To Possibly Transcend
The stage into Lynchburg, Virginia featured several long finishing circuits. Jeff Roake kept the crowd informed and entertained as I worked my way to a spot atop the bleachers to get a good view of the finish area. As the riders arrived onto the circuit the race DJ began to play the 1812 Overture, music that would seem totally out of place at a bike race except that somehow he managed to time it perfectly so that the finale (the part when they fire off the canons on the 4th of July) erupted just as the riders began to surge to the line for the stage win.
In that moment–here in deepest Virginia watching pro bike racers attack for the win while listening to a piece of classical music written in the 1800’s to commemorate a battle between France and Russia—something clicked. It was at that moment that I first thought “this is an awesome sport and I would love to try it.” But that thought was quickly naysayed with “nah I can’t do that—looks way too hard.”
After several stages through the Smokies and through many cases of All Sport, the race arrived in Boone, North Carolina for a classic stage finish atop Beech Mountain. At this point the general classification was tight between Lance Armstrong, currently in second, and an unassuming Russian riding for the Wordperfect team named Viatcheslav Ekimov. The race’s only mountain-top finish was much anticipated and Mike and Gary informed me that I would be responsible for the action shot of the finish as they would be shooting the battle on the climb itself.
To date, I had only performed the relatively easy task of shooting the wide context shot of the finish. Today’s shot would be tight action of the winner of the queen stage, meant to be transmitted to news outlets literally worldwide. And this was before Nikon had autofocus good enough to shoot anything other than a bowl of apples on a table. The pressure was on!
It was over before I really realized what was going on. I saw the helicopter, heard Jeff Roake’s excited commentary, saw a bunch of state police cars and commissar’s vehicles plow over the line and tried desperately to pull focus on the murky silhouette of a rider raising his arms in a thick cloud of dust.
Lance had won the stage, going toe-to-toe with Ekimov on the final climb. Rumor would later have it that Ekimov, who finished a few seconds back, had mis-shifted in the sprint and thus ceded the stage. This was all incidental to my bigger concern: Mike was looking through my negatives with a loupe trying to find the finish shot. I watched him frown as he squinted into the loupe and thought “I blew it, this is not good…” I began to explain to him the chaos of the finish, about the cars and dust… The tension became unbearable as he looked up at me, was silent for a moment and then finally spoke.
“Well, then you got lucky, mate. You barely pulled it out,” he said, handing me the loupe and negatives.
The shot was there, underexposed by about three stops but in focus and salvageable thanks to Photoshop (v2.5!): Lance in his rainbow stripes, eyes downcast, both arms in the air and fingers spread to the sky.
That night we had dinner and drinks at a small restaurant on top of Beech Mountain. Joining us was someone I had just met that day, a super-nice English guy named Phil. Apparently he was doing TV commentary for the race, or something.
A few days later we finished up the days work after covering the fast sprint finish into Charlotte, North Carolina, ate a quick southern barbeque dinner and headed to the hotel bar. The race was nearly over and hanging out in the bar with several of his Motorola teammates was Lance. As I mentioned, both photographers I was working with had known him for some time and I suddenly found myself in a small group having a conversation with the riders.
Sadly, I don’t remember many of the details and I don’t think it was because I drank too many beers. The fact that Lance was a world champion at 21, only two years younger than myself, didn’t overly impress me at the time because I had no frame of reference. He might as well have been world champion of sculling or biathlon or some such–cycling was that obscure to me.
I do remember him as being an intense guy, even just hanging out in the bar as he assertively made the case that cycling in Europe was like basketball in the US or hockey in Canada: a way for working-class kids to possibly transcend their meager backgrounds and avoid a life spent working on the farm or in the coal mines.
Lance would never overtake Ekimov on the GC as the race wrapped up in High Point, North Carolina, AKA “the furniture capital of the world.” The night after the final stage the promoters held a big party which began with a trophy ceremony for the winner, Ekimov. As the presentation wore on I found myself standing next to him so I offered him congratulations and we exchanged a few words in awkward English.
Although there are no more than just tidbits of evidence on the web that this edition of the Tour Dupont ever existed, I did happen to dig up this Ekimov quote from an article in the Phildelphia Inquirer:
“’I’m very happy today,” Ekimov said. ‘This is my first victory in a time trial. Now if I can control the mountain stages, I can win the race. I can make good climbing in this race.’”
It would be funny to hear Slava interviewed on television in subsequent years, having since become very fluent.
My final memory of that night is, with the party well underway, stumbling past the stage that had been set up for dancing and looking up to see George Hincapie posing for photos with an All Sport babe on each arm. “Heyyyy man!” he shouted and smiled as he pointed to me.
“Hey!” I pointed back. The dude was a rock star! I gotta get me some of that.
Though it would take a little while, the seed was firmly planted.
A year later I would be flipping through channels when I came upon ESPN’s coverage of the Tour de France. I was instantly transfixed as I watched Miguel Indurain drop all his rivals on La Plagne and claw back enough time on the lone break away, Alex Zülle, to save his yellow jersey. I started riding my roommate’s mountain bike that day and began picking up Velonews and Cycle Sport at the newsstand.
Not much came of it until 1997 when, completely burned out on the travel, low pay and long hours, I was mercifully laid off. Within a year I was racing and would go from a pudgy and weak 170+ lbs to a lean and strong 144.
I had been right when I had said to myself a few years before that it looked hard. It is. Despite having run cross county for three years in high school, bike racing would introduce me to a whole new level of pain and suffering. Forget the pro level, this is true even at the weekend warrior level if you don’t train consistently or are not a natural athlete.
But, as I first got a sense of as a spectator in 1994 and have personally experienced many times since, the sacrifice and the hours, day, weeks and months of effort are worth it when you get even the smallest taste of glory–all the little victories in pursuit of The Victory–that the sport can provide when it clicks.
That’s what has been on my mind with the season beginning on Saturday. Now somebody cue the overture.