By 1995, I had followed the Tour de France semi-seriously – or about as seriously as you could from rural Michigan before the Internet – for about a decade, going back to 1986, when Greg LeMond won the first of his three Tour titles and established the United States as a force in international cycling.
In July 1995, I had just finished college and moved to Chicago to live with Shannon, who was then in grad school. We were going to get married the next month, but in July I was unemployed, so I had plenty of time to follow the Tour and plenty of interest in the race, which focused on whether Spain’s Miguel Indurain would be able to win a fifth consecutive Tour title.
Indurain did win the Tour that year, but the Tour’s defining moment came during Stage 15, a long race over several peaks in the Pyrenees. On the descent of the arduous Col de Portet d’Aspet, the young Motorola rider Fabio Casartelli died after a high-speed crash in which he smashed his head into a roadside barrier.
I think I’d already read about the crash and Casartelli’s bloody death in the paper, but when I watched the grainy snippets of video, I burst into tears. The tears didn’t stop when the recap detailed how the Motorola team had been allowed to finish en masse at the head of the peloton on the next stage. And I cried even harder when I saw Casartelli’s American teammate Lance Armstrong win Stage 18 to Limoges. Armstrong pointed at the sky as he took the win.
It was all almost too much: the young cyclist – a husband and father – dying in the sport’s greatest race, his team riding in memorial to him a day later, and then his teammate – America’s great cycling hope – racing his heart out to take a win in his honor.
Back then, doping was a whisper, at least in the cycling media I consumed. I knew about how a doped-up Tom Simpson had literally raced himself to death in 1968 on the climb up the Ventoux, but beyond that, I didn’t know that many racers, if not most, were dirty, much less that the golden age of doping was about to dawn – an age, of course, which we know now was dominated by the greatest doper of them all, Armstong himself.
I didn’t shed any tears over Armstrong’s slow, sad fall from grace. I hope he’s unable to enjoy a second act in American life. He certainly doesn’t deserve one.
But at the same time, I can’t forget that moment in July 1995 when Lance won for Fabio – the young living American recognizing the bravery and skill of the young dead Italian in the only best way he could. I wish that moment of tragic triumph was all I knew of Armstrong.