On vacation with Lance Armstrong

The beach, the bikes and the crash waiting for us all

October 24, 2012|Susan Reimer

For a while there, we vacationed with Lance Armstrong every summer.

And Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis. All the boys.

They'd be in France, of course, while we were at the shore in Delaware. But the nasal British drone of Phil Liggett calling the Tour de France was as much the soundtrack of those vacations as the muffled rumble of the waves. The mountain vistas and the lovely little towns of France as recognizable as our ocean sunrises and our favorite shops and restaurants.

We would adopt one of Mr. Liggett's favorite sayings, such as "He will have to dig deep into his suitcase of courage," and we would toss it at each other like a beach ball, laughing.

My husband's brother Dan and my son Joseph would ride out every day on their impossibly narrow and expensive road bikes, inspired by what they saw on television. They rode 50 miles and more in the July heat, piling up hundreds of miles in a week. They would return, their top-flight riding gear streaked with the dried salt of their sweat, cheeks red around the rims of their racing sunglasses.

My nephew Rudy was a baby during the early Tours, but he was riding with his dad and his cousin by the time Lance Armstrong had won his seventh, retired, and returned to riding again. I think Rudy's first complete sentence was, "The boys are screaming," mimicking the pain of the men.

My husband would ride out, too. Each year, he increased the distances he would travel, solitary and into the ocean wind, though he would never match the younger guys. They girls went to the beach while I stubbornly went to water aerobics and yoga, ignoring my bike. I was mad at Lance for dumping his wife for Sheryl Crow.

And on the television in our condo, the Tour played all day, and then replayed into the night.

Inspired, Dan and Joseph took their bikes to the mountains of Maryland and West Virginia, riding in 24-hour endurance races, flying through woods and over rocky patches and climbing monster hills. They were lucky if the moon lit their way at night.

We camped at these races. The girls wandered off, my husband kept the fire banked, and we cooked over the Coleman stove for the guys as they came in off the course. We made pots full of rice and meat through the night, under the hissing light of a propane lantern.

They would eat and grab a couple hours of sleep and mount their bikes for another circuit on the forbidding mountain trails. Dan and Joe referred to us as domestiques, the term used for the team that catered to Lance and his boys during the Tour.

Like I said, I was angry with Mr. Armstrong for abandoning the monastic life on his bike for a celebrity girlfriend. But even I was caught up in the story of his remarkable resurrection from cancer. And I believed his explanation — that his training regimen made his body such an inhospitable place that cancer could not survive there.

I was so in the thrall that when his ad for Nike appeared — "I'm on my bike six hours a day. What are you on?" — I got chills. When my own newspaper editorialized against him in August, after he announced that he would no longer fight the accusations of substance abuse, I called the editors on it.

"How is it that a man can be guilty of doping without failing a single test? If they are going to base it on the testimony of others, why are they testing at all? Why not say, 'Henceforth we will base our decisions on the testimony of others?'"

Now we know that Mr. Armstrong did something far worse than cheat. He used his power to force the members of his team to cheat, too.

His fall adds to this season of grief for my family.

My husband was a student, shooting baskets on the court outside his Penn State University dorm, when Joe Paterno walked by on his way home shortly after he was named head football coach. "Good luck with the new job," my husband called to him.

All these years later, he reported for another newspaper on the fall of the man for whom that boy on the bike is probably named, although he would never tell me for sure why Joseph was his first choice.

I asked Dan how he was taking the news of Mr. Armstrong's fall from grace, and although he didn't defend him or deny the charges against him, he sounded like somebody who still believed.

"I do not feel any sense of betrayal, and he is still a source of inspiration," Dan wrote to me. "It isn't up to me to judge him. I give him a pass and wish him luck dealing with what is going to come his way in the months and years that lie ahead."

"Go back to a time when you were happy about Armstrong," my husband told his brother, and I thought immediately of those summers at the beach during the Tour de France.

"And just stay there."

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @Susan Reimer on twitter.com

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