Lance’s smelly jockstrap and me

February 10, 2012 § 6 Comments

It all started innocently enough. I had joined Twitter a few months back. Then a couple of evenings ago I finally took a look at their “recommendations” about who I should follow. One of the recommendations was Lance.

I clicked on him, just to browse a few of his tweets. From the first tweet, it all came flooding back. Memories as sharp and clear as if it had all happened yesterday. As I scrolled down through the tens, then the hundreds of tweets, I was astounded at how he had changed.

Of course I’ve long known that he had changed since we first met in January of 1991, simply by following the extraordinary course of his life and career. But the ticker tape parade of thoughts and remarks and comments brought out into incredibly stark relief the difference between this world-famous celebrity and the teenager who once tried to sell me the parts off his bike.

His choice of words, his facility with them on Twitter, and his understanding that his words shape the thoughts of others all pointed to the unmistakeable: he is a profoundly intelligent man. If you had told me in 1990 that he was a toweringly bright guy, when the only thing he wanted to know about the girl at the copy shop who I’d had print and bind his resume was whether or not she had big boobs, I would have laughed.

I’m not laughing now.

These memories seared home the fact that he used to be a real person. Before he became a juggernaut, then a superstar, then a metaphor, and now, a post-post modern retired celebrity athlete, promoter, and fundraiser…before all that he was a just a young man with a compelling story and a once-in-a-generation set of genes. I want to share those memories with you, on the off chance that a few of them might actually have happened. I want to share them because whatever you think of Lance, and whatever you’ve read about him, you haven’t read this.

May I?

My intersection with Lance was natural enough. I’m a jock sniffer. Put me around a great athlete, and something warm and fuzzy comes over me. My nose starts tickling. Then twitching. Pretty soon I’m nuzzling around in his jockey strap, snurfling at the sweat, the curly hairs, and the residues of whatever else might be left down in that musty cotton bag.

I can say this with no trace of shame because the chances are excellent that you’re a jocksniffer, too. Go to any bike race and you’ll see a small cluster around the Stud. Watch what happens at major sporting events when ol’ Sweatnglory shows up to receive his plaque. The bigger the star, the more recklessly people will fight to plunge their noses as deeply as they can into the dank ball holder. Sniffers can’t help jocksniffing in the presence of successful athletes. It’s in our genes to genuflect before the hairy one who slew the enemy and paraded around with his head on a pike.

Studly athletes pretend to hold jocksniffers in contempt, and in fact, they do. But they also love them, kind of like the man feels about the “woman” in a men’s prison. Without jocksniffers, the greatest athlete in the world would be just another nut.

When I first caught the faintest whiff of Lance’s jock

I had returned to Austin from an internship with a German law firm in Tokyo to pick up law school where I’d dumped it, unceremoniously, a year and a half before. One of the first calls I made was to Filds, who was running Eurosport over on 32nd Street, where the old Bice Cyclery used to be.

“You back?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“I got a VHS of the world’s in Utsunomiya. That was some course.”

“Yeah, it was awesome. I got to see Delgado, Indurain, Kelly, Lemond, and got to ride in the Spanish team’s car when I took them on a training ride up through Nikko, Kirifuri-kogen, and some other cool places.”

“Did you watch the amateur race?”

“Not really.”

“One of the guys who was in that race lives here. Armstrong. Lance Armstrong. He almost won the fucking race if he hadn’t attacked every single lap.”

“Oh.” I was embarrassed to say that I’d paid no attention to the US amateur team, not at the huge welcoming party with two barbecued cows and a massive fireworks display thrown by the city for the racers down on the Kinugawa River, nor at the reception at the Utsunomiya Grand Hotel, not even at the race itself. I couldn’t have picked Lance out of a crowd of two.

“He’s coming down to the shop tomorrow morning to ride. You been riding?”

“Yeah, somewhat.”

“Well, you should come join us. It will be the hardest ride of your life.”

The path of truth

Whatever Filds was, he was always factual. Midwestern factual. And when it came to “hard” he was something of a connoisseur. When I first got the strange idea that I wanted to race bikes, he introduced me to motor pacing. Dogbait and he shared a 50cc Honda scooter. We’d pedal out of town to the intersection of FM 969 and FM 973, Dogbait would ramp up the scooter, and one of us would sit behind the motor all the way to Webberville, nine very unpleasant miles. In Webberville we’d switch places. Never once did I make it all the way back to FM 973, usually coming off in the last mile.

We came to call that road the Path of Truth. There was no hiding. You either held the motor or you didn’t. Even today when I think about the pain, misery, suffering, and defeat from those sessions, I get tingles up and down my legs. They say your body and mind have the ability to remember pleasure, but to forget pain. “They” have never done the Path in a cold February crosswind at 30 mph trying to find a nonexistent draft behind a tiny scooter.

“Is it going to be harder than the Path of Truth?”

Filds didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

That night I tossed and turned. A beatdown was on its way, that was certain. But how bad a beatdown? Would I finish the ride? Who was Lance Armstrong?

The next morning I rolled down to the shop from my married students’ apartment on Lake Austin Boulevard. I arrived a few minutes early. Lance was there exactly on time. “So you were in Utsunomiya?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Hard race.”

I didn’t know what to say. “It sure looked like it.”

A fourth person started with us, but I don’t remember his name. What I do remember is hitting the bottom of the climb on Lime Creek Road and already feeling like I’d done a 300-mile ride. Simply sitting on Lance’s wheel as he and Filds rode side-by-side took every bit of strength and concentration I could muster. He breezily chatted up the climb as #4 dropped away permanently, and Filds and I struggled to keep the pace. For Lance it was effortless, and he was obviously going slowly so that we could stay together.

On the top we turned right on FM 1431. “Wanna buy these Dura-Ace STI shifters and gruppo?” he asked. “I’m leaving Subaru after I turn pro. I’ll make you a deal.”

“Who are you going to be riding with?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got a contract from Motorola. You’re a lawyer, right? Maybe you could look it over for me?”

“I’m not a lawyer, I’m a law student. I can’t really give you any legal advice.”

“Aw, sure you can. Come over to my place after the ride and look at the contract. You’ll know more about it than I do. Maybe you can tell me if I’m getting a good deal.” Goddamn, he was an optimist, thinking I’d still be alive after the ride.

Somehow I finished it, a mere 60-mile leg stretcher that remains the fastest I’ve ever gone that distance on a bike. I was destroyed. Filds was wrecked. Lance hadn’t yet ridden his bike that day. After he deposited us at the shop he went out for a real ride. I still can’t imagine what one of those is.

The blind leading the partially blind

That afternoon I went over to his apartment on Shoal Creek, just down from the tennis courts there at the intersection of 24th and Lamar. I was struck by how orderly and put together it was. For a nineteen year-old kid, he sure seemed to have clear ideas of how he wanted the world around him to be. It wouldn’t be until I reached my late 40’s that I ever lived in an apartment half as neat as his.

“Here’s the contract.”

I tried to protest again, but he wasn’t interested. I was as close to a lawyer as anyone he knew, and I could tell he liked and trusted me. Well, maybe trusted isn’t the right word. So I read the thing and tried to understand it. As we talked it over I asked, “Can you show me a copy of your race resume?”

“Yeah, sure.” He dug out a three-page typewritten list of results. It was an extraordinary rendition of firsts and seconds in ten-point type that went on and on and on and on.

“Fuck, dude,” I said. “Where are your press clippings?”

“My what?”

“Press clippings. Surely you’ve been written up in the local newspapers.”

He laughed a little. “My mom keeps all that stuff. It’s in Plano.”

“You might be able to negotiate some better terms, or maybe you could get a better offer from a European team. But you’ll need a first-rate bio and nicely bound folder to put your press junk in.” I was thinking a 5-10 page document with his press clippings that summed up who he was, what he’d done, and where he was going.

“I could get you the stuff. I’ll drive back home tomorrow and could have it here the day after. Is that something you can do? I’ll pay you.”

“You don’t have to pay me. Just get me the stuff and I’ll put something together. These results are astounding. People ought to be falling all over themselves to get you on their team. Christ.”

Two days later Lance called. “Hey, man, I’m back. I got the stuff. You want to come over and get it?”

“Sure.” I drove over to his place. I think he had some kind of pale blue Dodge.

“Stuff’s in the trunk.” He opened it. I stared. Then I stared again.

“Fuck, dude. What is that?” The cavernous trunk of the Dodge was filled with a massive stack of newspapers and magazines as long as my arm.

“Those are my press clippings.”

“All that shit is about you?”

He looked at me. Not modestly. Not arrogantly. Matter-of-factly. The way you’d look at someone if you were making them conform to your vision of how the world was going to be. “Yes,” he said.

Big boobs and a whole lotta Rosie

I brought the stack of crap home and embarked on a weeklong project. Every couple of days Lance would call. He was never overtly excited, but it hadn’t escaped my attention that the minute he had seen the value of putting together his press clippings, he’d jumped in the car and driven four hours to Plano. Now that I was working on it, he wanted to know how it was going. He was keeping tabs on the story of his brief athletic life, and on the person in charge of it. Nineteen years old and keeping tabs. How about that?

This, too, made a strange impression on me. I was eight years older. I’d graduated from college. I was enrolled in one of the nation’s top law schools. I was doing this as a favor to a fucking punk bike racer kid. But Lance was in charge. Not rudely, or roughly, and certainly not insultingly. Just unmistakably. In. Charge.

I wound up with the makings for an 8″ x 11″ book, not 5-10 pages, but maybe 100 pages long, chronicling his career. It included magazine covers. Encomiums by sports writers. Terse tales of the swath of destruction he’d left in his wake in every event he’d ever entered. I started to get a sense of the force of nature I’d bumped up against. This wasn’t just any old jockstrap. This might be, I thought, the biggest, gnarliest, sweatiest jockstrap of all time. “For Dog’s sake,” I kept telling myself. “And he’s only fucking nineteen.”

There was a little copy shop just off the corner of Red River and Medical Arts near the law school. I took in the manuscript of clippings and photos and struck up a conversation with the girl running the shop, whose name was Rosie. “This,” I told her, “is the short history of the guy who’s going to be the greatest cyclist this country has ever known.”

Rosie lit up. “Really?” It sounded so dramatic and exciting. She leafed through the pages. “Wow. This is incredible. He’s so good looking.” Then she batted her eyes at me. “Can I meet him?”

I laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The next day I picked up the bound final copy. I’d included an introduction, and had spent some time trying to get it right. Of course, I had gotten it wrong. While leafing through the pages trying to organize it, and getting intoxicated by the scruffy smell of that sweaty old jockstrap, I’d let my creativity run wild. “Lance Armstrong,” I wrote, “is destined to become the greatest cyclist since Eddy Merckx.”

Now I looked at the finished product. “What a pile of shit,” I thought. “This kid’s no Eddy Merckx.”

If it bothered Lance, he didn’t show it. I had made four or five copies, and gave them to him. He leafed through the finished product, carefully. “Thanks.” I could tell he liked it. Then he reached into his wallet and proffered $200. “Here. I said I’d pay you.”

I laughed. “I don’t want your money. Glad to help.”

He smiled back, politely, but his outstretched hand didn’t budge. “I said I’d pay you.”

I felt it again, keenly. He was in charge. He did what he said he was going to do. The world was going to look the way he wanted it to look. I took the money. “The gal at the copy shop was mightily impressed. Said she’d love to meet you.”

His eyes lit up and suddenly he was a 19 year-old kid thinking about pussy. “Big tits? I like bit tits. What’s her name?”

“Rosie. Tits, not so big.”

“I’ll pass,” he said. Firmly. No hesitation. No more curiosity. In charge even when it came to his dick.

What’s in it for me?

The whole thing was a huge distraction. I couldn’t stop thinking about this guy. More to the point, I couldn’t stop doing what everyone else who knew him had been doing, and what the rest of the world would soon be doing, too: trying to figure out how I could make a buck off this prodigy. What I was too stupid to realize, though, was that Lance had long ago understood that others wanted what he had, and that the name of the game was, and would always be, keeping the upper hand from the cheats and the liars and the con men and the sniffers. Especially the sniffers.

As I was struggling with the nascent idea of how to turn him into my own private cash cow and no clear idea about how to do it, he had already developed an effective strategy for handling the the jocksniffing, wannabe leeches like me who surround every person with great athletic talent: give them a whiff,  stay in control, and play them first before they play you. It’s no different from winning a mass start bike race.

At the time there was a new publication, long since defunct, called Texas Cyclist, or maybe it was Texas Bicyclist. I hit upon an idea: pitch an article to them about Lance. I called the editor and they immediately agreed. I called Lance and he was game. The next day I was back at his apartment. Sniffy sniff sniff!!

We talked for about an hour. Some of the things he said I remember with crystal clarity: “When I watch the Tour on TV, I visualize myself winning it.” “I’m a bigger rider, more like a Merckx or an Indurain, so those are the guys I try to emulate.” You know…little things like that. I took a few notes and basked in what was now the full-fledged odor of his steaming jockstrap.

I got home and was giddy from all the sniffing. So I wrote a long, fawning article and threw in a bunch of things he never said, all designed to make him look great and to inject myself into the awesome reality of Lance. I was the fanboy of all fanboys, a grown man with a family and the beginnings of a legitimate career licking the spittle and sniffing the jock of a teenage athlete.

It was not my finest hour, but the final piece was tremendous. The magazine loved it. Lance liked it too, but he saw through the bullshit and the completely fabricated quotes in an instant. He never said anything about it or criticized me for it, but it proved what he’d suggested all along and never had to say: he was the better person. He was in charge.

What’s with the pink?

The next time I talked to Filds he asked if I was going to the Tuesday Nighter out at Nuckols Crossing. “Lance is gonna ride out there with us and do the race.”

“Sure,” I said.

My helmet was just styrofoam with a fabric cover. The fabric cover was gaudy pink. Lance took one look at it and laughed. “What’s with the pink?” For some reason, I’m not sure why, it stung. There’s nothing worse than having your favorite jockstrap make fun of your pink helmet cover.

We got to the course and the race started. For the first lap we sat in the back and chatted. We came through the start/finish and crested the hill. Far off in the distance were two tiny specks. “Are those guys off the front?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “They’re gone. So much for this race.”

He looked at me funny. Without getting out of the saddle, he pushed the pedals harder. In a few seconds he had rocketed off the front, never getting out of the saddle or even appearing to exert himself. I watched him vanish up the road. He caught the breakaway, dropped it, and won the race so far head of the next finishers that it was as if he had been in an entirely different race.

That was the last time we rode together. I may have spoken with him a time or two before I finished law school in May and moved to Japan.

Nuts! Or, the world’s most famous lateral orchiectomy

A couple of years after settling down in the upstairs bedroom of my in-law’s home and beginning what would become an illustrious career as a world-famous English teacher in Japan (“What did you today?” “Do you like music?” “I’m from Texas.”) I heard the big news. Lance had won the world road championships in Oslo, just down the road from Granger. I called his mom in Plano and congratulated her. She told me with excitement and pride about how she got to meet the king of Norway.

A few years later I read about his death sentence, and called Linda again. We spoke briefly, and I told her how much I hoped Lance would pull through. She handed the phone over to her husband, a rather gruff guy. “He’s gonna be just fine. He’s gonna be a-okay.”

“No,” I thought. “He’s going to be dead.” It was a funny feeling, that kid who’d held all the cards and played them so well, never laying down anything but aces, the kid who, before he was twenty already knew how the world was going to look, dead from cancer before he ever reached thirty.

We all know how that story ended. He pulled seven aces out of his ass and won the biggest bike race seven times in a row. And then on Friday of last week, he plunked down another one. Still in charge. Still playing the jocksniffers before they play him. Still shitting aces.

He’s a lot more complicated than he was in 1991, but that residual admiration, that lingering aroma of the jock, that primal bowing of the head before the chieftain…there’s something there that won’t ever go away, at least for me. I’ve sat on the wheel, suffered a beatdown by one of the greatest riders ever, and finished the fucking ride. Forget that he never broke a sweat.

If you’ve ever read Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, you’ll get why the smell overpowers the rational brain and makes us, once again, reptiles.

So as far as my Lance predictions go, I have a lifetime batting average of .500: greatest cyclist since Eddy Merckx, check. Dead from cancer…not so much.

Last night I was at Cynergy Cycles in Santa Monica, and who should walk in to buy a tire but Tom Danielson. He hung around for a few minutes and chatted with us old farts. He is personable, engaging, and a world class athlete, and after we prodded him he told us a few tales about some of the climbing records he has set. His tale about breaking Lance’s record on the Madone outside of Nice by forty seconds had us hanging on every word.

And I couldn’t help thinking as my nose perked up…”What’s that smell?”

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