Thirty years ago, after my knees gave out from pounding the distance running circuit, I took up cycling for exercise.
A neighbor offered me a French racing bike, which he no longer had any use for. It wasn’t a top of the line model, but it handled well. It wasn’t long before I had built up a regimen of short daily rides, culminating with longer treks on weekends, if the weather held out.
Around that time I discovered one of Sam Abt’s early books about the Tour de France on the shelf at the public library and devoured it over the course of a rainy weekend. After that I started to follow the Tour every July, faithfully combing through Abt’s columns in the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. These cyclists were the inspiration I needed to keep going.
Years passed. My son usurped the bike, and I in turn took up lap swimming for regular exercise.
I learned how to swim largely from my father, who had competed in the pool as an undergraduate. Although my skills were rudimentary, I was able to hone them with the help of the members of a local swim group, most of whom had been competitive swimmers in high school and college.
After weeks of regular training, I was able to keep up with the pack, completing workouts of 3500 to 4000 yards three days a week.
One year one of the fellows in the group put forth my name as the most improved swimmer. Although it was a minor laudatory gesture, I appreciated the sentiment.
Sometime after that, this same fellow developed acute myelogenous leukemia. I made it a point to visit him regularly whenever he was admitted to the cancer ward. One time I bought him a small matchbox car from the hospital gift shop, which he kept on his bedside table. And after I read Lance Armstrong’s book It’s Not About the Bike, I inscribed a copy for my friend as a gift.
Swimming, like running and cycling, demands a rigorous and disciplined training regimen. So does fighting cancer. Through tremendous odds Armstrong fought his own breed of the disease. In part, by slipstreaming along with Armstrong’s inspiring story, so did my friend.
My friend’s battle lasted 19 months before he succumbed to graft versus host disease, a consequence of a second bone marrow transplant. This fall it will be ten years since he’s been gone.
This week, as I read the latest accusations of Armstrong’s doping during most of his cycling career, I reflected on how appreciative I am that my friend never lived to see the day when one of our heroes fell from grace.