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At least half of France leaps out of sofas and chairs as it watches this on television. The other half listens on radio. The Pyrenees’ human tunnel goes berserk. Lance and Jan are assaulted by an unending cacophony of screaming. Beethoven didn’t write more inspiring music.
The three men race. This is history! Incredible! They don’t know if they’ll win, but they know if they don’t come through now they’ll surely lose.
The miles fly by in this 99 mile stage. They’re on the final climb, the Luz-Ardiden ascent. Only eight miles left. Never, never has there been a stage packed with such drama. It’s the seventh game, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, down by three, full count. Times ten. With 300,000 people out of the stands packing the field.
Lance catches Ullrich! Mayo on his tail. Lance passes Ullrich with Mayo still on his tail! How can they even think with all these people in their faces? It’s insane! Lance banks into a right hand turn, Mayo so close he can lick Lance’s rear tire. People can’t stop themselves from reaching out to wave or shake their fists. An arm, a yellow bag, catches on Lance’s right brake lever. Bam! Lance smashes to the ground! Mayo crashes on top of him! This can’t be happening! Unreal! Ullrich veers, misses them by inches, maybe not that much. Lance looks up. Holding the yellow bag is a little kid. A KID FOR CRIPES SAKE! A kid destroys the greatest race in history? Say it ain’t so, Lance!
Miraculously unhurt after slamming into the pavement, thereby proving God’s existence, Lance leaps back on his bike, Mayo mirroring his move. Dozens of riders pass them as they fumble back on the saddle.
Something snaps inside Lance. He now pedals like a madman. He explodes. Too fast, maybe, because his foot slips off the pedal. His crotch painfully slams into the handlebar post and he falters, begins to fall along with Mayo, close as a shadow. Not a second fall! Unbelievably, they both recover.
Ullrich is way ahead, now guaranteed today’s victory and almost certainly the Tour victory. He’ll garner fame and millions of dollars. But what’s this? Ullrich, sits up and slows down. He’s waiting for Lance! Even at the risk of finishing second for a fifth time and seeing Lance finish first for a fifth time. But Ullrich doesn’t want to win because a kid’s handbag tripped Lance. That would dishonor him. And the Tour, especially this 15th stage, is about the aspiration and celebration of the soul. Piss on the money, the yellow jersey, the trophy, the fame. I want to win honest race. Let’s go, Lance, you and me, to the wire.
Ullrich’s steely face and cold blue eyes have let the others in the pack know they’d damn well better slow and wait, too. If they don’t … Jan will think less of them. Wouldn’t want that. They slow.
Lance pedals like an avenging angel. Blood coats his injured arm, his lips are chapped, his face dark with grime. He wears the countenance of unsparing determination. His face is both beautiful and frightening in its naked, savage intensity.
He overtakes Ullrich. Impossible. But there it is. Ullrich gives it his all, but the seconds stretch out. Lance is a full minute ahead. Lance catches up with leader Chavanel, gives the French youngster a quick hug while pedaling full blower to let him know he’s honored the Tour by riding so fast for so long. Then he speeds off to win. Wow. Wow!
MERE WORDS MAKE THE EXPERIENCE sound trite, but truly there is something spiritual about climbing to the summit of a mountain. You’ve pushed your body, your heart is jackhammering into your ribs, you know you’ll die in moments. But you look out and down. Your feet are on top of the world and your face is touching heaven. It will be okay to die. It will be worth this moment.
We’re all climbing the Luz-Ardiden ascent on the 15th stage of the 100th Tour de France, wanting to brush our faces against heaven. Six thousand miles away, even I climb the mountain with them, albeit via live Internet text updates at five in the morning.
We’re all climbing mountains, every man and woman of us. Our bodies despair, the mist is thick, handbags will trip us, our place at the finish line is uncertain. Yet we cheer ourselves on, seeking to practice determination and courage and honor. The epic 15th Stage of the 100th Tour de France is our perfectly polished mirror. We look damn good in it.
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