Thursday, July 02, 2009

Le Tour

In France, those two words stand for one of the most important events on the French calendar: The Tour of France.

The 2009 Tour begins Saturday, July 4. Rather fitting, as America's hopes in this event have been given a kick in the butt by the return of Lance Armstrong.

It's a bit over the top to say, as Mike Paterniti claims in Bicycling Magazine this month, that a victory by Lance Armstrong this year would help lift America out of its doldrums.

But Paterniti does make a pretty compelling case for Armstrong-as-hero (right down to his name). America is a bit down, and listless, and looking for some good news. She's feeling old, and has lost some innocence. The Bush years took care of the delusion that America is somehow always in the right, that America is some sort of Superman, doing right without doing much harm.

Not only didn't we do right, we did harm.

Lance Armstrong retired in 2005 after seven Tour De France wins, the premier event of the elite cycling circuit, and while cycling as a sport in America is a very small niche (everyone rides, so everyone wonders how hard it can be), Lance's pile of victories has him among the best known men in America.

And Armstrong's very public life apart from racing (the Kate Hudsons, the Sheryl Crows, the Ashley Olsens) and his character (rumours of doping, his nasty divorce from his first wife, his rude engagement and dissolution to Sheryl Crow, his impregnating a woman who is not his wife yet) have taken some of the glow off his luster.

And then there's cancer and the Livestrong movement.

In short, Armstrong at 37 is at a crossroads in his life, just as America is sat trying to figure out which way to turn next.

Like America on 9/11, Armstrong has risen from his own devastation to greatness, to be even greater than he was before his tragedy. America looks to do that, as well. We've just been scared, brutalized into terror first by the attacks, and then by eight years of being told the other shoe was about to drop.

All this is just a backdrop now to the very real threats to our personal security, our jobs, our homes and our retirements.

America needs heroes. It's no surprise to me that, in the years since 9/11, we've turned to television programs like Smallville or Friday Night Lights or indeed Heroes, looking for our heroes, someone to swoop in and save us.

Can Armstrong be that hero? I doubt it, because America doesn't have the day-to-day attention span such that even if he were to somehow break out of the pack and chase down Alberto Contador or Carlos Sastre or Denis Menchov or any of the half-dozen other serious contenders, America would really find the story gripping and compelling.

All most Americans would do is shrug as Lance stood on the podium in Paris in three weeks.

But that doesn't mean he shouldn't try. He's accomplished some pretty incredible feats in his day:

Lance has mentioned that he's riding this race to highlight the battle against cancer, that he's content with being a domestique for one of his teammates, Alberto Contador, or Levi Leipheimer, possibly Andreas Kloden, a support rider who helps build his captain to a victory. And it's easy to see why.

At age 37, riding in a race no man over 35 has ever won and only one or two have even won a single day's racing, Lance doesn't need the weight of a team's hopes, much less a nation's hopes, on his shoulders.

And yet, by sheer dint of will, it's possible he may pick that weight up and carry it with him down the Champs d'ElyseƩ.

In 1980, an improbable bunch of college kids and minor league hockey players gelled together to defeat the greatest hockey team on the planet, and went on to win the gold medal in Lake Placid.

So, do you believe in miracles?