Coastline Pilot/LA TIMES
30 July 2004
Chasing the Muse
By Catharine Cooper
Nine cyclists, side by side, press into the city of Paris, legs pedaling rhythmically. Eight wear the blue of their team sponsor, US Postal, while the one in the center, American Lance Armstrong, wears the bright yellow of victory. Shoulder to shoulder, the team flanks their hero, who at age 32 has won the 91st Tour de France, the first man in history to achieve six consecutive victories.
No cyclists challenge this victory ride down the Champs-Elysees, even though there is a stage yet to be won. They will wait until the last minute to break from the peloton in a mad dash for the finish of this final stage in cycling’s most grueling exercise. The Tour de France is rich with etiquette and honor, and all the riders acknowledge the remarkable accomplishment of Armstrong by granting him an unchallenged lead.
Upon the celebratory podium, Armstrong waves his trophy and a handful of flowers into the air, and I am unexpectedly moved to tears. With him, stand Basso, a Spaniard and Kloden, a German, and for a moment, all that is good in the world is present. Men have come together in a contest. They have struggled, they have jockeyed for position, they have aided and consoled one another, and they have been as one, while being of many.
By all odds, Armstrong should not be standing victorious. Diagnosed in 1996 with testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs, he was given a 50-50 chance of surviving. Aggressive chemotherapy healed his body, but it was his personal tenacity that brought him back to the racing circuit. He calls the bout with cancer, “a special wake-up call,” and I can’t help but acknowledge the mark he set for us all.
The Tour de France is unique in its composition as a sporting event; teams are drawn from multiple nationalities and financed by corporate sponsors. While this year’s winner, Armstrong, stands tall for America, the team that carried him is international in scope. Three Americans, three Spaniards, one Russian, one Portuguese and a Czechoslovakian completed the roster for the 2004 team US Postal. So rather than nations battling one another in a contest, it is individuals drawn from a vast pool of talented riders, who gather for the competition.
The affect of this construction is to remove a kind of them-vs-us thinking which tends to permeate our relationships. We gather in an event like this, in and of one mind. Our differences slip aside. Our commonalities come together.
For moments that I wish I could extend for hours, we are not about borders, cultural differences or language discrepancies, but about our likeness. We agonize with the riders during the 3391 kilometer race; the flats, the rain, the vicious climbs through the Pyrénées and the Alps, and the wild and deadly descents. We cheer each stage victory. We ache with moments of personal defeat.
The race, in a sense, becomes a metaphor for our daily lives. Challenges we face and how we approach them. Armstrong’s accomplishment, while remarkable, simply was not possible without the support of his teammates, who not only paced him, but also protected him from perils and obstacles on the course.
The music on the podium, as Armstrong accepted his trophy, was “America the Beautiful.” My breath caught when the words “ .. land of the free and home of the brave” played. In that moment, yes, I was glad to be an American. And simultaneously, I was glad to be a part of the larger world community.
Together, we humans are really something. When we stand together, in support of one another, even whilst in contests, we can continue to change the disparate places we call home.
Catharine Cooper loves wild places (and races). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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