Warren Miller: Thrilling memories during dinner with ski buddies
Vail, Co. Colorado
After dinner I enjoyed listening to a great conversation between two world-class athletes.
I had skied a few runs yesterday with a man whose name you should recognize, Greg LeMond. He won the Tour de France three times, and his final victory was after he was almost killed with a shotgun blast and still had 40 shotgun pellets in his body when he won.
Greg is a very good and very strong skier. He skis each run as though it is the final lap of the Tour de France and victory will be his once again if he skis just a little faster.
The other man in the discussion was by a man who was the watch captain on one of the sailboats in the Whitbread Around the World race.
Greg was talking about the final mountain stage of the final race when he blew out a tire two kilometers from the summit. He had to pedal the last two kilometers on a flat rear tire and then wait an agonizing two and half minutes for his van to show up with a replacement wheel and tire.
In the meantime the leaders of the pack and the one man he had to beat in this stage were racing down the other side of the pass at speeds up to 70 miles an hour.
About this time, the sailor compared that sort of tension to racing down the front of a 60-foot wave in 50 mph winds as he was rounding Cape Horn and dodging icebergs in the middle of the night.
Two world-class athletes telling stories of how their lives were on the line in an effort to be a member of a winning team.
Greg finally got his new tire and raced down the other side of the pass at speeds “over” 70 miles an hour and made his time back up on that leg of the course and went on to win the tour.
The various sounds of competition were compared by the two of them as Greg talked of the howling wind on a bicycle at that speed as he pedaled to make it go faster and the whirring of the gears as he pedaled as fast as humanly possible.
Against that description of sound was the sailor telling about the metallic racket of an aluminum-hulled vessel racing through the freezing cold water of the Roaring Forties.
He talked about how the noise from the vibration of the aluminum vessel increases in frequency as its speed increases on the face of a wave, even when you are trying get some sleep when you are off watch. That’s a very difficult thing to do because you know it is pitch dark out there, and when you were on watch in the afternoon you had to alter course several times to dodge icebergs as small as a 50-gallon drum that could spell instant disaster to the sailboat if you hit one at these high speeds.
The sailor told of how roaring down the face of one wave, he knew there was something out there in the dark and instinctively jammed the rudder over and broached up into the wind. This broach threw everyone trying to sleep out of their pipe berths and onto the deck. The boat was going so fast in the dark that he never did know whether there had been an iceberg that he barely missed. He just knew he had missed something.
Having watched parts of the Tour de France from in front of a TV screen, I asked Greg about how often racers crash.
“Warren,” he answered, “sometimes, even at high speeds we’ll be racing wheel to wheel, and when I say wheel to wheel, I mean my front wheel is less than three inches from the back wheel of the man in front of me, and even at speeds in the 30 to 40 mile an hour range we seldom crash. “
There had been a pause in the conversation when I asked Greg about the drug problem on the tour a few years ago.
“In today’s world-class competition in almost any sport, I think it is almost impossible to compete on that level and expect to win without using some sort of performance enhancing drugs,” he saidl. “Someone will come up with a drug that can pass the screening tests undetected, and the men and women who use the drug will get away with using it for three or four years until someone develops yet another screening method. Then, too, it depends on the wealth and power of the country the athlete using drugs is competing for and whether or not he or she gets away with being caught and still having their use of drugs shoved under the rug.”
The next morning there were four inches of new powder snow on top of perfectly groomed corduroy for all of us to ski on.
The competition of the Tour de France, sailing through the Roaring Forties of the Antarctic Ocean and performance-enhancing drugs were all forgotten as we rode up on a quad chairlift together talking about only one thing: The freedom that a pair of skis can offer, skis that had brought the three of us together on the side of a mountain in Montana with only one goal in mind, to get first tracks.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net