On this day in 1999, Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France. It was the first of what would be seven consecutive victories for Armstrong in the most difficult and magnificent bike race in the world. At the time, I was a fanatical cyclist; I shaved my legs and everything. And I had followed Armstrong’s career from the early years, when his was the name everyone knew, when he was this incredibly gifted, brash kid (Must all Texans be described as “brash”?) who later would win a World Championship and two Tour stages. He was going to be the next Greg Lemond.
Then he got cancer, which very nearly killed him. And I, like most everyone else paying attention, assumed he was finished as professional bike racer, a gig widely regarded as among the most physically demanding pursuits in the world of sports.
So it was that the 1999 Tour became such a transcendent moment — and not just for cycling fans. Armstrong dominated the race by winning each of the three time trials — as well as another stage — and holding serve throughout the rest of the Tour. Still, the two pre-race favorites, Germany’s Jan Ullrich and Italy’s Marco Pantani, weren’t there because of injury and doping respectively, allowing some critics to contend that Armstrong hadn’t beaten the best in the world. It also wasn’t Armstrong’s most artful win. In later years, he would add poetry to his repertoire, becoming a world-class climber and demolishing his competition in the mountains as well as in the more prosaic time trials. But how he won in 1999 hardly mattered at all. Having just beaten cancer, Armstrong became far more than an athlete; the media and his fans, myself included, saw him as symbol of hope and courage.
Looking back, in light of all that has happened since, I can’t help but wonder if Armstrong was clean at the time. Which, given that he never once tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs — despite all of the allegations and dirt around him — seems a bit unfair. Regardless, although most American probably think of Barry Bonds or José Canseco or Mark McGuire when they think of drugs in sports, my mind drifts to more obscure names: Pantani, Virenque, Basso, and Landis.
I have very few hobbies, fewer still as I age. I used to love music and follow the scene avidly. I even went to work in the industry after graduating from college. But now I barely find time to listen to anything other than the occasional Dan Zanes CD when I drive. Even then, I’d choose NPR, but my son enjoys singing along with “Hello, Hello.” And I enjoy it when my son sings. So he sings. And I drive and listen to him. And the thousands of CDs I have in a cabinet at home gather dust.
Sports, also, used to be a passion of mine. These days, though, I barely pay attention to my favorite teams, much less the arcana filling the back pages of the sports section that I once pored over every morning. And during the past couple of years, I haven’t even followed the day-to-day drama of the Tour. I have no idea precisely why, but my alienation from these things that I once loved — songs that, when I hear them, I realize are the soundtrack of my memories, and the sports that once marked the passage of seasons for me — makes me sad and nostalgic. And not because I think that my youth was a golden age, especially not when it comes to sports. Professional athletes never were pure. Cycling always was a sport plagued by drug scandals. I’m also savvy enough to understand the argument that I think of as the Modified Haraway: that “nature” and “natural” are ephemeral concepts; that people have been altering their bodies, in one way or another, for a very long time; that the latest performance-enhancing drugs may be useful tools, another step on a long march toward entirely refashioning ourselves through the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies. To which I say, fine. Or, perhaps, I don’t really know.
But on this day, I’d like to remember Lance Armstrong for having accomplished the impossible in 1999. Failing that, I’d like to recall all the good he has done since then, acts far more admirable than winning even the most grueling bike race. But it’s hard to do that. Because when I think of Armstrong, I keep conjuring a lineup of disgraced former champions from throughout the world of sports. And that rogue’s gallery makes me wonder if what he achieved in 1999 actually was impossible.