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Waiting for Andy Schleck

July 1, 2011

It felt like stealing if I asked him for something.  And yet this opportunity might never come again.

Over an hour ago, the last rider had crossed the Sacramento finish line of stage 2 in the 2011 Tour of California.  Fans spilled from behind barricades into the street to admire the race jersey winners as they raised their arms in victory salutes on stage and received sandwich kisses from two newly-lipsticked podium girls in high heels.  Nearly all of the spectators left afterwards to pay attention to the next things in their lives.  The streets around the state capitol returned to an empty late afternoon quiet.

On a side street around the corner from the stage, several people stood near a white tent and a long RV with its motor running.  A Leopard-Trek team car was parked across the alley.  Whenever a group of people lingers an hour after a stage race near a tent, it could mean something interesting, namely, someone worth waiting for.  I walked up to a young Asian man and asked, “Who are you waiting for?”

“Andy Schleck is in there,” he said, nodding his head toward the RV.  I had found doping control headquarters.  Even though he hadn’t won the race today, Andy had apparently been chosen for a random test.  I mentioned that I thought 15 minutes ago I had seen Ben Swift here, the race leader on Team Sky.  Something had kept me from approaching him.  The young man said, “Too bad you missed him.  He was there for the taking.”

“It feels odd trying to catch a guy for an autograph after he’s peed in a cup,” I said.

Another guy said, “I know.  But they’re probably used to it.”

That’s when I started to question if it was right to wait there to accost Andy Schleck as he exited the doping RV that held him up from a hot shower, dinner, and resting in his hotel room, not to mention talking to family or friends who were preparing for the funeral of one of his Leopard-Trek team members, Wouter Weylandt, who had died after crashing on a descent in the Giro just days before.

After twenty minutes I stepped back from the street for a break from sooty RV exhaust.  A blond woman a few feet from the RV held a camera in the same position by her face that I had found her in when I arrived.  I asked the Asian guy, “How can she hold that up for so long?  Don’t her arms hurt?”

“When you’re used to it,” he said, “it doesn’t hurt.  You want to be ready.”

I checked my phone, which was out of power.  So much for a photograph.  I searched my fanny pack for a piece of blank paper and pulled it out with a pen so I’d be ready.

What was I after, anyway?  Was it just an autograph, or to be able to announce when I got back home, “Guess who I met?”  Stalkers, that’s what we were.

Maybe I wasn’t that terrible.  After all, my presence here was a by-product of someone else’s decision to call Andy for a random test.  Maybe you implicitly agreed to packs of fans following you everywhere when you became a professional athlete; maybe it was a good thing, a sign of your popularity and ultimately marketability.

Forty-five minutes after I had arrived, Andy Schleck appeared.  The bib portion of his bike shorts hung around his hips.  His jersey angled up on the left to reveal a slice of pale skin on those hips, as if he had yanked on a shirt while running out of the house late to see some friends.

Andy signed a couple of photos and headed to the team car.  Breathless, I clutched paper and pen but still hadn’t decided what I would say if I got next to him and was about to give up as he placed his hand on the car door. A young woman wearing a Leopard-Trek jersey asked him for a photo. It took a couple of tries for the guy taking the photo to get it right, which afforded me time to move right behind the guy.

Andy now faced me.  “Andy,” I said.  As I spoke his eyes moved down to my turquoise pendant and cross, then back up to meet my eyes. “I just wanted to say, I’m very sorry about Wouter.”

“Thank you,” he said.  “We keep fighting.”  I brushed his bicep with my hand as he turned to slide into the car.

I stepped back onto the sidewalk, thinking, oh my God, I just touched Andy Schleck.  I regretted not asking for an autograph.  But it felt right not ask for something, and in doing so I received a gift I hadn’t conceived of an hour ago, worth way more than a scribble on a piece of paper — an exchange of words I could cradle in my heart and never lose.

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