Five months ago my friend Jared said to me that Lance Armstrong was coming to town. They were looking for 40 riders that would commit to raise $25,000 for breast cancer and ride 100km with him. He knew my love for bike racing and that Lance was a fitness idol of mine. He wanted me to sign up. My first thought was “man $25,000 is a lot of money” plus I hate asking people for money. Everyone has their own charities they support and the last thing they want is to keep shelling out more money, times are tough. Plus I am right in the middle of shooting X-Weighted Season Five and I am really busy. I thought about some of the participants who have been on the show and in my opinion not try hard enough to succeed. After some reluctance I agreed. Sometimes a great opportunity slaps you in the face and I didn’t want to be the one to pass it up and make the most of it.
I had the idea of raising money by setting a Guinness Book of World Record for the largest boot camp style workout. I hoped with my name in the public eye and the cause that I would get 1000 people to pay $25 to set the record, help breast cancer and help me ride with Lance. Things started going well. I had a couple hundred people sign up online and donate. I hoped the rest would show up on the day and pay on site. It looked promising until Mother Nature decided to play games with me. On July 13th, the day of my boot camp, Edmonton had a downpour. We had to cancel the boot camp. I went to the site a half hour before the event was to start. I figured no one would be there. To my surprise about 20-25 people still showed up. The field was too wet to use but I had a nice visit with those that came to work out even with the bad weather. One family of four came from Vancouver to see me and then go to the Bon Jovi concert two nights later. They were nice enough to say that they looked forward to meeting me more so than the concert. I knew that is not really the truth but it felt good on a bummer day. With the cancellation of the boot camp I had to resort to asking for donations. Friends, family, clients, co- workers and fans of the X-Weighted show all came through for me. I raised the money that was need so now off I go to ride with Lance Armstrong.
I arrived at the Jasper Park Lodge about an hour before the ride was to take place. All of the other riders were gathered at a large tent that contained snacks and drinks for the ride. Bike mechanics were on site doing some last minute adjustments like checking brakes, tire pressure and seat heights. I knew about 10 of the riders but the rest were complete strangers to me. One lady who was riding just finished getting chemotherapy for breast cancer. She had one breast removed and was joking that at least she is lighter for riding up the hills. Unbelievable that people can still have a sense of humor under stressful situations. It was wonderful to visit with her. Talk about being inspired to never give up and accomplish great things.
Lance Armstrong arrived exactly on time for the ride. He was wearing the same jersey he wore in the Tour De France just a couple months earlier. The way he showed up surprised me a bit. It was so casual like he was just another guy showing up for a group ride at a bike club. I am not sure what I was expecting. I thought maybe trumpets would be going off similar to the arrival of a Roman Emperor. Most of the riders were gathering their cameras trying to take snap shots of him. I sat back and just took the whole situation in. Being the personal trainer I found myself staring at his body. He looked exactly as I expected, no surprises. He stands about 5 foot 10 inches tall. His face looked like he has aged normally. Most older cyclists (he is 39yrs old) tend to have more wrinkles and skin damage because of the hours spent out in the sun. His arms are as big around as my wrists are. He said in an interview that this past year he wouldn’t even dare do a push up to avoid any muscular gains in the upper body. When you are riding the mountains in France any added weight is a huge disadvantage. You basically want to have a big heart, air balloons for lungs, and powerful legs. Armstrong’s legs were unreal. He had as much body fat in one leg as I do in one of my fingers. You could see every vein pop out. It was like a road map of every street in downtown Hong Kong. His frame was narrow and compact. The shoulders were rounded forward like a senior citizen with osteoporosis, probably due to all the years spent hunched over on a bike. The narrow frame really helps with wind resistance. I admired the tightness of the man. There was not one extra ounce of weight on his body that did not need to be there. His shoulders and hips were so narrow it looked liked he could slip through a crack in the sidewalk. He has a body perfect for bike racing. A body that has the exact size, shape, weight and power necessary to excel at all disciplines for the Tour De France. Maybe this is why he has won it seven times. Also, the right mental toughness and ability to handle extreme pain for long periods of time helps too. I didn’t see this side of him since the pace of our group ride was very pedestrian.
The ride started with the 45 person peloton (bike group) in two lines. I was second in the line opposite of Lance Armstrong who rode up front in his line. I thought this would be a good spot to view his cycling technique. I was in this position most of the entire 100km ride. Everyone had the opportunity to ride up front with Lance for a few minutes. I did not want to be first because I like having something to look forward too, plus I still had to figure out “what will I talk with him about “. When it was my turn I felt no nervousness. As I cycled up beside him the first words that came out of my mouth were “Hey Lance my name is Paul Plakas, let me tell you about me.” I remember him smiling. Instead of asking him questions I just told Lance the highlights about me. I heard all the other riders asking him the same questions over and over so I figured why not let him relax a bit and I will talk. I only had a few minutes so I just talked about the relevant information about myself specific to the situation. I told him I was a personal trainer with a training studio. I explained I did a television show that was broadcasted on Discovery Health in the States. Discovery Channel was the sponsor of his team in the Tour De France in 2005. I thought maybe there was a chance he had seen the show, he hadn’t. I talked about my attempt to set a world record for the largest boot camp workout to raise the money for breast cancer. Finally I told him I did some competitive bike racing and expressed what kind of races I preferred doing. The entire time I was talking he kept saying “oh yah”. In his head I think now he was probably saying “next!”
For anyone that cycles regularly and is in reasonable shape the pace of our ride was easy. We probably averaged less than 25km per hour over the distance. There were two descent climbs that separated the group. There were a couple of people in their 70s plus a handful that could easily shed a few pounds without a problem. After the first climb there were about ten riders at the top still together. I asked Lance jokingly as we rode up the hill, “Hey Lance have you ever ridden up a road this steep before?” Laughing he replied, “no, never.”
There was a support vehicle for any of the riders that could not keep up. They would place their bike in the bed of the truck, jump in and get a ride back up to the front of the pack. The organizing committee also arranged two rest stops so that the group could refuel with water and snacks plus give the other riders a chance to catch up.
There were a few times during the ride I noticed Lance riding all by himself at the front. The other riders were busy trying to figure out who was next to get a chance up front with him. Since I was riding right behind him I took a second opportunity to visit. This time I asked him about a race he won last year called “Leadville”. It is a 160km mountain bike race in Colorado. We talked about how much single track the course had, the elevation you climb to and compared it to a race I told him we had in Alberta called the Bow 80. At one point during the conversation we were riding up a hill. Lance looked at my legs and told me I was “noodleing”. I never heard of this term before in cycling. I thought maybe it meant my one knee was moving side to side rather than in a rhythmic up and down motion. I replied “yeah my left knee does that sometimes”. He smirked and said “no you are pedaling really easy up the hill”. I now feel stupid the rest of the ride. I checked with other riders and no one else has heard of this term, maybe it is a Texan thing.
On the way back to the Jasper Park Lodge the wind was at our back. The pace was about 40km per hour and it felt easy. There is nothing better in cycling than going fast without any burning in the legs.
Upon our return, we were treated to an amazing barbeque. There were about 4 chefs standing behind the food ready to serve us. We had a choice of hamburgers, pasta, fish, meat, potatoes, salad, desert and all types of beverages. This was the best ending of any bike ride I have ever been on. Unfortunately Lance did not stay and eat with the rest of the riders. I guess he gets massaged every day.
That evening all the riders were treated to a dinner at the Lodge. The top five people who raised the most money were rewarding by getting the chance to sit at Lance’s table. The top person raised over $58,000. There were a few speeches made, none by Lance but an excellent one from Jared. A road bike worth just under $5000 was auctioned off with Lance autographing it. It went for $15,000. The evening was pleasant. I sat at a table with friends and we had a great visit.
The ride with Lance Armstrong ranks as one of the top ten things I have done in my life. Even though it was a great day it could have been better. If I were allowed to give Lance some advice it would be to make yourself more available on the day. He was around all the riders the bare minimum amount of time he had to be. He showed up for the ride at the last minute, left as soon as it was over, showed up to dinner late and left before desert was served. It would have also been nice if he came to each table and just talked to the people who put in a considerable effort raising $25,000 for a couple of minutes. I know I am not a superstar like he is. He is one of the most recognized people on the planet. He probably gets more attention daily than he wants and can’t go anywhere without people coming up to him asking for an autograph. Even with all this if I were in his shoes I am pretty sure I would go the entire distance. Maybe he is just shy.