After dinner I listened to a conversation between two world-class athletes. I had skied a few runs with a man whose name you should recognize, Greg LeMond. He won the Tour de France three times and his final victory was after he was almost killed with a shotgun blast and still had crossed the finish line with 40 shotgun pellets in his body. Greg is a very good and very strong skier, and he skis each run as though it is the final leg of the Tour de France.
The other man in the discussion was the watch captain on one of the sailboats in the “Around the World” race. Greg was talking about the final mountain stage of the final race when he blew out a tire two kilometers from the summit. He had to pedal the last two kilometers on a flat rear tire and then wait an agonizing two and half minutes for his van to show up with a replacement wheel and tire. In the meantime, the leaders of the pack and the one man he had to beat in this stage, were racing down the other side of the pass at speeds up to 70 miles an hour.
About this time, the sailor compared that sort of tension to racing down the front of a 60-foot wave in 50-mile-an-hour winds as he was rounding Cape Horn and dodging icebergs in the middle of the night. Two world class athletes telling stories of how their lives were on the line in an effort to be a member of a winning team. Greg finally got his new tire and raced down the other side of the pass at speeds “over” 70 mph and made his time back up on that leg of the course and went on to win the Tour.
The various sounds of competition were compared by the two of them as Greg talked of the howling wind on a bicycle at that speed as he pedaled.
Against that description of sound was the sailor telling about the metallic racket of an aluminum-hulled vessel racing through the cold water of the Roaring Forties. He talked about how the noise from the vibration of the aluminum vessel increases in frequency as its speed increases on the face of a wave, even when you are trying get some sleep when you are off watch. You had to alter course several time to dodge icebergs as small as a 50-gallon drum that could spell instant disaster to the sailboat if you hit one at these high speeds
The sailor told of how roaring down the face of one wave, he knew there was something out there in the dark and instinctively jammed the rudder over and broached up into the wind. This broach threw everyone trying to sleep out of their pipe berths and onto the deck. The boat was going so fast in the dark that he never did know whether or not there had been an iceberg that he barely missed; he just knew he had missed something.
Having watched parts of the Tour de France on television, I asked Greg about how often racers crash. “Warren,” he answered, “sometimes, even at high speeds we’ll be racing wheel to wheel, and when I say wheel to wheel, I mean my front wheel is less than three inches from the back wheel of the man in front of me and even at speeds in the 30 to 40 mile an hour range we seldom crash. ”
There had been a pause in the conversation, when I asked Greg about the drug problem on the Tour a few years ago.
“In today’s world class competition in almost any sport, I think it is almost impossible to compete on that level and expect to win without using some sort of performance enhancing drugs.” He went on to say, “Someone will come up with a drug that can pass the screening tests undetected, and the men and women who use the drug will get away with using it for three or four years until someone develops yet another screening method. Then too, it depends on the wealth and power of the country the athlete using drugs is competing for and whether or not he or she gets away with being caught and still having their use of drugs shoved under the rug.”
That morning, there was four inches of new powder snow on top of perfectly groomed corduroy for all of us to ski on. The competition of the Tour de France, sailing through the Roaring Forties of the Antarctic Ocean, performance enhancing drugs, were all forgotten as we rode up on a quad chairlift together talking about only one thing. The freedom that a pair of skis can offer, skis that had brought the three of us together on the side of a mountain in Montana with only one goal in mind, to get first tracks.
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