Posted: Friday August 19, 2005 2:22PM; Updated: Friday August 19, 2005 4:01PM
My seat mate on the flight into Austin was a preternaturally youthful fellow with whom I could not help sharing my secret. Before I could divulge it, George Stephanopoulos interrupted:
"Are you going down there to ride bikes with him?"
"How did you know?" I asked.
The White House had gone back and forth about possibly having Stephanopoulos down there to pedal with Bush as well. But in the end, no invitation had been extended. The former BillClinton senior advisor, now the anchor for ABC's Sunday morning program This Week, was headed to Austin to interview Armstrong. I gave him some tips on interviewing Lance; he gave me some tips on interacting with Bush.
"Are you in shape?" Stephanopoulos inquired. If I wasn't, he warned, "he'll kick your ass. He's incredibly fit."
We, the invited journalists, had been instructed to meet at the Waco, Texas, Hilton at 7:45 a.m. Upon arrival, I spied my friend Steve Madden fending off panic. He'd gone for a spin on his Specialized bike the previous evening and ridden more than 100 or so goats head thorns. Sometime during the night, both of his tires had gone flat. As Madden worked furiously with a hand pump, Ken Herman of Cox Newspapers stood over him, delighted that the editor of Bicycling had encountered such difficulties, and provided a running commentary:
"I think this may have been the work of terrorist," Herman said. "If you don't ride, the terrorists win. ... Better finish that here, because the president insists there is no inflation."
At one point Madden looked up, already perspiring, and asked, "What'd you say your name was? Shecky?"
After a 20-or-so-minute drive, we got to the ranch, wending our way around concrete barriers, past bomb-sniffing dogs and Secret Service agents whose armored vests bore the legend "Secret Service" (which, to my mind, ruined the secret).
We'd only been out of the vans a minute or so when a familiar voice came from nearby. "Thank you all for coming!"
No matter your politics, Stephanopoulos had told me, Bush is so amiable, so genuine, such good company, that you end up enjoying yourself with him, whether you intended to or not. All this came to pass. Upon meeting me, Bush said, "Look at this guy, no body fat on him!" -- a falsehood, but a polite one.
Later, pointing to his surprisingly stylish, button-up, western style Pearl Izumi biking shirt, the president asked me, as if I were an arbiter of cycling fashion, if I liked it. I did -- and not just because, you know, the guy asking was the president.
As we formed a semicircle around him, Bush explained biking's appeal -- he loves exercise, loves the outdoors, likes speed -- then told us where we'd ride. After warming up on the asphalt, we'd cruise the countryside awhile, then drop down into some of the canyons on his property. While other guys asked heavy questions -- What exercise advice would you give Americans? Will you encourage the use of bikes as basic transportation? -- I cut to the chase:
"Do you have now in your possession, or have you ever had, a pair of form-fitting Lycra shorts?"
"I have not, and probably won't have them," he replied with a smile. My guess is that the sight of him in Lycra would not be well received by the president's base.
And then we were off, the president immediately jacking the pace up to about 20 mph despite a headwind. The man who may or may not believe in global warming does not, apparently, believe in warming up. The roads being narrow, only one of us could ride next to the man.
While logging my fair share of time at his side, chatting about our heart-rate monitors, the Tour de France and the common denominator in the spills he's taken -- all it takes is a momentary loss of "focus," we agreed, and the next thing you're flying over the asphalt like Superman, and sending some Bobby in Scotland to the hospital -- I was careful not to monopolize him. Not all the journos in our group were as mindful. Two in particular (they know who they are) had no qualms about Bogarting the co-pilot's seat for 20 minutes at a time.
While the media has made great sport of Bush's falls on the bike, he was one of the few people in Peloton One -- the name of the group that rides with him -- who didn't biff last Saturday. Reuters photog Jason Reed, probably the strongest rider among the journos, found a deep rut and went down; Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times didn't see a deep hole until it was too late: down he went. I went over sideways on Achilles Hill -- couldn't unclip from my new pedals -- taking skin off my right elbow. "You'll be going home with a Texas strawberry," remarked the leader of the free world.
Madden, the snakebitten Bicycling editor, had a third flat toward the end of the ride. After some furtive radio discussions, it was decided that it would be an acceptable risk for him to use the Secret Service's backup bike -- an aged machine with "basket"-style pedals that was well beneath of rider of Madden's stature and ability. Well, of his stature, at least.
"Sorry to hold you up," huffed Madden as he caught up with us. "Oh, you're not holding us up," said Bush, graciously, before adding, under his breath, "but then, we're not going anywhere, either."
I'd heard the president was supremely fit (he is) and easy to get along with. That also was true. What I didn't expect was the number of belly laughs we had with him -- not including the sight of USA Today's Sal Ruibal relieving himself, with Bush's permission, against a tree in one of the canyons.
After we finished, and were presented with our own pair of Peloton One cycling socks, there was time for a few more questions. This was when I brought up his habit of never drafting. By never taking a pull on anyone's wheel, did he realize he was working harder than those behind him?
As one of us pointed out, "You are breaking the wind. ..."
"Wait a minute," said the president, nobody's fool. "That's a setup."