After watching the Tour coverage last night, Versus was experiencing some technical difficulties which thankfully interfered with the post-tour broadcast of their regularly scheduled and, might I say, pathetically poor sports show, the Daily Line (which features as hosts, a "sports reporter" from Oklahoma, an ex-Playboy bunny, a stand-up comic, and some random D-bag.)
Can you pick out the ex-Bunny? Look for one with the tan....then look for the girl on his left.
In place of the Daily Line, Versus showed a recap of Stage 17 of the 2004 Tour de France in which Floyd Landis pulls Lance Armstrong over the Col de la Croix Fry. Along with Landis and Armstrong in the leaders' group were, among some others, Ivan Basso and Jan Ulrich (both of which later were suspected or proven to be doping). Of course Armstrong wins the stage thanks to Landis' help and maintains his 4 minute lead over Basso. Landis has since said he was doped during this period and I couldn't help but wonder if Lance was as well, as Landis has suggested. And yet, seeing Lance turn the pedals over reminded me of two things: 1) how excited I was to see him take Kloden at the line back in 2004 and 2) something that happened to me earlier in the day.
I was supposed to meet a good friend for an early morning ride out on New Haven, but as I waited for him at our designated meeting spot at 7:00 AM, the line of black clouds which the weatherman said would stay north of I-70 dropped south and arrived with a cold blast of wind, driving rain and an impressive display of lightening. This caused me to try to race back to Columbia and regrettably abandon my friend (I know - not cool....sorry, again man - I tried to call - I swear). As the front rolled in, the sky went absolutely black as any hint of early morning sunlight was obscured and a wind gust blew me from the right side of the road over the double yellow line. With a couple more bolts of lightening, I decided to seek refuge somewhere along the road so pulled into the USGS complex on New Haven. just east of the I-63 overpass. I rode around to the south side of one of the buildings to get out of the north-driving wind and rain. Hunkered down along the south wall of one of the brick buildings, I watched the sky grow even darker and rain come in waves. I had been squatted there for about 10 minutes when I heard someone yelling to me from an adjacent building; a guy waving me over. I ran through a lake-sized puddle over to the guy who was propping a door open for me and, thanking him profusely, I ducked inside the foyer of a building.
The guy was dressed in a t-shirt, work pants and work boots and was wearing a baseball hat. He had a dark complexion and was obviously pretty physically fit. I thought about how I must look to him, in soaking wet cycling garb clinging to my body, and instantly I felt self conscious, almost like I was standing there naked, convinced this guy would think I was a pretty pathetic excuse. The guy laughed at my appearance, shook his head and walked deeper into the building and as he walked away, told me I was welcome to wait inside as long as I wanted. I thanked him again and looked out through the window in the door to see the black sky offering nothing but more rain and lightening. I heard the guy laughing in some back room and was convinced he was laughing at me and the stupidity of riding at 7:00 AM in a torrential downpour. As I looked around into a cluttered office adjoining the small entryway I was standing and dripping in, I noticed the words "Stupid is as stupid does" written on a marker board and couldn't help but cringe a bit more.
The guy emerged from the back office once more and said, "What kind of a bike do you ride?"
I said, "A road bike...."
He said, "Yeah, I know....what kind? I used to ride a Cannondale."
I replied, "Really?" with what I'm sure appeared to be a little disbelief.
He said, "Yeah - I used to race in Puerto Rico. I used to train with this pro who was eventually hit by a car and paralyzed....the climbing is amazing in PR, but the drivers are crazy. After this guy was hit, we all got a little spooked."
I asked him if he still rode and he replied "I have an old mountain bike I ride a little. No road bike - the things are pretty expensive."
We talked a bit more about what it was like riding in Puerto Rico and he talked about the beautiful rides along the ocean and how his training partner and he would take turns drafting through the gusty winds that blow in off the ocean. He smiled a lot when he described this.
Then I asked him if he was following the Tour de France.
He said, "Not since Lance crashed hard and lost all that time. I really wanted to see him win. He's so amazing"
I suddenly felt guilty for having lost interest and enthusiasm for the Lance Armstrong phenomenon over the years. There was a time when I supported and followed him every bit as much as anyone else. How could you not? I wondered if this guy had kept up with the cycling news lately and all the allegations made about Lance's doping. I immediately supposed he hadn't, but then just as quickly wondered if he had, but had instead decided to remain faithful in his support in spite of what he had read and heard.
"No one climbed like Lance," he said.
The guy disappeared deep into the building once again to take a phone call as I looked back out at the steady onslaught of rain. Just as I resigned myself to riding through the storm, another bolt of lightening made me take my hand off of the door handle and remain inside.
About 10 minutes later, the guy came back with some car keys in his hands and said, "Come on - this shit is going to last for a couple hours. I'll drive you to work. You'll have to leave the bike here - but it will be safe until you can come back for it."
I asked if he was sure he had the time but he just waved for me to follow him as we jumped out into the rain and toward his little compact car. As I opened the door, the guy was spreading out a towel over the cloth-upholstered passenger seat. I felt incredibly guilty climbing into the car as I was completely soaking and even said, "Man - I'm going to soak this seat."
"Don't worry, man - I'm outside all day with my job. I get rained on all the time - it's cool."
As I sat down in the car, I noticed a Puerto Rican flag hanging from his rear-view mirror, and as he turned the car on, I asked him what his name was.
"Ronaldo," he replied.
I told him my name, and we shook hands.
"How did you get a job with USGS," I asked.
"Well - I'm a veteran," he answered,"and this position kind of fell in my lap after I became disabled."
"You're a vet?" I asked.
"Yeah - I completed several years of medical school before entering the military. I ended up a drill sergeant."
"Did you see a lot of action?" I asked.
"Yeah - both Iraq and Afghanistan," he replied. "I disarmed vehicle-embedded IEDs (improvised explosive devices). I was outside of Bagdad when one caught me off guard and put shrapnel into my right knee, left shin and the back of my head." He lifted the pantleg on his left leg and showed me two raised and very dark bumps....scars of where the hot metal had penetrated his body. "I still have a couple pieces of metal in my knee. It's behind my patella. It's supposed to be removed in a couple of weeks over at the VA. If it goes well, I'll be redeployed in 2013."
We drove toward my office, and I wondered to myself how this guy could generate the courage to go back into the situation that nearly cost him his life. It made the job I frequently complain about seem ridiculously easy.
"The doctors told me I would never run or bike again, but i just ran a 10 mile race a couple weeks ago," Ronaldo continued.
"Man, that's awesome," I said. "Have you thought about riding again?"
"Yeah - I just don't have the money for a road bike right now."
"I wonder if you could find something on craigslist," I said, thinking guiltily about my secondary old road bike that sits in a spare bedroom on a trainer, largely unridden in the spring, summer and fall.
"I'd like to....but, I don't know...I'm getting old!" he laughed.
"How old are you?" I asked.
"36," he replied.
"Shit - you're younger than I am!" I laughed. But I couldn't help but think that regardless of physical age, in life experiences, this guy was easily twice as old as me. It's not about the years, it's the mileage that counts.
"Yeah - this week has been rough," he continued. "One of my best friends was just killed. The unit he was with were a bunch of idiots. I told him to get transferred. I knew something like that was going to happen. There's going to be a big investigation into what what down. It wasn't right. I can't sleep at night thinking about it. I just had to go to Kansas City to help pick his body up last week. His unit was such a bunch of idiots," he repeated.
I didn't know what to say and couldn't bring myself to ask about the details, so I just told him how sorry I was.
We pulled up to my office and I shook his hand and thanked him once again for the lift.
"No worries, man. I hope someone would do the same for me if I needed it," he said.
I told him I would swing by later to pick up the bike with my car, when the rain had let up a bit.
A couple hours later, I did just that. When I got to his office at USGS, I popped inside and found Ronaldo. He was on the phone again and seemed to be getting directions for what he would be occupied with the rest of the day. He waved and smiled at me and I returned the gesture. I pulled out a paper sack that contained a six pack of Fat Tire and put it in his free hand. He looked at me puzzled while still talking on the phone, and before he had a chance to look inside, I ducked back out of his office and into the newly emerging sunlight and threw my bike on my bike rack. He exited the office just as I was hopping into the car and thanked me. We shook hands again and I wished him luck with his surgery and told him to keep his head down if ended up going back to Iraq.
"No worries," he said, "I'm real careful." He smiled again.
"Get back on that bike," I said. And then I added, "And check the Tour out today, I think Lance might try to attack."
"Will do," he said. When I got back to my office, I couldn't help but log on to a Tour tracker online and was happy to see Armstrong in the group of leaders and climbing pretty well. I hoped Ronaldo was watching.