Since the Tour De France is about to start, there is no better time than to tell my Tour De France Champions story.
It was May of 1999. Lance Armstrong was sponsoring a local bike tour as fundraiser for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. I think it started in 1997, but 1999 was huge because Lance was just back on the bike back from beating Cancer and heading for the Tour De France. My buddy Randy Wallis and I went down to Austin to participate. The bike tour has evolved into the Livestrong Challenge.
On Friday, there was a criterium. Randy and I walked around and watched the pros warm up in their tents. The mad house around Lance pales in comparison to what you will see in July of this year in France, but it was amazing nonetheless. We never got close. I did run up to Frankie Andreu, had a rather awkward fan moment and got his autograph. While we were walking around, we also saw Sean Kelly and Greg Lemond.
The crits were awesome. The level of talent at each level was amazing. We befriended a Dad from El Paso whose son was racing. I do not remember his name, but I named the his son El Paso at the time. El Paso was a really strong Hispanic kid and finished in the top 10 of his class. A member of my cycling club was doing the Masters race, looked over, saw the national championship jersey at the start, and he figured the race was already over.
The pro crit went as expected Lance broke away with two spares with about 20 minitues to go. Frankie and the rest of U.S. Postal team blocked. Frankie eventually rode a way from the chase group on a nice solo to finish fourth. Lance took his first victory on the way back to the Tour.
Saturday morning of the Ride for the Roses was a mad house. Everyone was crowding to the front to ride with Lance. I am not sure how, but Randy found a way to fish us to the front. We watched Christine Armstrong (Mrs. Armstrong at the time) sing the National Anthem, with the Tobi Miller from The Wallflowers playing the guitar.
The start was a cluster. Everyone trying to ride with Lance and Lemond. I got pretty close, but their was a wreck from someone crashing into a traffic control device. It was the rolling hills of Austin and the pace was killing me. (I was in pretty darn good shape then) I rode up to Frankie but was breathing to hard to even say a word. Plus he was chatting with Lemond like they were sitting on the couch. Randy was still up there and I gave it up. I could not handle the Austin hills.
I pulled into the twenty-mile rest stop to fill my water bottles and found Randy and another cycling buddy Sammy. I said, “Let’s go” and Randy turned to me and said,
“I’m waiting on Big Mig” and pointed to a Spaniard. I look over and there is five time Tour De France Champion Miguel Indurain, hanging out next to El Paso. Mig said something to El Paso in Spanish and they saddled up. Randy, Sammy and I jumped into the group
It became clear the Mig did not want to leave El Paso, because he was the only one who could speak Spanish. I informed El Paso that he could not drop us, so that we could stay with Mig. We kept a good pace and even rotated. One time Randy was coming off the front and said, “Don’t crash, Miguel Indurain is on your wheel”. I also remembered being behind Indurain and watching his lungs expand three times more than I could ever dream about.
Midway through the ride I came upon former Olympian and Team Motorola Manager Jim Ochowicz; Jim rode in the ‘72 and ‘76 Olympics. As I rode next to him I asked how he was doing. He responded, with difficulty, “I…am…dying…! I haven’t ridden this far in months”. That was a big boost for me as I found someone who was hurting more than me.
We caught Sean Kelly and he joined the group. It was fun hearing an Irishman yelling in Spanish at Mig about the pace. As we reached Austin at the end of the ride, I had to inform Sean that in Texas we do not lean on pickup trucks at stoplights, they have guns. He did not seem to think I was serious, but did stop the practice.
We finished the ride strong and I shook Mig’s and Kelly’s hand and thanked them for the ride. I remember loading up my little red Rodeo with my bike with Sammy was ranting that all the training we had done in our life was worth this ride.
I still agree.