The man is not the mission

One of the first questions I get about our new house is, “How’s the bike commute from there?” The answer is simple: there is no bike commute.

We live almost twice as far from the Capitol now as we did at our old condo, which makes the bike commute too long to be practical. In the past I’ve done hybrid commutes–halfway on my bike, then onto mass transit for the remainder–but there’s not even a good opportunity for that here.

The next question has an easy answer too, “How do you feel about not bike commuting?” Simple: great. My kids now each have their own room; they now have a play/family room that’s not the living room or dining room; they have .4 acres of yard to roam in; they can play safely all day on the cul-de-sac; they can walk to school in under 10 minutes; their schools–elementary, junior high and high–are excellent. I could go on, but you get the point.

Of course the complete answer is more nuanced, because life is always complex than it appears. Swans seem to glide by, but under the surface there’s paddling and pressure, vectors and vortices.

I do miss my bike commute. I miss being outside under moonlight, sunlight, in the rain, heat and sleet…OK, I don’t miss the sleet. That shit stings. I miss the people I used to pass every morning, watching the deer step gingerly along the streambank and riding into a sunset just off the wingtip of a white crane gliding over the quiet water.

But none of that is worth to me what my kids have gained.

As that flashes through my mind, the person questioning me comes to the next question, “Hey, speaking of bikes, how do you feel about Lance?”

Simple: I like the guy.

Of course it’s more complex than that because under the surface of the pedaling, there’s peer pressure. Underneath the victories were vows taken and broken. Did Lance lie? Sure…about riding clean. But he never lied about losing a testicle. Or having a dozen or more golf ball size tumors in his lungs. Or about beating brain cancer, which is what killed Dad.

Dad rode his bike to the train station every work day. He was in a three-piece suit and tie, not a maillot jaune, but by the time cancer was done with him, Dad was in a cemetery, under a stone. Watching Lance, who had cancer not just in his brain, but throughout his body, roll up the stony slopes of Sestriere and over the cobbles of the Champs Elysees restored in me a glimmer of the hope I had before…before, when I still had a Dad.

It still doesn’t matter to me if Lance won the Tour once or seven times. By simply riding a bike, he won.

Of course, for others, it matters tremendously that Lance won the Tour. It matters even more that he won it so many times, and I get that too. Without those wins, he might not have been able to help so many people fighting cancer. Which puts his doping in a different light. As a colleague remarked yesterday, “They weren’t performance enhancing drugs; they were fundraising enhancing drugs.”

To put Lance’s fundraising in context, the PMC, which I ride in every August, puts up impressive numbers. It raises more than any other since athletic fundraising event in the U.S. There were 5,300 riders last year. On average, we each had 40 donors. And we raised $35 million. In 33 years, the PMC has raised $375 million. That’s over 1/3 of a billion dollars.

In less than half that time, Lance has outstripped all of us. In 15 years, the Livestrong Foundation has raised $470 million.

Could he have done that without the Tour wins, without the doping? Probably not, but that is what he did with his Tour wins.

And, honestly, that is what I did with his Tour wins. I’ve always ridden my bike. It started with riding to school, but one day in elementary school a friend asked if I wanted to ride up into the Pacific Coast range with him. He’d read an article in a newspaper or magazine about a loop we could ride from our houses. It was maybe 15 miles or so–longer than either of us had ever gone in one trip–and we loved it.

It was hard and we didn’t know what we were doing, but the energy of our youth–and of a Coke and a candy bar we each bought midtrip at the local town market–got us through. I don’t know if he ever rode again, but I never stopped. Once I knew how to get there, it was a short trip–a short, steep, struggling trip–to the top of the range, then down its spine, then back home. I could, from my front door, ride up through redwoods until I was high enough to see the ocean, then race back home faster than the sports cars snaking through the lanes of the mountain roads alongside me.

And when I moved to Colorado, my first purchase was a high-end mountain bike. My next big purchase was a high-end road bike. But, while I loved the riding for the same feelings of freedom and speed, the first time I was moved by a bike ride, I was sitting on the floor of my living room, leaning back on the couch, bowl of popcorn on my lap, watching the Tour de France, which was playing on a VHS tape I recorded it on while I was at work.

On the tape, I watched this guy I’d heard about who had survived cancer. He was struggling along with everyone else, but keeping up. I’d read about how his comeback almost didn’t continue after a few less than stellar race results when he returned. I knew that his team had almost no money, to the point that they didn’t even discard their water bottles at the roadside, as is the common practice, because they couldn’t afford to. They took the extra energy to ride them back to the team car and then washed them all for reuse every night.

But, here he was, mixed in the peloton. At the end of the stage, a rain-soaked, miserable ride up the Alps, as one rider after another faltered, he emerged through the mist and rain first at the finish line.

And I wept.

Not for him, but for Dad. What if Dad had lived? He wouldn’t be hoisting a bottle of champagne atop Sestriere, but maybe he would still be pedaling over to the station to catch his train, and home in the evening to have dinner with Mom.

And that got me thinking about what it would take so that there wasn’t another boy without a Dad. So there wasn’t another boy wondering “what if?” So there wasn’t another boy riding alone.

I’d watched cancer steal my uncle–so strong, so skilled, so smart, so kind and such a bright wit–from his wife and young children, who were younger than I was when I lost Dad. It left me speechless. Speechless, but not numb. I felt tremendous grief and anger and now, sitting on my living room floor, weeping, I finally felt the return of what cancer had really stolen from me: hope.

And it doesn’t matter to me if Lance doped to get to that mountaintop first. Before he did that, he had to beat cancer. Before he did that, doctors had to deliver to him a cure. Before they did that, researchers had to discover the cure. Before they could do that, they needed the means–the lab, the clinic and the money.

Slowly I realized that all my riding wasn’t in vain, that I wasn’t just sitting on my ass, spinning my wheels. It took me longer than it took Lance to figure out how to do what I wanted with all those miles I’d spun over in California, Colorado, Vermont and Virginia. But he usually gets there first.

And, after all that flashes through my brain, I turn to my questioner and say, “How do I feel about Lance? It’s complicated. How would you feel about sponsoring my ride to make cancer history?”