Knees, Badassery and Crying on the Champs-Élysées

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This September, Furious Riding’s Lycra-Fetishist in Chief will be riding from London to Paris. This is the story why. 

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick the greatest moment in the history of any sport. For every assertion, there will be a counter assertion – a sort of infinite, regressive ‘what-aboutery’.

How can you rate the 1999 treble triumph of Manchester United over the planet-dominating F.C. Barcelona of 2010? How can you claim that Muhammad Ali’s victory over George Foreman was greater than Barry McGuigan’s besting of Eusebio Pedroza?

I don’t know that you can.

With cycling though… I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that maybe, just maybe, the greatest moment in the sport’s history was the 23rd of July 1989; the final day of the 76th Tour De France, when Greg LeMond, starting the day in second place, put in what can only be described as the greatest, most balls-out, lung-busting time-trial performance in cycling history, resulting in him pipping Laurent Fignon to the maillot jaune by a hair’s breath margin of 8 seconds. That’s 8 seconds. It was, and still is, the narrowest victory in the history of the event.

LeMond secured his second Tour victory of three, made time-trial bars a fixture in the sport and ensured his status as a legend of the road. Fignon, it has been argued, never really got past it.

Many would point to that as the greatest victory in LeMond’s career. Or perhaps you could point to his 1986 Tour victory, when LeMond and his team-mate and erstwhile friend, Bernard Hinault, had their titanic scrap for the yellow jersey; a sort of two-wheeled Rumble in the Alps; a battle immortalised in Richard Moore’s sublime Slaying the Badger. Or maybe you could even point to 1990, when he secured his third tour victory.

I’d like to make the case that there is another great victory in his career that has been a little overlooked. One that came between the ’86 and ’89 victories and not on the road at all, but instead, in a hospital bed. And here we must turn, just briefly, to that glorious old Roman, Seneca.

There is room for heroism, I assure you, in bed as anywhere else. War and the battle-front are not the only spheres in which proof is to be had of a spirited and fearless character: a person’s bravery is no less evident under the bed-clothes.

Seneca – Letter 78.

In 1987, LeMond was unable to  defend his yellow jersey, as earlier in the year he had fractured his left wrist after a fall. While recovering in the States, he went turkey hunting  with his uncle and brother-in-law.  During the hunt, his brother-in-law, hearing a movement behind him, turned and fired through a bush. Only problem was, it wasn’t a turkey he’d fired at.

It was LeMond, who was struck in his back and right side with a volley of about 60 shotgun pellets.  In what can only be described as a stunning stroke of luck, there happened to be a police helicopter near the scene which transported LeMond to a hospital where he was taken for emergency surgery, losing about 65 percent of his blood volume.  LeMond was later told that he had been within 20 minutes of bleeding to death and had the chopper not been nearby, he most likely wouldn’t have made it.

Multiple surgeries (including an appendectomy) followed, but LeMond was left with something like 35 shotgun pellets still in his body. This included three in the lining of his heart and five in his liver.

Incredibly, LeMond attempted his come back in ’88, but his progress was slowed by a case of tendonitis which required yet more surgery. He missed the Tour again. And then finally, he returned to the Tour in ’89. Hampered by poor form, illness and the understandable upheavel that came from joining a new team (ADR), LeMond was not a favourite for that tour. And yet on July 29th…

…8 seconds.

That is some level 70 badassery.

How the hell did he do it?

I’d like to talk to you about my knee. My right knee.

In September 2015, myself and my partner cycled from London to Paris to raise money for Bloodwise, a UK charity which raises money for blood cancer research and treatment. Although, truth be told, I did it for my father, John, who had at that time been battling multiple myeloma, a blood-cancer, for almost 10 years.

The second day proved to be challenging. 138 km, some of it into a headwind, in hammering rain. It was the toughest day I ever had on a bike. About 2 hours from the end of the day I started to get a worrying pain in my right knee. Now, it should be said that at this stage I was really a bag of pains and aches. I had done my training, I had done my months of yoga, but well, I’m not as young as I used to be and the sheer shock of doing long distance rides on consecutive days was one I hadn’t anticipated.

On the morning of Day 3 I knew I had a real issue and sought the ride doctor.

‘Tendonitus’ he told me bluntly.

I groaned. ‘Does this mean I’m in the van?’ I asked.

‘No. Not necessarily. You should get to Paris. It’s just going to hurt. Space your painkillers, stretch, stretch and stretch again. Get massages at the stops. Breathe through it. Try to talk to people so as to distract you. You’ll be fine – we’ll get you there. But it is going to hurt. Remember what pain is now; a signal from your body telling you to stop. But you’re not going to do that. You’ll get there – but this is going to hurt…’

He wasn’t lying. It hurt like a bastard. It hurt like nothing had ever really hurt before in my life. I’ve had busted knees, broken ribs, fractured bones – all the usual stuff you’d expect, but this hurt like nothing had before. It wasn’t so much the sharpness as the relentlessness of it – the complete inability to make it stop.

But I did it. And I did it by thinking about people in greater pain than me. I thought about the people who were around me on bikes – cancer survivors, amputees, the bereaved and the suffering. These were people who had known real pain.

I thought of my father, his ailing health, the medications he took, how we’d nearly lost him five years previously to a sudden and unexpected bout of TB. I remembered him in his hospital bed in Beaumont.

‘I’m not feckin’ dying here’ he told me with a laugh of defiance. ‘Not now’.

And he didn’t.

I thought about LeMond too – lying there in his hospital bed in ’87, full of pellets and pain, vowing to himself that he’d ride the Tour again. And win it.

And he did. Overcoming physical challenges which I can’t even imagine.

There is something that lies open to you to achieve, and that is making the fight with illness a good one. If its threats or importunities leave you quite unmoved, you are setting others a signal example. How much scope there would be renown if whenever we were sick we had an audience of spectators! Be your own spectator anyway, your own applauding audience.

Seneca – Letter 78.

I got to Paris, collapsing into a blubbing heap as we hit the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées. My Dad didn’t see me cycle up that famous road or around the Arc de Triomphe, but I was able to show him the photos when I got back to Dublin in October. I think he was impressed. I also think he slightly felt that I was having him on.

‘500 km? In four days?’ he said, staring at the photo of me gurning on a bike.

‘Yep’.

‘Really? You did that? You?

‘Yep’.

My father, John, passed away in December 2015, finally succumbing to his illness. He was surrounded by family and love and I watched him fight and fight and handle his situation, his pain, with a dignity I can’t quite comprehend.

In some ways, I found myself thinking, maybe that’s all life is: a training ground to help us face the hospital bed, to stare into the darkness, a school to prepare us to fight back and then, when there’s no fighting left, no final 8 seconds to claw back, to accept it with dignity. He was, in those last days, his own applauding audience, a signal example to me and to everyone else.

I’ll be cycling to Paris again this year,  in September 2016.

You can sponsor me by making a  donation here . Thanks for reading.

Image: The Waiting Game. Taken in Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, 2011. (c) Damien DeBarra, 2016.

Words:  (c) Damien DeBarra, 2016.

One thought on “Knees, Badassery and Crying on the Champs-Élysées

  1. Superb and moving Damien

    That Sunday will live with ME forever. I was up for Lemond and devastated for Fignon.

    Jimmy McGee’s commentary “it’s cruel but it’s true” is apposite. Life is often the same.

    Liked by 1 person

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