Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lance Armstrong, LiveStrong, and an Unforgettable Journey

by brphillips

I will make no apologies for this story being far too long. I have been writing and revising it off and on for several months now and actually cut nearly 1,700 words from the original version. It's a true story about Lance Armstrong and LiveStrong, so in my mind it's ok for it to be wordy.

This story is not for personal gain or notoriety. It's for those who could use a little hope and for those who are afraid of the word "try". I'm certain most of you will enjoy it and perhaps find it inspiring.

I like to ride bikes. A lot. I also have an intense hatred for cancer because it killed both my parents. It's not much of a stretch to arrive at the conclusion that I have been an ardent follower of Lance Armstrong's career. For years, I have had an ongoing dream (delusion?) that one day I might be able to ride next to the cancer survivor and 7-time Tour de France winner if only for a few meters. Never in my wildest imagination would I believe that riding next to him would take place in his jet - the result of a complete social networking-fueled fluke.

Since 2002, I had been making an annual pilgrimage from Denver to Austin, TX to participate in the 'LiveStrong Challenge' to honor my folks and those who have endured the effects of cancer in one way or another. The event capped a year of fundraising with one huge cathartic cycling celebration. Some remember their loved ones by visiting a cemetery or mausoleum. I chose a bike ride with several thousand fellow cyclists.

October 2010. The date for the LiveStrong Challenge drew near. I had loosely planned on making the Austin trip as usual, but part of me thought maybe I should stay home this year. This time, I had no boarding pass, no bags packed and I felt like I was abandoning my dedication to the memory of my parents and my devotion to LiveStrong.

Before I sat down to dinner with my family on Thursday, October 21st, I did something that was equal parts long-shot and joke. I pulled up my Twitter account and thought, "What if…"

I typed, "Hey Lance, can I hitch a ride with you from Colorado to Austin?" and hit 'send'. Instantly, I felt like a total moron. An idiot. A mooch.

I checked Twitter again several minutes later mostly out of habit, certainly not because I expected a reply. "10:30am tomorrow Aspen-Austin. Feel free to hop on board Mellow Johnnys Aviation".


I am pretty certain he wasn't necessarily counting on a total stranger actually taking him up on the offer. Like a complete dork I replied, "You weren't serious, were you? I could throw my bike in the car and head to Aspen pronto!" Before I knew it, I was direct messaging my phone number to him so his nanny, Katie, could call me to arrange details. Sure enough, minutes later, my phone rang and displayed the word 'restricted'. It was Katie. Whoa. "So…you want to go to Austin?" "Ummm…well, yeah but this is for real, right? I am not being punked, right?" I paced around the living room nervously. "No, you're not being punked" she laughed. She told me the flight might leave as early as 8:00 a.m. and I could tell she was a bit concerned I might not make it at that hour all the way from Denver. I assured her I would do whatever it took to be there early. "Don't be late!" I heard Lance shout in the background. One thing Lance for sure does not like is being late. This certainly seemed real. My wife, Dena, was nearly shouting, "You HAVE to do this!!"

Several frenzied emails, phone calls, and Tweets later, I was 98% convinced that this was no prank, so I began packing gear and loading my car. I sent Lance one more note and said "I promise I am not some weirdo stalker or anything". He replied reassuringly, "Dude, all good. Wait 'til you see this plane!" By 2:00 a.m. I was hurtling through the night on westbound I-70, pie-eyed, hoping not to hit any deer.

I arrived in Aspen around 6:30 a.m. as daybreak begrudgingly emerged revealing low-hanging clouds all around. After a brief nap in the car, 8:00 a.m. rolled around. Lance sent me a message: "Not looking good. We are delayed for sure". My heart sank a little and I started to think I would end up driving back home with a story about how cool it would have been.

Suddenly, in the midst of my self pity, my phone came alive with a call from Katie and a text from Lance. The skies were clearing, literally and figuratively, and the flight was on for a 10:30 departure! This trip was a go, and my intestines twisted with nervous glee.

I pulled into the terminal area at the Aspen airport and immediately saw Lance behind the wheel of an SUV. I followed him through the gate and before I knew it, I was there on the tarmac next to his jet marked with a distinctive yellow & black LiveStrong-themed pinstripe. He got out of his vehicle and I was briefly star-struck, but quickly snapped out of it as I shook his hand and got down to business taking my bike and bags out of the car. I made my way up the steps to board the plane and before my eyes was the highly glossed logo of Mellow Johnny's Aviation. Unbelievable.

Soon after we sat down, he asked "You don't get airsick do ya?" I confirmed that I was not inclined to puke, but I laughed at the thought of what a disaster that would be. One of his friends texted him and asked how things were going with his "passenger". "Easy" he replied. He told me that if I had been a nutjob, they were prepared to land in Pueblo to drop me off. Apparently I passed the nutjob test - so far, so good. We taxied down the runway and he Tweeted "taking off from Aspen w/@knollio and @brphillips. LiveStrong Challenge, here we come!". There I was, "Just Some Guy", sitting next to him for two solid hours all because of a blurb etched in the annals of social networking's ongoing dialog.

I am always asked what we talked about on the plane. The truth is we didn't really talk about much of the stuff that you would expect to be discussed while being locked with Lance Armstrong inside a tube thousands of feet in the air. We talked about everyday stuff: what I did for a living, Macs vs PCs, beer, coffee, the plane, Colorado weather, Texas weather, dad stuff, bike stuff, Tour riders, etc. For some reason - lack of sleep perhaps - I didn't talk much to him about the obvious things like cancer, or more gritty Tour stories. It was more like hanging out with someone I have known for years, just having random easygoing conversation about anything. The last thing I wanted was to make him feel like he was sitting in the longest captive interview ever.

I had no expectations that I would be given anything or receive any preferential treatment. In my mind, we were just two guys who rode bikes, had families, and possessed tremendous dislike for cancer. I certainly hoped I wasn't responsible for opening up a barrage of random requests for rides on the jet. I hoped for everything to just be, well, normal. Regard him as a normal human and maybe, just maybe, I would have occasion to meet up with him again sometime, have a beer and shoot the bull, introduce my wife & kids to him.

We landed in Austin under sunny skies, and Lance was eager for me to see the hangar. "You'll want to get a picture of this! There's a huge Mellow Johnny's Aviation logo painted in there" he told me. We got off the plane, sorted out bikes and gear, and his pilot was kind enough to take our photo in front of the giant logo.

This was too amazing to be true, and I was caught somewhere between dumbfounded and oddly unfazed. After confirming with me that I indeed had transportation and lodging, Lance then headed off to an endless string of appearances, dinners, and speeches tucked around time with family & friends while I ended up in a very nice borrowed condo in downtown Austin, mercifully arranged at the last minute by my Austinite friends Steph and Jeremy. After settling in, I laid down for a nap as the reality of everything that had happened to me in the past 16 hours began to sink in.

When I woke, I checked my phone to see if anyone had called. I was flooded with a barrage of texts, emails, and voicemails. Family and friends were dying to know the details, what the plane was like, if I would get to hang out with Lance all weekend, if I would get to ride with him, on and on. I certainly enjoyed the excitement, but I let everyone know that I was not about to overstep my bounds simply because I was able to fly with him. I squelched any wild notions that he suddenly adopted me as his instant best friend in the whole wide world. By most measures, I was still a stranger.

I passed the weekend wandering around downtown, absorbing the vibe of Austin, making multiple visits to Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop (the coolest bike shop on the planet), Juan Pelota cafe, and milling about at the convention center where the LiveStrong Village was set up. I enjoyed hearing people all around talking about Lance with admiration. "I'm not sure he's even coming this year since he and Anna just had a baby" one lady said. All the while, I just bit my tongue and smiled knowingly because I was not in this for personal glory and I certainly didn't want to brag or be "that guy".

Sunday as the sun rose over Texas, some 3,200 cyclists and I lined up in Dripping Springs ready to ride the 2010 edition of the LiveStrong Challenge.There were so many stories all around me - stories of sadness, of survival, hope, and inspiration. Two guys to my left had each lost a leg to cancer, but there they were ready to ride, defiant. Nearly everyone had a tag pinned to their jersey with messages of their own personal reasons for being there - "In Honor Of…" "Survivor" or "In Memory Of…" - and there were many who had affixed photos of loved ones who had endured cancer. While the trip on Lance's jet was beyond my wildest dreams, this was the reason I came. My sister from San Antonio met me at the finish line and we hugged knowing that our parents would have been proud.

Monday morning arrived entirely too early as I got out of bed with plenty of time to spare, again not wanting to risk being late. Steph took me to the hangar, helped me with my bike & gear, and we lingered a bit in hopes that she too would get to meet Lance. Soon, two vehicles pulled up to the plane and he greeted us. Steph was thrilled with that moment, but I think she nearly wet herself when Lance asked her if she wanted to see inside the plane. "You want a ride to Aspen?" he asked her as we climbed the steps into the cabin. I'm sure she pondered it seriously for a moment because declining an invitation from Mr. Armstrong is not a decision one takes lightly. I hugged Steph goodbye then settled into my seat, smiling to myself knowing that her brief experience in itself was pretty incredible.

As soon as the door was closed, word came that we would not be landing in Aspen due to a snow storm. We settled in for the ride, enjoyed a nice breakfast of coffee, yogurt, fruit, and granola, then relaxed after the weekend blur. Finally, news from the cockpit was that our destination would be Grand Junction, CO, about 2 hours from Aspen by car. This could only mean one thing: road trip.

After touching down safely, one of Lance's friends pulled up in her vehicle, complete with a bike rack of course. We loaded up the car, latched my bike to the rack, Lance got behind the wheel, and we were off.

It has been well documented that Lance is very competitive, and driving from Grand Junction to Aspen confirmed that. Every second does indeed count for him. He had been scheduled for a photo shoot for Oakley Eyewear that morning, so the drive was not only a time trial to meet that obligation, but also a race against the clock to beat his time from his last Grand Junction-Aspen trip. It struck me as surreal that others on the highway were completely oblivious to the fact that they had just been passed by Lance Armstrong. Unfortunately, the time trial was interrupted by my earlier intake of two bottles of water, coffee, and orange juice on the plane. He kindly and patiently pulled into a gas station, much to my relief.

Finally, we arrived at the the Aspen airport, cold and blowing snow swirling all around us and it hit me that this unimaginable journey had come to an end. I hopped out of the car and began pulling my bags out of the hatch while Lance took my bike off the rack. My only impulsive thought at that moment was that I had to snap a photo of him un-latching my bike. It didn't occur to me until too late that the cooler thing to do would have been to actually help him. We shook hands and I thanked him emphatically for the experience of a lifetime, one that I would never forget. True to form, he told me to let him know when I had made it safely back to Denver and to stay in touch.

It was 8:30 p.m. when I finally pulled into my driveway. Good ol' Highlands Ranch, Colorado. The jet-setting dance was over. After the hugs and kisses from my family, I sent Lance a message to let him know I survived the snowy drive. "Glad u made it safe. Thx for not being some weirdo. Good times. Stay in touch." he replied.

During the time I spent with him, he was very personable, accommodating, cordial, and he made me feel like part of the gang. This was a man I could be glad to have supported over the years. This was someone I would continue to support and defend - one of a small handful of people for whom I would take a bullet. He has his detractors and he is perpetually under attack from those who seek to harm his image and his legacy. It pains me to think that anyone would willingly want to tarnish someone who has done so much in the world and given so much hope & inspiration to so many through charitable work. Their twisted reasons do not matter to me. The man I saw was simply a father and a regular guy who happened to be successful in many facets of life. All the while, he has not forgotten those who helped him and those for whom he toils without respite.

Although it manifested itself in a much more grand fashion than I ever could have imagined, the dream I had did come true. Maybe it was because I never lost sight of it, or maybe Twitter just happened to be a technology available at precisely the right moment in time. Regardless, now I have this story and with it comes my hope that in some small way it will contribute to the mission of Lance Armstrong and the message of LiveStrong.

Thanks again, Lance.

(Thanks for reading. Here's a shameless plug. If you would like to contribute to the mission of LiveStrong and join the fight against cancer, please visit my page at http://austin2011.livestrong.org/brianphillips)

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