The French have a saying: les pensées d’escalier, “thoughts on the stairs,” or in America, we say, “what I shoudda said.” Usually the perfect comeback doesn’t come to you until you’re leaving the event—in your overcoat on the stairwell—and it can do you no good. The witty riposte that surfaces fills you with regret. Alas, I had one of these experiences recently at a meet and greet for Lance Armstrong. He was scheduled to speak at the Ride for Roswell, a fundraiser for Western New York’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute, held at the University at Buffalo. I stationed myself by the exit and hung there meaning to catch Armstrong after he’d received congratulations for his talk and inspiration. That clever strategy set me up for a les pensées d’escalier in reverse. Handlers chose to enter via the exit door instead, and before I knew it, one of the planet’s most famous athletes had me by the hand. All I could think to burble before he moved on to the second star-struck fan was, “Lance…wow!”
Now, I insist that I’m entitled to awe in this case. Here before me stood the seven-time consecutive winner of the grueling 4,000-kilometer Tour de France. And need I add that he racked these up after he had survived stage III testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen, brain, and lungs?
During his address to the arena-sized crowd, the champion reiterated his famous claim that though he would, of course, never want to experience the disease and protracted treatment for it again, cancer itself had focused his singular drive and enabled his outsized achievement. He did not ascribe his success to larger forces outside himself; in fact, no one who listened to his witty and fascinating banter that night would label him humble or require humility of him. The disease had called Armstrong to action and required of him a commitment to excellence and all that entailed—a superhuman training regime while fending off the thought of relapse, pulling together the ragtag polyglot U.S. Postal team, fathering five children when fertility had been in doubt, and embracing the drawbacks and rewards of fame. The last included the sale of 84 million Livestrong bracelets at a dollar apiece (colored yellow for the maillot jaune he wore seven times on the podium on the Champs Élysées) and his donation of the proceeds to the Lance Armstrong Foundation that supports research programs, leverages legislative initiatives, and provides patient guidance and empowerment.
I wanted to ask this intense man, who had competed in his first triathlon at age twelve, about drive and play, competition and playfulness—were they compatible? He’d mentioned play only once in his book It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. Could he preserve a light-hearted sense amid all the demands made upon him and all those that he placed on himself? (During his address, Armstrong casually mentioned a 14 mile tune-up run he’d taken along the Niagara that afternoon.) I wanted to ask when play needed to be playful.
While standing at the podium that night, Armstrong invited the audience to tweet their questions. And so, given a second chance, I typed in to my cell phone, “Mr. Armstrong, are you at play when you’re riding? Is riding play for you?” With an average of 68,000 incoming messages per month to field, I had no hope he’d be able to answer.
But I held hope that he might mention the period just after dropping out of the Paris-Nice race in March, 1998. His treatment had ended, but he was unable to attract a sponsor. Armstrong considered giving up racing. In response, Armstrong’s coach arranged for the despondent competitor to ride for eight days in the hills of North Carolina alongside the one and only Bob Roll, a champion racer (he has since become famous as the wacky commentator for the American television broadcast of the Tour de France). Roll, a serious man, despite his comic small screen image, concluded, “Lance had probably never met a bike racer like me, a person who could still find some happiness in such misery.” During that impromptu “training camp” and sodden by continual, torrential rain, the future champion found a turning point.
I found my answer in Roll’s memoir Bobke II: The Continuing Misadventures of Bob Roll. The sidekick and comedy therapist recorded how he rode Armstrong for a week of non-stop practical jokes and hijinks, much of it at the expense of the local hill people who mistook the duo for undercover “revenuers.” Lance said of that week, “I probably lost as much body fat from laughing as from riding.”Afterward Roll noted a change and laid down a challenge to skeptics and reluctant team sponsors. “There’s a twister comin’,” Roll wrote of Armstrong’s revival, “brewing up from deep in the heart of Texas, advising all freaky-deaky, kookie-pukie, dipped-in-dung road hogs, to tighten down your ratchet buckles. What the human body is capable of cannot be theorized in text books and lab data.” Eighteen months later, back on top of the world, Lance Armstrong had won his first Tour de France.