

I got interested in cycling during the 1995 Tour de France. Jimmie, a crusty old-fashioned road bike rider, sat next to me at work, and began teaching me the lore of the race, the tactics and the strategy. 1995 was the year Fabio Casartelli died in a wicked descent, and I came to understand the Tour's grace and elegance the following day, when the Tour's riders rode the stage silently together, eschewing racing in Casartelli's honor. They allowed Casartelli's teammates to ride to the front for each of the stage's bonuses, collecting the bonus money for his family.

And then the following day, a young rider named Lance Armstrong, a teammate of Casartelli's, rode a ferocious sprint victory for the win, raising his arms and his face to the sky as he crossed the line.

I lost track of young Lance, and paid little attention in the following years as he battled cancer.

And then, on the day of the 1999 prologue at Puy du Fou, Lissa and Nora were travelling and I sat alone at home watching the Tour on television.

I had no notion of Armstrong as a contender. I cared about Pantani and Ullrich, the names I'd grown to understand as the great champions of the stage race. Armstrong I understood simply as the man who had survived cancer, not as a sporting figure.

When he won, I wept.

"It's a long way from Indianapolis to Puy du Fou," Armstrong said after the race. Indianapolis is where he endured the ugliness and devastation that is the best medical science can offer cancer patients today. That became my email signoff quote.

I wept because he stood there at the start line for my wife Lissa, who survived cancer. When I saw the pictures they showed on TV of a wasted Lance Armstrong in a hospital bed, I saw my Lissa. Every time I see those pictures of him (they show them again and again, year after year now) I clutch. I took no picture of Lissa in that hospital bed.

Surviving cancer requires no courage and yet all courage. One has no choice. One simply does what one must do. Lissa survived it with all the courage she had, much she did not know she had, and all life after it is, for us, icing. She now can see Nora grow up.

Whatever Lance Armstrong has done since is icing. Winning that dinky little prologue at Puy du Fou - no, simply riding in it - will always stand for me as the towering achievement, just as every birthday for Lissa is.

I imagine him able to power up the climbs of Sestriere or L'Alpe d'Huez beyond anything Ullrich or the others can do because he is not riding against them. He is riding to beat back something bigger. Perhaps this is a romantic notion, or me projecting, but that is what I see when I see him jump out of the saddle and fly up the hills.

Armstrong passes five years of survival this year, one of the statistically arbitrary markers of "cure" the doctors give patients.

Lissa has passed 10 years, and I rarely think about her cancer any more, except to occasionally thank her for not dying.

But every summer now, the Tour reminds me of the power of survival.

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