My agent called me, back in, I think 2004, to say that Johan Bruyneel was interested in writing a book about the essence of winning. This was before we all understood the extent of the doping and malfeasance that had been part of the teams Bruyneel and Armstrong led. They were both still stars, but I told my agent I didn’t think I was interested in Bruyneel’s interest. That kind of success just doesn’t interest me as much as struggle does. My agent told me to call Bruyneel anyway. I did. The first conversation we had was not about Armstrong, but about a Tour de France stage he won in 1993 as a tribute to his father, who’d died five weeks before the start of the race. We kept talking, and he kept telling stories, and, sure, the drive to win at any cost was there, along with all it took to achieve the world-beating domination, but some of the quiet moments stuck with me, and I liked the way that ran counter to my expectations. So I helped him write the book, a kind of self-helpy, how-to-succeed-in-life thing called We Might As Well Win that, naturally for back then, barely mentioned doping. Even so, there’s some bit of some truths in there, and this chapter is my favorite. I mean, shit, whatever the public conception of the guy is now, he rode off a cliff and not only lived but scrambled back up to the road and finished the race. I also like how the chapter gets deeper than the sensational one-liner summary — not many cycling fans have heard or remember the context of the stage — by using details such as the secondary characters, and the texture of the road, and Bruyneel’s thoughts. (I love that sequence: “I had a lot of time to think. I thought: I rode off a cliff! I thought: Well, this is going to be very bad. I thought: I’m dead.”) I also like the juxtaposition between what could have been the news — man rides off cliff and dies! — and what became the news: Indurain cracks! I like the comic sense that somehow comes through as Bruyneel hangs there in the air, and how it resurfaces when he revisits the site of the crash, and I like how the story dives right away from that back to the edge of tragedy. Mostly, I like the last scene, Bruyneel and Eki standing out there on the edge of that cliff, trying to figure it all out, and Bruyneel ending the whole thing with a sentence that now seems to stand as some kind epitaph.
As we rode over the top of the Cormet de Roselend in 1996 Tour de France, there was the sound all around us of shifters clicking and clicking and clicking down into harder gears. Chains jumped down onto the smaller cogs we used to push our bikes to maximum speeds. There were also little bursts of ticking as some of us coasted for a few seconds while pulling on rain jackets to avoid getting hypothermic when we began rushing down the mountainside. I could see long, thin streaks of rain smashing against the pavement. But, cocooned inside the noisy boundaries of the group, I could not hear the storm itself.
I couldn’t believe I was there, in the first group — among the leaders — on the second to last climb of that Tour’s first mountain stage. There was the five-time Tour champion Miguel Indurain. There was the Swiss superstar Tony Rominger, Indurain’s dogged rival. There was Jan Ullrich, who would go on to win the jersey for Best Young Rider in this Tour, his first, then win the yellow jersey outright the next year before becoming, famously, Lance’s most dogged rival.
It was my first year on Rabobank, and I was supposed to be the GC guy — the racer who aims at the podium or, at least, the top 10 overall, while capturing enough TV time and newspaper and magazine photos to justify the sponsor’s cash outlay. That was a lot of pressure for a lunchbucket rider like myself. On top of that, I hadn’t been feeling great since the Tour had begun. I wasn’t losing much time. My fitness was okay. I’d had some good races just before the Tour. I just hadn’t felt…right.
Until we came over that crest on Stage 7.
Normally, I wasn’t in the mix during the first big mountain stage of any Tour. I was one of those riders who became better as the Tour went on, who had to survive the early mountains and make gains later, picking and choosing my moments to be strong as the others weakened and lost their focus.
But there I was, in the rain and wind, with the biggest names in the sport. We had to get down this hill, then climb one more mountain to the finish. I had a chance to reach the end of the day in top ten — and to spike up through the overall standings.
We began shushing down the slope like skiers, leaning our bikes at crazy angles in the corners, skittering across gravel the storm had washed out onto the road. Our brakes floundered — the rims of the wheels were so wet that when you squeezed the brakes, for several seconds the pads did nothing more than squeegee water off the spinning metal surface. Anyway, none of us wanted to brake much, no matter how dangerous it was — lose ground on the descent and you would have to burn valuable energy to catch back onto the group on the next mountain road.
Rominger was just in front of me, our whirling wheels not even inches apart. Spray from his tire rooster-tailed into my eyes, across my face. I blinked hard and fast, and shot water out my nose, turned my head and spit and spit and spit. Pebbles and stones flew up from the road — flung out at 50 mph by our madly spinning tires. This was the sport of cycling at its most dangerous. And best.
I loved my job.
How had I become this lucky, to do this odd thing for a living?
Like the rippling movements of a snake, the line of racers swung out to the right, the movement starting from the front and each of us in turn following, setting up to carve tight across the left-hand corner coming up. We leaned our bikes over hard, pushing down with all our might against the outside pedal to drive the rubber of our tires down through the wetness and onto the pavement, praying for traction. And Rominger lost control.
His bike slid out, traction gone, the rear wheel starting to swing crazily right, to the outside of the turn. On pure instinct I’d flicked my bike right, keeping my front wheel away from his bike. Rominger slid wider, and I arced out right again, operating in that primal, instantaneous mode of reaction that rises from the sheer need to survive.
Rominger stayed up.
So did I.
We were going to make it through this wild turn.
I was going to finish with the leaders.
As I rode onto it, the bits of broken road and slimy pieces of stone slid sideways across the pavement, carrying me with them, and I knew I was going off the road. Time became that slow-motion, freeze-frame series of images that happens during a crisis. I had a way out. I could save myself. All I had to do was straighten up my bike, slide way back off the saddle and clamp down on the brakes as hard I could. I’d go off the road, but slow enough to avoid getting hurt, slow enough to probably be able to get back on my bike — if I fell off at all — and maybe even try to catch the group before the finish.
Then my front wheel hit a big rock on the shoulder of the road. My bike vaulted forward, the rear wheel snapping up over my head and around, and now with time slowed I could see passing below me the little, 20-inch-high stone retaining wall that lined the side of the road. Then I flew past that and off the edge of the cliff, and I hung in the air, feeling motionless, weightless, stopped in time, a hundred feet above the trees and bushes that clung to the steep, jagged incline.
I had a lot of time to think. I thought: I rode off a cliff!
I thought: Well, this is going to be very bad.
I thought: I’m dead.
History books will tell you that the seventh stage of the 1996 Tour de France is notable because a great champion cracked.
Miguel Indurain had won the Tour de France every year since 1991, and in his day he was as dominating as Lance; the rider known as Big Mig destroyed everyone in the time trials and, though he could not instantly crack apart the race in the mountains the way Lance was able to, Indurain would simply keep turning the pedals over and over in a big gear, grinding away most of his rivals or limiting his losses to the pure climbers. He never lost more ground than he gained in the time trials, which turned out to be a recipe for a champion.
I’d always liked Indurain. He was a quiet, big man, not given to showy theatrics, bragging, or antics on the bike. He just won.
He was a patron as powerful as Lance, or Bernard Hinault or Eddy Merckx or Jacques Anquitel, the other five-time winners of the Tour. Yet he never forgot that he came from humble beginnings — a Spanish farmer’s son — and no matter how many Tours he won or how much money he made, he always told everyone that when it was over he wanted nothing more than to escape the spotlight and become a farmer himself, once again working the land in the small village of Villava, as he had as a boy. And that’s just what he did.
Victory, success, fame — they never became cages for Indurain.
I also like Indurain because he was one of the very few people who believed in what Lance and I were trying to do. Before Lance was a Tour de France champion, back when we were still training, he ran into Indurain one day before a race. Indurain asked Lance what his plans were now that he’d recovered from cancer. Lance told him we were training to win the Tour de France. Indurain — like everyone — was surprised, if not shocked. But later that year, when he was asked by reporters who he thought would win the 1999 Tour, after a long, thoughtful pause — like a farmer asked to predict a crop’s bounty early in the spring — Indurain said, “Lance Armstrong.”
He had no reason on earth to believe in us. I was always grateful that he did.
But that was still three years in the future.
By the time we crested the Cormet de Roselend in the 1996 Tour, we had been riding through miserable, wet, windy and cold weather for seven days. More than 30 riders had already dropped out — one of them was a young Lance Armstrong, who quit during the sixth stage, feeling sick, hacking, afraid he was catching a cold, and unaware that in a few months he would be diagnosed with the cancer that was doubtless already in his body.
Alex Zulle — the man who at times would be my team leader and in other years would be the the man relentlessly chasing Lance as the two of us engineered Tour wins — crashed twice in Stage 7 and finished with his clothes in tatters, his skin streaking with blood in the relentless downpour. Indurain avoided falling, but something worse happened to him: He fell apart.
The champion had never liked or ridden well in cold, rainy weather. On top of that, he’d been at the peak of the sport for five years, a long time to push your body to the extremes of training necessary to win the Tour. All of this stress began to exact its toll in Stage 7. For the first time, Indurain appeared vulnerable, unable to grind his way back to the little climbers who kept jumping away from him in frenzied attacks. His pedal strokes became choppy and uneven. His face seemed dazed. Desperate, at one point he begged for drinks from his support car, taking cola in an area where team cars were prohibited from feeding the riders — willing to accept a 20-second penalty to avoid total collapse. But even with the energy boost from the soda, Indurain would finish three minutes behind the leaders, losing ground to a series of vicious attacks on the last climb, as those who had shadowed him for years sensed that the reign was over.
Afterward, Indurain himself, in his characteristic honest, understated way, would say, “My heart was willing. But my legs told me no.”
I just kept hanging there.
A motorcycle TV crew happened to be alongside us at that point. I have watched the film, and I know, of course, what I have always understood logically: I simply catapaulted over the wall and vanished over the side of the precipice. But in my memory, I hang there.
I looked down at the tree for what seemed like a long time. I had no more thoughts. I was not planning ahead, thinking about how to tuck and roll, whether I should grab a branch or try to land feet first.
I hung there, caught between two worlds.
The leaders sped down the mountain. On TV, a commentator cried, “It’s Bruyneel riding over a cliff! Across a ravine! Johan!”
Then I was in a tree. I was kind of falling and clambering down it at the same time, climbing upside down toward the ground through green leaves and brown branches, all around me the fresh fragrant smell of the tree. The next thing I remember is my head hitting something hard as I fell the last few feet or inches — I have no idea — out of the tree and onto the ground. I’d landed on a rock. The ground dived sharply away from me.
And there was my bike, beside me.
I seemed not at all amazed to find my bike right there at my side after a hundred-foot plunge off and a scrambling fall through a tree. It was like: Of course that’s what happens when you ride off a cliff. Maybe because my bike was there, my first reaction was to get back up to the road so I could get on it again. I thought: I’m alive — I might as well finish the race. I was moving, clattering up the side of the cliff, on all fours, using my hands and feet to scrabble upward. Loose dirt and rocks rushed under me. Brush gave way. I carried my bike, as if it were an injured friend I had to drag to safety.
On the TV footage, I look very skinny, and young. I am dressed in bright orange. My cycling cap is still on my head — we didn’t wear helmets in those days. I look like I’m in a hurry, not scared for my life but scared that I will miss the next pack coming by. The camera is being held over the stone wall and pointing down, and the pitch of the mountainside is dizzying. The voices of my team director and mechanics can be heard — my team car had been flagged down. The owner of the team happened to be in the car that day, and when I got close enough to the top it was he who reached over and pulled me up and out of the ravine.
There was Eki — Viatcheslav Ekimov — standing there astride his bike, waiting for me. He was my teammate then — this warhorse of a man who would go on to help Lance win some of his Tours and now works for our team as one of the directors. Someone had already taken a spare bike off the top of the car; it was shoved into my hands and without thinking I swung my leg over the top tube and Eki and I shot off down the hill.
We descended like madmen, taking more risks than I had when I was with the front group. Neither of us talked. We rode. I was not yet scared, had not yet absorbed what had happened. We plummeted down the road.
There were about 6 miles of flat road between that descent and the last climb, and when we hit the flats Eki began pounding away at his bike, driving us along the road like a two-person locomotive, an engine and a caboose. We started to ride up onto cars and support vehicles, which meant we’d caught the pack. We weaved through the traffic, blurring by cars, and came up onto the last climb. Just as the road began to tilt upward, I began to realize that I had flown off a cliff.
I had gone off a cliff.
It was if my entire body realized what had happened, and I began to shut down. It was strange: On the treacherous descent, I’d taken chance after chance with Eki, tearing down the hill, never touching our brakes, giving all we had to just to catch up with the group. Now that the speed was slowing, and now that the group was right there in front of us, my body rebelled. I summoned one last burst of energy and rode alongside Eki and said, “Go. Don’t wait for me. I’m done.”
In the long history of the Tour de France, only three men have died while racing: There is Lance’s teammate, Fabio Casartelli, who crashed in 1995; English rider Tom Simpson, who died of heart failure (later ascribed to amphetamine use) while climbing Mont Ventoux in 1967; and Spanish racer Francesco Cepeda who rode off the side of the Col du Galibier in 1935. (In 1910, a French racer named Adolphe Heliere drowned while swimming during a rest day.)
I could have been the fourth, but I wasn’t. Why? Why not? To what end? Lance says he’d have won no Tours if I’d died that day. The death of Indurain’s stony dominance would have come to seem like a minor tragedy rather than the major news it became. The next time you don’t win, ask yourself what is truly a loss.
A decade after I rode off the side of Cormet de Roselend, I drove up to spot in one of our team cars. We were using the road for training, and I was scouting out the route before the team came along. I had a passenger: Eki. He was one of our team directors now.
We stopped the car, and sat there for a moment, listening to the engine tick. The wind blew across the exposed face of the road, rustled the tree branches.
Eki said, “We rode pretty fast, yeah?”
“Yes,” I said. I’d ended up losing something like eight minutes on the last climb, but I stayed in the race. There’d been a sharp, burning pain in my leg I ignored, and the next day I’d been sore and achy, as if I’d just gotten over the flu. I’d ridden for two more days, then had to quit, because I’d been unable to walk, let alone pedal. I’d torn the muscles throughout my legs.
We opened the car doors and got out and walked to the edge of the cliff. The retaining wall was tinier than I remembered. The dropoff sharper. We stood there, looking down, then out, across at the next mountain, and the tiny roads we could see wrapping around the peaks.
Two memories rose up before me. The first one was funny.
In Lance’s last Tour de France, in 2005, we’d come over this road. Thom Weisel, one of the owners of the team, had been in the car with me, and he’d wanted me to point out the site of the crash to him. Because of the TV footage, my crash had become iconic among followers of pro racing — in the aftermath of the crash, the attention it brought me has been much more enduring, and more influential, than the physical harm; two weeks after the crash I was healed, riding the Olympics and finishing out the rest of my season. In fact, when I landed at the airport in Atlanta, there were people rushing up to me because they’d seen me launch off the cliff on TV. Lance has said he liked the toughness I showed that day, that it stuck with him when he thought about WHO would be a good director for his team.
I’d pointed to the corner and said to Weisel, “Here it is,” and started trying to tell him how it felt to hang there for so long. I drove around the corner as I told the story and ran full gas into another team car that had stopped for some reason. There was a terrible crunch, the screech of metal. Steam rose from the hood of our car. I turned to Weisel and said, “I don’t think this is my lucky spot.”
Then there was the second memory.
When I was 18, I was training in northern France. I liked the hills there, and I knew I needed to climb if I ever wanted to be anything more than an amateur racing star from Belgium. I was riding hour after hour, up and down the hills, putting as much elevation into my legs as I could stand.
I always tried to descend as quickly as I could — not so much for the fun, although I did love the thrill, the rushing air, the feeling of flight and freedom — but so I could get to the next hill. I was intent on improving, on reaching the next level. I wanted to be a star. A champion.
It began raining as I descended a steep hill. I stayed off the brakes, whoosing through corners, trusting my handling ability, full of the invincibility of youth. I was going so fast that I could see a big army truck up ahead, growing larger and larger in my sight as I gained ground on it. I veered out to pass the truck.
And there was a car.
Coming right at me.
I pulled back on the brake levers with all my might and, at the same time, stabbed my hips to the right, not so much turning as jerking my bike back across the road. I flew the full width of the pavement and smashed into a ditch.
When I woke up, I realized I could not open my eyes. I heard voices: “Pick him up. Pull him out. Help him.”
I wanted to scream out “No! I’m hurt. Don’t move me.” But I could do nothing, except listen.
Boots tramped around the ditch, and clothes rustled. I could hear metal things knocking against each other. The army truck must have stopped. The soldiers were arguing about how to help me: “Pull him out of those bushes. Make sure he is breathing.”
Then a car door slamming shut, footsteps running fast and hard on the ground, and a new voice, out of breath: “I am a doctor. Stop. Do not move this man. Do not touch him.”
I had broken the last vertebra in my back the D-12, and a piece of it had slid loose and touched a nerve. If those well-meaning soldiers had pulled me out of the bushes, I’d have been paralyzed for life. Or dead.
As it was, I was in a wheelchair for two months. I was not depressed — perhaps I was too young for that. I was impatient to get back to my destiny. With the arrogance of youth I took my recovery for granted. And it did come, though not without cost. Doctors had to put metal plates next to my spine to fuse some of the vertebrae, then go back in a year later and take the plate out. In the process, five of the vertebra are inflexible, and three of the discs were damaged permanently. Throughout my pro career, and to this day, I live with the pain from that crash.
And it was that wreck, finally, that drove me off the bike at the end of my career — that long-ago, non-televised, non-iconic private disaster that created the circumstances that led me to become Lance Armstrong’s friend and coach. It was that crash into a ditch — not the dramatic plunge off a cliff — that defeated me after all those years, thus leading me to a place in life where I could accomplish as team director what I could never do as a rider.
We stood there, Eki and I, and he said, “What was it like, then, hanging out there?”
“It was nothing,” I said. “It was nothing at all, not really.”
Chapter 13 of We Might As Well Win, excerpted with permission of Johan Bruyneel