There are few athletes in the world I find more fascinating than Lance Armstrong. I was thinking that again this morning reading about his move into third place on the second day of The Tour de France.
I’ve always been amazed by what those who ride in The Tour do. I spent a number of years in Europe in the 80s and 90s while the race was going on and would watch the replays of the race each night after getting back to my hotel room. Consider this phrase: “In today’s 121 mile ride through the Pyrenees Mountains…” Most of us would be pretty tired DRIVING 121 miles through the mountains. These guys get on their bikes for something like 20 days out of 22 and ride about 2,000 miles up and down mountains in all sorts of weather conditions. They are amazing athletes.
Which is why, in another time, there would have been movies made about Armstrong. He’s written two very successful books, but there remains this shadow over him because anyone who has been on a bike in the last 15 years is automatically considered a drug-user by some, if not most. So many prominent riders have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs that when someone does what Armstrong has done—win the Tour seven straight years AFTER beating cancer—there are going to be raised eyebrows.
Part of this is, sorry Francophiles, the simple fact that the French simply can’t stand the idea that an American is dominating an event they consider part of their national heritage. Any story that casts Armstrong under any suspicion at all is treated in France as if it is gospel and absolute proof that Armstrong couldn’t possibly be clean.
I simply don’t know enough about any of this to know if he’s clean. I very much want to believe he’s clean because his story is absolutely astonishing and what he’s done to raise cancer awareness can NOT be sullied on any level by anyone. Too often in sports those we think of as Superman turn out to be Lex Luthor but I’m going to stick with the idea that Armstrong’s cape is clean until someone proves otherwise in a definitive way.
I almost wrote a book on the Tour de France once. As I said, I became fascinated with it while covering Wimbledon and The British Open for The Washington Post each summer and, at one point, came very close to riding (in a car) with Greg LeMond and his team during the race. I had lengthy phone conversations with LeMond and everything appeared to be in place. That, however, was the spring my mother died very suddenly and I had to cancel the idea to be around to help my father. As it turned out that was the year (1993) when LeMond got sick just before the race began and withdrew. So, it really wasn’t meant to be.
The brush with LeMond did lead to one of my more interesting encounters with a public figure. Several years later, I was at a party that CBS throws every year at The Masters. The network invites the media and flies in a lot of people from Hollywood for the week. I was at this party sitting with some friends when Lesley Anne Wade, CBS Sports’ longtime public relations director came over and said, “I am SO excited. Greg LeMond is at the party.”
My head snapped up. I had never actually met LeMond. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to him,” Lesley Anne said.
We walked across the room to a group of people, none of whom looked to me like LeMond. Lesley Anne introduced me to everyone—none of them named LeMond. “Where’s Greg LeMond?” I asked.
“Greg LeMond?” she said. “I didn’t say Greg LeMond was here, I said RAY ROMANO was here.”
“Ray Romano?” I said. “Who the hell is Ray Romano?”
“Me,” said the guy standing next to me.
Lesley Anne was now white as a sheet. “Ray Romano John,” she said. “You know, THE Ray Romano of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond?’
I had never watched the show, had no clue who Ray Romano was. I tried to recover. “Oh yeah, of course,” I said, shaking Romano’s reluctant hand. “Love the show.”
I thought Lesley Anne might faint.
Fast forward a year: same party. I was standing with a group of people when who should walk over but Ray Romano. Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports, grabbed Romano and said, “John have you ever met Ray Romano?”
“Very nice to see you,” I said, not wanting to say anything about the year before.
Romano pointed a finger at me. “I remember YOU,” he said.
Hey, at least I made an impression on him.