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Long, Steep Road to Glory

July 28, 2002

We don't hear much about perseverance these days--that is, pursuing something a long, long time despite serious difficulty or obstacles. Perseverance is a long word from a long-gone pre-fax era when ice was delivered by horse-drawn wagons, girls were named Prudence and Patience and apprenticeships lasted years. Today, everything must be quick, instant or almost--foods, messages, news, victory, sinus relief. Today, the finish line gets the attention, not the trip to it or preparation for it.

So it's been refreshing, at least from an armchair, to follow the Tour de France bicycle race this month, more particularly to remind ourselves of a certain personal perseverance within that competition. Now, that's an endurance race--three weeks and more than 2,000 miles of bike racing--day after day across heated plains and up and down chilled, wet mountains. Americans are being exposed more to sports valued by the rest of the world, in part because Americans are doing better in competitions like the World Cup. There's an impressive American in the Tour too--Lance Armstrong, of course.

He used to be an impulsive, erratic individual racer who couldn't finish three Tours in the '90s. Then, in 1996, he coughed blood and began a different kind of endurance contest--against advanced testicular cancer. After it spread, brain surgery. Four rounds of chemotherapy. He tried a cycling comeback--and quit. He tried again. And tried again.

But we're not talking about just beating cancer or winning three consecutive Tours de France, which he's done. We're talking about enduring--the long, nauseating days of treatments, the long recovery, the long rebuilding of muscles and the long, lonely training rides in the Texas sun and deciding, day after day after day, to persist.

You know how your pedaling legs burned, going up that modest hill last weekend with your youngster? The normal Interstate hill is a 2% grade, up 2 feet for each 100 feet of road. Here's one recent workday for Armstrong: A 111-mile bike ride including a 21-mile climb at a 4.7% grade, an 11-mile climb at 6.9% and a 12-mile climb at 7.9%. Armstrong's average speed: almost 20 miles an hour. Uphill. Never mind the finishing. Picture the perseverance to endure the physical and mental preparation to excel in that kind of competition. Even if you love it.

So today if, as expected, Armstrong becomes the first American and only the fourth man to win four Tours in a row, he'll step up on the Paris podium, the cameras will click and the celebration and joy will be instantaneous. Even if Armstrong doesn't win, we've decided to remember instead, as best we can conjure up in our imagination, not that he's up there but how he got up there.

That's the inspiring, modern lesson in old-fashioned perseverance. And we intend to persevere with this memory for at least a year.

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