With the world's best spandex-clad bikers speeding around France, New York City cyclists flocked to the hip Rapha Cycle Club Wednesday night to hear stories about the sport's most famous, and perhaps infamous (depending on how a few pending legal investigations turnout), athlete: Lance Armstrong.
Regaling the crowd was Bill Strickland, Bicycling Magazine's editor-at-large and the author of "Tour de Lance," an insider account of Armstrong's 2009 comeback. Having spent a full-season traveling with the Texan's then team of Astana, Strickland had the rare opportunity of seeing behind the heavily guarded curtain that's long shrouded the rider.
Last night, he happily dished, telling juicy stories of a less-than-confident Armstrong getting dropped during a pre-Tour warm-up race, nearly coming to blows with former teammate and rival Alberto Contador, and wearing the look of a normal man who'd just had a bad day at the office.
Witnessing a superstar humbled by such human moments transformed the author from an objective journalist into an unabashed fanboy.
"Lance seemed so machine-like in his wins, but when I saw him last year [at the Tour] he was 37; his kids were there being little monsters the way kids will be, they were running around pulling grass up and throwing it on people; Contador was there, who was like the younger guy that wants your job and is doing better than you are; and [Armstrong] looked tired, he looked like one of us. There was something about him then that really endeared him to me" Strickland confessed.
But, perhaps more surprising than observing Armstrong's normal side, was seeing last night's audience, a diverse crowd all congregating in a store devoted to a sport that was -- until recently -- stuck at the fringes of American society.
"My reaction is amazement at the mix of people that are here...people with good fashion sense. Back in the '90s, [wearing cycling clothes] was like wearing a toothpaste tube. You were like a hooker from planet neon or something, it was just so bad" Strickland laughed, before adding: "It used to be you had to be a real geek to be a cyclist, but now it's a cool, chic thing."
Part of that cool factor can be attributed to Rapha, a British-based company that makes gorgeous, vintage-inspired cycling apparel. Their new Manhattan outpost (a three-month pop up space on Bowery and Great Jones) is equal parts retail store, art gallery, and coffee shop, and serves as a hub for the city's ever-growing cycling community, a mix of tattooed hipsters, fast women, and secretly shaved-legged Wall Street execs who gather there for weekly rides and nightly viewings of the Tour de France.
"No one ever thought the growth of cycling would come to the cities, and that's where it's happening, that's where all the energy is coming from. The bike is like a coyote, it has to find a way to live in this urban environment." Strickland said, taking a break from signing books over a bottle of Kronenbourg. "This is the most fun time to be a cyclist in my life; these are the good old days."
Ironically enough, as biking flourishes in America, Armstrong's dominance is all but over. After imploding during last Sunday's first Alpine stage, the record-setting rider has been relegated to a bit player in this year's race.
Strickland, however, sees it as a mythic ending to the man's illustrious career. "I thought it was a fitting ending for him because the Tour takes its greatest champions and humbles them, it levels them. It doesn't let them out unscathed. I thought it was great that Lance won seven [Tours] and got out. Then he came back and podiumed, which was pretty cool.
"But in a really weird way, I think this completes the story of Lance Armstrong, the fact that he was just decimated by the Tour, and he had to ride uphill at 12 m.p.h. thinking about the life ahead of him while riders were passing him" he mused, before shrugging, "Maybe it's just my American hunger to see kings brought down."