TITLE: The Lesson the Gringo Taught Me AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 04, 2005 8:03 PM DESC: The beginning of every Tour de France brings to mind a touching essay on learning the value of preparation. ----- BODY: The beginning of the Tour de France on Saturday reminded me of this diary entry by Santiago Botero, a Colombian rider in cycling's Tour de France, the most grueling of athletic events.
There I am all alone with my bike. I know of only two riders ahead of me as I near the end of the second climb on what most riders consider the third worst mountain stage in the Tour. I say 'most riders' because I do not fear mountains. After all, our country is nothing but mountains. I train year-round in the mountains. I am the national champion from a country that is nothing but mountains. I trail only my teammate, Fernando Escartin, and a Swiss rider. Pantani, one of my rival climbers, and the Gringo Armstrong are in the Peleton about five minutes behind me. I am climbing on such a steep portion of the mountain that if I were to stop pedaling, I will fall backward. Even for a world class climber, this is a painful and slow process. I am in my upright position pedaling at a steady pace, willing myself to finish this climb so I can conserve my energy for the final climb of the day. The Kelme team leader radios to me that the Gringo has left the Peleton by himself and that they can no longer see him. I recall thinking 'the Gringo cannot catch me by himself'. A short while later, I hear the gears on another bicycle. Within seconds, the Gringo is next to me - riding in the seated position, smiling at me. He was only next to me for a few seconds and he said nothing - he only smiled and then proceeded up the mountain as if he were pedaling downhill. For the next several minutes, I could only think of one thing - his smile. His smile told me everything. I kept thinking that surely he is in as much agony as me, perhaps he was standing and struggling up the mountain as I was and he only sat down to pass me and discourage me. He has to be playing games with me. Not possible. The truth is that his smile said everything that his lips did not. His smile said to me, 'I was training while you were sleeping, Santiago'. It also said, 'I won this tour four months ago, while you were deciding what bike frame to use in the Tour. I trained harder than you did, Santiago. I don't know if I am better than you, but I have outworked you and right now, you cannot do anything about it. Enjoy your ride, Santiago. See you in Paris.' Obviously, the Gringo did not state any of this. But his smile did dispel a bad rumor among the riders on the tour. The rumor that surfaced as we began the Prologue several days ago told us that the Gringo had gotten soft. His wife had given birth to his first child and he had won the most difficult race in the world - he had no desire to race, to win. I imagine that his smile turned to laughter once he was far enough not to embarrass me. The Gringo has class, but he heard the rumors - he will probably laugh all the way to Paris. He is a great champion and I must train harder. I am not content to be a great climber, I want to be the best. I learned much from the Gringo in the mountains. I will never forget the helpless feeling I had yesterday. If I ever become an international champion, I will always remember the lesson the Gringo taught me.
Botero wrote that entry back in 2000, the year after Armstrong won his first Tour. He went on to win that Tour as well, on his way to a record six in a row. This year, Armstrong rides his last Tour de France, seeking to retire as a champion yet again. By all accounts, he still feels the fire to win. More important, he felt the fire to prepare to win all winter and spring. Botero finished sixth in the 2000 Tour. He is racing this year's Tour, too, and his recent win at Romandie signals that he may have what it takes to challenge again for the title in France. Botero learned what separates himself from Armstrong from the master himself. The will to prepare to win comes from within, and sometimes it's hard to appreciate until you see its power first hand. Even then, achieving excellence exacts a heavy commitment. How much do you want it? -----