Volume 74, Number 13 | July 28 - August 03 , 2004


Loving Lance in France and learning to ‘live strong’

By Patricia Fieldsteel

NYONS, FRANCE: Lancemania has been in full force at the 11th-century chateau owned by my former Jane St. neighbors, Lydie and Wayne. Vaguely I’ve been aware of the race. Last year, I went down to the Place de la Liberation to cheer when Lance rode through Nyons on a trial run; the summer before, I waited two hours in the broiling sun to watch the Tour zoom by faster than I could click the shutter on my little digital toy. Did I get what it was all about? Not really.

Then last week someone vandalized my car in a particularly ugly manner with a signature that indicated it was expressly directed against me. When I called Lydie from the police station, begging her to come down in case there were some legal esotericas in the French language I didn’t understand, she told me she couldn’t, she was watching TV.

WATCHING TV!!!??? “Today iz ver-ry important for Lance, I em sorry;” she had to go. Clunk! A few minutes later, Wayne appeared at the police municipale and was dutifully supportive, but this is another story.

My curiosity was piqued: what was it about Lance and the Tour that could turn a normally caring friend into a callous crazed fanatic? I turned on the TV. There were a lot of bikes and exquisite shots of the French countryside — a perfect tour of France, if you will. There were more bikes. Some went faster than others. Bikes are bikes.

I went over to the chateau. The floor-length curtains were drawn, blocking out the brilliant Provencal light that is what most people seek when they come here. Lydie, by nature quiet and calm, was in her white armchair before the TV: “Vas-y, vas-y mon chou-chou!” she screamed. “Go to it, my little cutie! Go to it!” Quickly she started explaining. “That’s Ullrich; ’e likes ze chocolate cake too much; ’e iz lazy and too fat.” Once he was Lance’s main rival; now he’s not a threat. Lance is worried, Lydie says, “ ’e iz whor-eed about bee-ying accidentally ’it by a fan.” Quickly, I realize all fans are on first-name basis with Lance. I settle in.

Today the riders are in the Alps. The crowd is better behaved, Lydie explains, no one is booing Lance or holding up posters of syringes. They are cheering. There are hundreds of gigantic floppy green hands being waved, freebies given out by Credit Agricole, a sponsoring bank. Nothing much will happen with Lance today, she says. It is very hot. Everywhere fans give the cyclists water, fortified drinks and solid energy bars. What the cyclists eat during the Tour, Lydie cconfides, is a highly guarded secret. Riders burn between 15,000 and 20,000 calories per day. Each team has its own special top-secret formulated diet. Lance is reputed to have his own chef.

Lance is resplendent in his yellow T. “Luuk at those legs,” Lydie yells, “look at those legs! ’e iz off ’iz ass, ’e is riding en danseuse!” He is standing, he is peddling faster, but the five-man T-Mobile peloton (pack) is way ahead. Already I’m focussing less on the Alpine foothills and more on the legs. I’m beginning to get it. Lydie explains the meaning of the different-colored jerseys: red polka dots for best mountain climber; green for best sprinter; white for best youngest rider, le tri-couleur for best youngest French rider; yellow — we all know about the yellow. By now I’m not terribly concerned with these guys’ outfits. Lydie is screaming. Andreas Kloden, a German member of the leading T-Mobile peloton, has suddenly bolted ahead of the pack with 1 kilometer to go! Lydie shouts he’s not supposed to do that. Oh, God, WHAT IS LANCE DOING???!!! Lance is pedaling like a maniac, en danseuse and otherwise; he is crazed, he is mad, he is super-human! He’s Le Boss! He passes the pack, he passes Kloden; there are 30 meters left, he is grinning, he’s half a bicycle length ahead; he raises his magnificent Michaelangelo arms above his head and sails over the finish line!! Lydie and I are wild! We are jumping in the air! We hug each other. She runs for the champagne!

Later, she hands me the book: “IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE: My Journey Back to Life,” by Lance Armstrong, and instructs me to read it, especially the chapter called “SURVIVORSHIP.” I rarely read autobiographies; in my whole life I have never read anything by or about an athlete, except maybe a few bons mots from Yogi Berra. I am up all night reading THE BOOK. The next two days I spend at the chateau in front of the TV. I try not to focus on my car, which has gone for an extended stay at the carroisserie (body shop), what was done to it and why. I am riveted to Lance and his story, the testicular cancer that nearly killed him, the horrendous brain surgery that removed cancerous lesions threatening to destroy the area of his brain controlling vision and motor control, the radiation, the chemo, the hell and despair, the long struggle, the comeback and repeated triumphs. Wayne joins us from time to time, but basically Lydie and I are alone with our passion.

Lydie has planned a Lance Lunch for Sunday, the last day of the Tour, which begins in the late afternoon. When I arrive at the chateau, the garden is set with tables covered in bright Pierre Deux tablecloths, laden with local wines, elegant glasses, cutlery, exquisite handmade faience bowls and plates, fresh-baked bread and potato chips in antique Provençal baskets, Nyons olives, local homemade sauscissons. The guests arrive with gifts, their bathing suits and an air of excited anticipation. Lydie starts pulling her famous Tartes Nyonsaises from the ovens; Wayne uncorks. We help Lydie put the final touches on the enormous couscous salad. Wayne has been busy at the Weber grill; the local pork cutlets with rosemary from the garden sizzle on the flames. By the time we sit down at the tables set on the terrace under the grape arbor, we are a happy crowd of 20. This is Sunday lunch in Provence, an all-afternoon affair, but Lance and the Tour are calling.

By 4 p.m., we are before the TV. Slowly the others drift back to the table, the pool, garden, more wine, conversation and a nap. When our Boys in Blue, the U.S. Postal Team, surrounding their glowing, seeming-eternal yellow star, enter the Imperial City, only the hardcore, Lydie and I, are left. We congratulate ourselves, we congratulate Lance, we congratulate Paris, the most beautiful city in the world; we call out the names of the streets and our favorite landmarks as the cyclists ride past. We cheer Lance, marvel at the beauty and youth of his mother, wave to Robin Williams, and argue over which one is Sheryl Crow. Lydie has already warned the 14 turns around the Champs Elysees become a big bore. She goes off to the pool. After three rounds, I’ve joined her. When we return, Wayne is before the TV. We watch the finale, we watch Lance get his prize. He is wearing a yellow baseball cap emblazoned in blue on the front LIVESTRONG. He puts on the yellow jersey. We cheer. A French military band plays THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER. It is more than two years since I’ve heard it; I cannot believe the tears in my eyes. The other prizes are given out.

Lydie says the best part is the interviews afterwards. We wait. Is it my imagination, or has there been surprisingly little coverage today of “Meester Boss,” considering his staggering accomplishment? The experts appear; the after-play analyzing begins; the French are genetically predisposed to a love for blah blah. THE QUESTION is subtly introduced with the results of a sondage (poll) of the fans: Who are the 10 most despised athletes today? Lance Armstrong comes in third (followed by the Williams sisters). The next question, “Why do you dislike Lance Armstrong?” is “randomly” asked of the crowd. The major reasons are: 1- “He isn’t funny,” i.e., he plays to win, he’s serious about what he does; 2- “He’s without mercy,” i.e., he’s driven to win; 3- “There’s no suspense,” i.e., he always wins; 4- “He dominates,” i.e., he always wins (not a French characteristic); “He’s not clean,” i.e., to win 6 times after nearly dying could only be done with le doping (drugs); 7-“He’s American.”

Later Sunday night I go to concert in the medieval church in the Old Town. They are playing Schubert’s Sonata for Piano D960 in B-flat major, one of my favorite works. The church is cool and comforting with its vaulted ceilings and ancient stone. Again I am teary. I am thinking of Lance and his fight back from death, of his iron will and continuing battles. I too know something of those struggles, of what it means to survive, to keep up the fight. I also know he’s not a doper; he doesn’t need to. Life itself, even with all the pain, is enough. LIVE STRONG.

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