Living in Provence: Cheering Lance

Living in Provence: Cheering Lance
    Lancemania has been in full force at the 11th-century chateau owned by my former New York City neighbors, Lydie and Wayne.  Vaguely I’ve been aware of the race. Two years ago, I went down to the Place de la Liberation to cheer when Lance rode through Nyons on a trial run; the summer before, I waited two hours in the broiling sun to watch the Tour zoom by faster than I could click the shutter on my little digital toy. Did I get what it was all about? Not really.

    Then someone vandalized my car in a particularly ugly manner with a signature that indicated it was expressly directed against me.  When I called Lydie from the Police Station, begging her to come down in case there were some legal esotericas in the French language I didn’t understand, she told me she couldn’t, she was watching TV.  WATCHING TV!!!???   “Today iz ver-ry important for Lance, I em sorry”; she had to go.  A few minutes later, Wayne appeared at the Police Municipale and was dutifully supportive, but this is another story.
    My curiosity was peaked: what was it about Lance and the Tour that could turn a normally caring friend into a callous crazed fanatic? I turned on the TV. There were a lot of bikes and exquisite shots of the French countryside–a perfect tour of France, if you will. There were more bikes. Some went faster than others. Bikes are bikes.
Patio    I went over to the chateau.  The floor-length curtains were drawn, blocking out the brilliant Provençal light that is what most people seek when they come here. Lydie, by nature quiet and calm, was in her white arm chair before the TV: “Vas-y, vas-y, mon chou-chou!” she screamed, “Go to it, my little cutie! Go to it!”  Quickly she started explaining. “That’s Ullrich; ’e likes See the REAL Europe with Rail Europeze chocolate cake too much; ’e iz too fat.”  Lance is worried, Lydie says, “ ’e iz whor-eed about bee-ying accidentally  ’it by a fan.” Quickly, I realize all fans are on first-name basis with Lance. I settle in.
    Today the crowd is better behaved, Lydie explains, no one is booing Lance or holding up posters of syringes. They are cheering. There are hundreds of gigantic floppy green hands being waved, freebies given out by Credit Agricole, a sponsoring bank. It is very hot. Everywhere fans give the cyclists water, fortified drinks and solid energy bars. What the cyclists eat during the Tour, Lydie confides, is a highly guarded secret. Riders burn between 15,000 and 20,000 calories per day. Each team has its own special top-secret formulated diet. Lance is reputed to have his own chef.Tour de France
    Lance is resplendent in his yellow T. “Luuk at those legs,” Lydie yells, “look at those legs!  ’e iz off  ’iz  ass, ’e is riding en danseuse!”  He is standing, he is peddling faster….   Already I’m focussing less on the scenery and more on the legs.  I’m beginning to get it. Lydie explains the meaning of the different-colored jerseys: red-polka dots for best mountain climber; green for best sprinter; white for best youngest rider, le tri-couleur for best youngest French rider; yellow–we all know about the yellow.  By now I’m not terribly concerned with the guys’ outfits.   Oh, God, WHAT IS LANCE DOING???!!!  Lance is pedalling like a maniac, en danseuse and otherwise; he is crazed, he is mad, he is super-human! He’s Le Boss! He raises his magnificent Michaelangelo arms above his head and sails over the finish line!! Lydie and I are wild! We are jumping in the air!  We hug each other. She runs for the champagne!Dishes

    Later, she hands me the book: IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE: My Journey Back to Life, by Lance Armstrong and instructs me to read it, especially the chapter called “SURVIVORSHIP.”  I rarely read autobiographies; in my whole life I have never read anything by or about an athlete, except maybe a few bons mots from Yogi Berra. I’m up all night reading THE BOOK. The next two days I spend at the chateau in front of the TV. I try not to focus on my car, which has gone for an extended stay at the carroisserie (body shop), what was done to it and why.  The 400 euros’ damage will not be covered by my insurance.  I try to stay rivetted to Lance and his story, the testicular cancer that nearly killed him, the horrendous brain surgery that removed cancerous lesions threatening to destroy the area of his brain controlling vision and motor control, the radiation, the chemo, the hell and despair, the long struggle, the comeback and repeated triumphs. Wayne joins us from time to time, but basically Lydie and I are alone with our obsession.Spread

    Lydie has planned a Lance Victory Lunch for Sunday, the last day of the Tour, which begins in the late afternoon.  By now we know he will win his last and seventh consecutive Tour de France! He will break all records for all time. When I arrive at the chateau, the garden is set with tables covered in bright Pierre Deux tablecloths laden with local wines, elegant glasses, cutlery, exquisite handmade faience bowls and plates, fresh-baked bread and potato chips in antique Provençal baskets, Nyons olives, local homemade sauscissons.  The guests arrive with gifts, their bathing suits and an air of excited anticipation.  Lydie starts pulling her famous Tartes Nyonsaises from the ovens; Wayne uncorks.  
We help Lydie put the final touches on the enormous couscous salad.  Wayne is busy at the Weber grill; the local pork cutlets with rosemary from the garden sizzle on the flames. By the time we sit down at the tables set on the terrace under the grape arbour, we are a happy crowd of 20.  This is Sunday lunch in Provence, an all-afternoon affair, but Lance and the Tour are calling. By 3 PM, we are before the TV. Slowly the others drift back to the table, the pool, the garden, more wine, conversation and naps.  When our Boys in White and Blue, the Discovery Channel Team,  enter the Imperial City, surrounding their glowing, seeming-eternal yellow star, only the hard-core, Lydie and I, are left.  
It has been raining, but as they start to circle the Champs-Elysees, the sun triumphantly breaks through the clouds We congratulate ourselves, we congratulate Lance, we congratulate Paris, the most beautiful city in the world; we call out the names of the streets and our favorite landmarks as the cyclists ride past. We cheer Lance, wave to Sheryl Crow, kvell over his son and twin daughters in Victory Yellow dresses. Lydie has already warned the fourteen turns around the Champs Elysees become a big bore. She goes off to the pool.  After three rounds, I’ve joined her.  When we return, Wayne is before the TV. We watch the finale, we watch Lance get his prize. He is wearing a yellow baseball cap emblazoned in blue on the front: LIVESTRONG. He puts on the yellow jersey. We cheer. A French military band plays THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER. It is more than three years since I’ve heard it; I cannot believe the tears in my eyes. Lance is joined by his three children. The other prizes are given out.
    Later Sunday night, I go to a concert in the medieval church in the Old Town. They are playing Schubert’s Sonata for Piano D960 in B-flat major, one of my favorite works. The church is cool and comforting with its vaulted ceiling and ancient stone. Again I am teary. I am thinking of Lance and his fight back from death, of his iron will and continuing battles. I, too, know something of those struggles, of what it means to survive, to continue the fight. I also know he’s not a doper; he doesn’t need to. Life itself, even with all the pain, is enough. LIVE STRONG!

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