His face was drained of all colour. The eyes beneath the helmet were bloodshot, his heart was pounding so heavily through his vest that you could hear it and his legs, which usually make the pedals go round a hundred times a minute, were struggling to do half the pace. The bicycle beneath him, almost always an extension of his arms and legs, swayed tanatlisingly.
I just could not believe the sight before my eyes as Lance [Armstrong] came into view on Col de Joux-Plane, the final tough ascent on the Tour de France, that on the evening of July 18, 2000. The man who had scripted an amazing comeback from cancer to win the Tour the previous year seemed like a zombie and was close to throwing away the handy lead he had built up now.
In all my years of knowing him, I have never seen him in such poor shape. He wasn’t so pale-faced when the doctors told him about testicular cancer that he had ignored for six months and it had spread rampantly. Or when they performed successive surgeries on him. Or even, when they served him high doses of painful chemotherapy treatment.
After the neurosurgeons removed two lesions from his brain, the oncologists had to tackle a ‘snowstorm’ of tumours in his lungs. He refused to rule out cycling again, so they used a chemotherapy treatment that wouldn’t scorch his lungs. He received such intensive doses of a drug that, by the fourth round, it began to dissolve his muscles and burn his skin from the inside.
If it hurt him at any of those times, he did not let any of us know. But today, on Col de Joux-Plane, he was neither acting – as cyclists are sometimes wont to in their bid to lull the opposition – nor attempting to mask the hurt, as athletes are wont to at times when they do not want their rivals to know.
I got the horrible feeling that Lance’s body was running out of fuel. Christ! Was he bonking? Was it glycogen depletion that he was always so careful about avoiding? Anyone who knew long-distance cycling would understand how the human body can burn carbohydrate (glycogen) or fat. To get energy out of fat takes a lot of oxygen (twice as much as carbohydrate). Was he blowing it up, hitting the wall or otherwise expiring in mid-ride?
It hurt me to see him hurting so badly. A dark thought crossed my mind. Would Lance, the strong-hearted, do the inconceivable and give up? Would he blow the chances of retaining the Yellow Jersey? Instinctively, I got off the roadside and ran alongside the man we all love so much.
“Go, go, go, go, go!” I screamed as I ran uphill beside him, encouraging him, desperately willing him not to give up. I had done miles of cycling with Lance and our friend John ‘College’ Korioth in Texas but I was not prepared for this jog-sprint uphill on a French mountainside. Worse, I was not sure if the great man was hearing me at all, let alone acknowledge me reassuringly.
I do not know how long my feet kept pace with Lance’s staggering bike but when he still had some 13 kilometers left for the end of the stage, the pitch of the mountainside got the better of me and I had to give up. He still needed to climb for a kilometer or so before completing the 11.8km final ascent before he could sag on the handlebars and coast down the slope to the finish.
Towards the end of the climb, a small group of riders, including Christophe Moreau joined Lance and showed amazing spirit in nursing him to the top and then through the 12km descent in pursuit of the leaders.
Even as Lance ducked across the finish line at the end of the stage past Col de Joux-Plane, my lungs were bursting for want of air but heart was bursting with pride. I knew if anyone deserved to stay in the race and the chance to win the Tour, it was Lance. Amazingly, he finished just over two minutes behind the stage winner Richard Virenque. And, just over 97 seconds behind his closest rival Jan Ullrich. He still held a 5:37 lead. Thank Heavens for that!
We discovered later that Lance had felt so good just before the final climb that chose not to eat anything. It was an amateurish mistake that could have cost him the Tour. Five days later, Lance made it to the finish at Champs-Elysees in Paris as a repeat winner of the Tour de France.
I am not sure I am worthy of such praise as Lance accorded me in a moving reference to the scene at Col de Joux-Plane in his book, Every Second Counts. I only backed my instinct, followed my heart and did what came naturally to me at the moment of time. A true friend is someone who is around on the worst days. It was easy to see Lance was having one of those.
It is hard not to love a friend like Lance. He does so much for cancer – pleads for more government funds to be allotted to cancer research, meets patients and, even if his modesty does not let him agree, inspires them to fight back against the dreaded C.
A few days later, someone thrust a photograph into my hands. It was a freeze frame of a feeble Lance with me sprinting alongside on Joux-Plane. I did not want to keep it, a reminder of bursting lungs and aching legs. Instead, I signed it for the champion. “Lance, we’ve been to a lot of places…Please, let us not go there again, OK?”
The piece has been written from Bart Knaggs’ perspective. Lance Armstrong’s friend and business partner, Knaggs is familiar with battles against cancer. His father is a cancer survivor and his brother, David, is battling Leukemia. Knaggs has himself donated bone marrow twice in his brother’s fight to survive cancer.
If you want to read Lance Armstrong’s account of the drama on Joux-Plane, find a copy of his book [Every Second Counts, Lance Armstong with Sally Jenkins, Yellow Jersey Press, 2003]. It makes for gripping, inspirational reading, even if his first book It’s not about the Bike [Berkley Trade, 2001] deals with his battle against cancer.