TAKEN FOR A RIDE: Chasing a Young Lance Armstrong
READ A BONUS EXCERPT HERE
I headed to the tiny Pennsylvania outpost of Altoona in 1992 to cover the U.S. Olympic Cycling Trials for the Orange County Register and keep a close eye on riders from our circulation area in Southern California.
It didn't take long to realize the spotlight of the Trials focused on a young rider from Texas, Lance Armstrong.
As first meetings go, ours was not the most cordial. Still, it set the tone for a close professional relationship that lasted for the next eight years as I covered Lance whenever he raced in the United States.
This book takes a look back at those days and the young Lance Armstrong, before and after cancer.
But more than anything, this is a memoir about life as a journalist and the delicate balance between ethics and reality. Lance and I were both headstrong individuals hellbent on being the best at what we do, and that often proved to be a toxic mix.
HERE IS THE EXCERPT:
What I’d also heard from my local riders was how the whole Olympic Trials had been tailor made to make certain that Lance was on the Olympic Team. There would be two qualifying races to earn one of the three slots on the Olympic team. Points would be awarded for both races, best total wins. If he failed in the first race, the second race was a more brutal course with a long, grueling climb, only to increase his chances of winning. If he failed in both, he could be one of the two Coach’s Selection. The chances of seeing an Olympic team line up in Barcelona without Lance would be virtually impossible.
In the year leading up to the Olympics, Lance, Darren Baker and Bobby Julich were the chosen ones on the U.S. Team, who raced internationally under coach Chris Carmichael. So the dream scenario would be for Lance to win the berth, and allow the Coach’s Selections to be Baker and Julich to give Carmichael his well-oiled machine in Barcelona. With those three spending most of the season racing with Carmichael in Europe and their entire training focused on success at the Trials, it looked like a tough nut to crack. This was especially true for a fourth member of that team, a veteran, Bob Mionske. He knew Carmichael preferred to have his young steeds in Barcelona. Bob’s goal was to make it impossible for anyone to keep him off that team.
Since this scheme had an impact on the racers I covered, I had to keep a close eye on it. Did Lance come to Altoona to prove he would live up to the hype that surrounded him? Or did he come to slide on cruise control, confident his slot had been nailed down. Again, the real beauty of cycling for me came from the free-for-all environment that allows a journalist to be a journalist. There were no gates, no fences, no sports information directors looking to get in my way. It was wide open, and the perfect stage for anything to happen. A playground for me to dig at my heart’s content. That’s how Lance and I first met.
In the first of two qualifying races to earn slots on the Olympic Team, Lance slipped into a strong early breakaway with Baker and Mionske, and it stuck. A late attack by a surprise entry animated the race and set up the final battle. Not many folks knew much about Marty Jemison, a rider from Utah who had spent most of the past year or so racing in Europe. He certainly wasn’t on Lance's list of contenders to keep an eye on. When we asked Carmichael who that was, he just shrugged his shoulders. When the final selection was made, and a small group raced toward the finish line, Marty did his best to continue attacking to get away. We watched from a distance in the press van. Without question, Marty animated the race. He was the most aggressive. Each time Lance shut him down like a playground bully, chasing Marty down and bringing the group back together. Then, quite strangely to my way of thinking, Lance didn't respond when his buddy Chann McRae, whom he had known since junior high school, escaped up the road all alone. Did I mention this was for the U.S. National Championship? The chance to wear the stars and stripes jersey for the next year?
I suppose if I had to grab one image from the past six weeks to take with me for eternity, it would be Sunday evening.
With the late afternoon light casting a tone of serenity and, well, pure love, over a sand bar and the quietly rolling Merced River deep in the heart of Yosemite, my three girls stand on the banks bouncing anxiously.
Coming from a pure sports background — not to mention Wisconsin, the home of Titletown USA, Vince Lombardi and his famous "Winning isn't everything" quote — I found this tactic quite odd. What I loved most about cycling coverage is that I could get right to the source and get comments from athletes while their heart-rates were still buzzing and their veins pulsing with adrenaline. It was nothing like interviewing someone drinking a beer at his locker or sitting in a press conference after a shower. The most recent example of what you get from an athlete at this time came from Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks, who created a nationwide firestorm with his emotionally charged comments after the NFC Championship game in January 2014. Pure emotion. There’s nothing like it.
So I rushed to the area where Lance's team car was assembled, and ambushed an exhausted rider. He hadn’t stopped rolling on his bike, which would become my trademark in races Lance competed in the USA. I was always the first running at his side. I introduced myself quickly. I’m John Rezell, from The Orange County Register, I said, noticing that no one else with a press credential was anywhere to be seen. I didn’t mince words. I said, in the final miles you chased down everyone who attacked, but when Chann went up the road, you let him go. Did your friendship have anything to do with your decision?
It would be the first time I saw Lance’s glare. I came to learn it's the look he gives when you’ve challenged the world according to Lance. For reporters, that meant he's not going to answer the question because, well, just about everything that pours from his mouth is the God's honest truth of how Lance Armstrong interprets the world and he's pretty certain you won't buy what he selling. So screw you. No comment. Instead you get the glare. For the young Lance Armstrong there wasn’t a right way or a wrong way. An accepted way or unaccepted way. There’s simply Lance’s way. Rather than lie or make up some shit, he passed. It was his way of staying true to himself. He just glared. He looked at me, as if I had broken the code of the cycling Gods to even ask such a loaded question. He looked at me as if to shout, "Do you know who I am?" I didn't flinch. I waited for an answer. I could see his eyes working overtime trying to make sense of my tactic. I could sense immediately he mastered the art of intimidation — for those who can be intimidated. He dripped of confidence he’d win this little game. He kept firing dirty looks at me followed with the long glare.
I fired back a look that said, as I tilted my head like a curious dog, we can sit here all day if we have to. In my mind I laughed at the situation, which probably means my smirk appeared. If it did, I’m sure that pissed him off more. I thought, listen, son, I’ve been stared down by pro athletes — real stars, not an allegedly rising one. Certainly not a kid like you. We hit a stalemate. He began climbing off his bike hoping, it seemed, for me to just leave. I wasn’t going anywhere. He took his helmet off, wiped his sunglasses and put them back on. Finally, he said that Chann just made a great move and he didn't have enough left to chase him. It's the cycling cliche that's equivalent to a pitcher who walked in the winning run or a basketball player missing a free throw saying, "It just wasn't my day." A copout.
It would be the first time Lance saw my glare. The glare that told him, okay dude, I'll write it down in my reporter's notebook because you said it, but don't think for one moment that I'm buying the crap you're shoveling. He looked me over and shook his head as if to say, "Who the hell are you?"
Lance, Raz. Raz, Lance. Glad to meet ya.
Eventually I stayed with him long enough to get a decent quote. He admitted that, yes, anyone else in a Saturn team jersey would have been chased down. Chann was a different story. That he revealed it to me told me volumes. First, he did believe in loyalty and friendship, which he showed in rewarding Chann. He believed in it enough to allow the glory of a National Championship to be enjoyed by someone else. He didn’t have to win everything. He wasn’t just a ball hog. He did have to know that he determined who won and who didn’t, being king and all. Second, more important to me, he rewarded my perseverance. Some athletes wouldn't have even noticed. Or emphatically told me what to do to myself.