I was on the e-bike today, watching Lance Armstrong ride the Grand St. Bernard and Petit St. Bernard climbs, two of the toughest in the 2009 Tour de France. Watching the best climbers in the world–and Lance was still one of them at age 37–was very inspiring to this would-be athlete who labors on much lesser hills. Their efforts keep me inspired to push those pedals to toughen up both my legs and my stamina. In major races the climbs can go on for 5 to 10 miles, almost relentlessly upward with barely a pause to allow a rider to catch his breath.
What makes Lance a great rider at 37–and he promises to be better in this second year of his “comeback” at 38–is his unparalleled self-discipline. So last July he was still gaunt, barely any flesh on his cheeks or face, healthy by the obverse standards of cyclists with 4% body fat, a standing heart rate of about 40, low blood pressure, trying to keep pace with riders ten years younger and override the inexorable truth that with each passing year the body loses some of its efficiency in extracting oxygen from the air and distributing it to the muscles. The only way to improve physically over time is better training, bringing one’s body closer to its absolute maximum potential. I was able to do that for about ten years from the time I began to ride seriously, about 12 years ago. Now I am at a kind of plateau, and need/want to push the “peak efficiency” envelope a bit harder.
At the end of the race stage I watched yesterday, Lance had struggled with this toll of age, but had risen heroically to finish close behind the eventual race winner. He was in second place overall in the race, about 2:20 behind. He ended up finishing third, the oldest man ever to stand on the podium in Paris at the end of the Tour. What motivates him? Can it motivate mere mortals like us? One one level, my motivation might be the fear of not riding, the resulting diminution of strength and energy, the onset of aches and pains, that I feel when I am off training for even two weeks. But it’s not really fear at all. It’s knowing how good it is to ride, to have control of my direction, to feel free to decide where to go and how to get there, to understand how to manage the stability of the ride as well as its attendant instabilities. Lance once said metaphorically that he’d like to ride as long as he could, and at the end of it all to ride into a green field and just lie there. Me too.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010