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The Real Heroes in Austin

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that BMX careened into my childhood, only that it happened in 1979. All I know for certain is that, seemingly out of the blue, my neighbor Todd was tearing around our St. Louis neighborhood on a flashy chrome bike and strange blue wheels with huge starfish-like spokes.

“What kind of bike is that?” I asked him breathlessly, having finally caught up to him on my metallic green, banana-seat bike.

“It’s a Thruster,” he replied proudly.

“What are those wheels?”

“They’re mags. Tuff Wheels. They’re for BMX.”

“What’s BMX?”

“Bicycle motocross, doofus.”

Todd was one of a neighborhood cadre of surrogate older brothers who, despite regular razzing and occasional thumpings, largely tolerated me tagging along in whatever the day’s adventures happened to be. From that day forward, almost all of those adventures took place on bikes. And I wanted a real BMX bike more than anything in the world.

As it turned out, this heretofore-unknown sport of BMX was Kind Of A Big Deal, especially in California, from whence came skateboarding and all things cool-with-a-capital-C. It even had its own magazines: BMX Plus!Bicycle Motocross ActionSuper BMX and more.

Thumbing through the cheap glossy pages of these rags with a reverence usually reserved for a holy text, I thrilled to breathless recitations of arcane championship races. Reading and re-reading article after article profiling the superstars of the sport, I seasoned my prepubescent vocabulary with sunburned syntax like “bitchin’,” “rad,” and my personal favorite “full tilt bozo.” Team Schwinn rider Donnie Atherton was an early favorite. I almost felt obligated to pull for him, given that I rode a Schwinn. But my real bike hero was Stu Thomsen.

Stu Thomsen rode for Redline, makers of the bike I coveted most. He had speed, skills and a mountain of trophies and titles to prove it. He had style, swagger and — relatively speaking — fame and fortune. He was tall, muscular, blonde and tan. He had a mustache. He could jump his bike over three Porsches. He was coolness personified. All of which was otherworldly and utterly unattainable to a pre-teen me.

When I was 12, we moved across town to a new house in a new neighborhood, far away from the older brother gang. I’d already started drifting away from my fascination with BMX, drawn by new shiny objects like music and girls (also utterly unattainable, but no less compelling). I rode around on a decent ten-speed, but I never looked at it with the same reverence. After all, no one would use expressions like “bitchin’,” “rad” or “full tilt bozo” to describe riding a ten-speed.

In fact, I don’t think I cared much one way or the other about cycling again until 1986, when a fair-haired kid named Greg Lemond took the world by storm, becoming the first American to win the Tour de France. I didn’t know the first thing about professional cycling, but Lemond’s win produced the same electric excitement that I’d last felt watching the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Soviets and go on to win the gold medal in 1980. Here was a young American defying the odds and beating the world’s best in a sport where Americans weren’t considered to be serious competitors. I felt proud. And more importantly, I felt like riding a bike for the first time in forever.

Shortly after that, Lemond’s career and life were nearly ended by a hunting accident, and I moved from St. Louis to St. Paul to start college. Working as an electrician’s assistant at school over the summers before my junior and senior years, I followed Lemond’s second and third Tour wins via newspaper, grabbing the sports section every morning in the break room to see the results from the previous day’s stage. I know this sounds impossibly quaint, but this was pre-Internet and I didn’t even own a TV, much less imagine that a bike race might be televised somewhere on this side of the ocean.

Flush with new inspiration, I bought a rigid Raleigh mountain bike with the money I got from graduation gifts. My fascination with and love for cycling has only grown since.

In 1999, a brash Texan named Lance Armstrong shocked the world by winning the Tour de France — a feat made remarkable not only by his being the first American since Greg Lemond to triumph in cycling’s most famous race, but also the fact that he’d come back from cancer and the edge of death to do so. At the time, I was enthralled by mountain biking and didn’t even own a road bike. But a couple years (and a couple more Tour wins) later, my biking friends were all buying road bikes, and I followed suit.

I started ARTCRANK in 2007, and as the show grew, I wanted to use it as a vehicle to support charitable organizations rooted in cycling and the arts. So we created the Cause Partner program, an initiative supported by sponsors like Widmer Brothers BrewingClif Bar and Neenah Paper that made it possible for us to generate thousands of dollars a year for local, national and international charities — a different one in each city that hosted an ARTCRANK show.

In January 2011, just as we were starting to plan our Twin Cities show, I learned that Andy Thieman, a friend, former coworker and fellow bike nut, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. One of my first thoughts upon hearing this was, “Just like Lance.” And Andy’s reaction to cancer reminded me of something Armstrong had said in It’s Not About the Bike: “You picked the wrong guy.”

He went public with his diagnosis and started a blog called “Blood + Sweat + Chemo,” writing updates on his chemotherapy treatments and his daily sessions on the bike trainer. And he launched a LIVESTRONG fundraising campaign, working with the charity Armstrong had founded to help cancer patients and their families. He made it clear that this was a fight he was going to win, and he worked with a purpose that was as infectious as it was impossible not to admire.

When Andy and I first spoke after his diagnosis, I told him that we would use ARTCRANK MSP as vehicle to promote Blood + Sweat + Chemo and his LIVESTRONG campaign. At that point, his fundraising goal was $20,000.

In the months that followed, Andy finished chemotherapy and ended up raising nearly $34,000. His campaign had attracted national attention, especially from people at LIVESTRONG, whom he regularly wrote about on Blood + Sweat + Chemo. And in October, with a clean bill of health from his doctor, he stood on a stage in Lance’s backyard to share his story with other top fundraisers.

Two days later, he rode with Lance and his Radio Shack teammates in the Ride For The Roses. And every time he posted a photo on Facebook or updated his blog with a new story, I felt the same pride I had watching Greg and Lance win their big races. Same goosebumps, too — I get them again just thinking about it.

So when ARTCRANK committed to doing our first show in Austin in 2012, there was no question as to who our Cause Partner would be: LIVESTRONG.

Recently, I’ve had a lot cause to think about the idea of heroes, and who the real ones are. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Lance Armstrong has taken a powerful (and many would say, well-deserved) beating over the past few months. And in what Armstrong has characterized as his personal rock bottom, he was essentially forced out of LIVESTRONG.

As Lance was preparing for his interview with Oprah Winfrey and what would become his first public admission of doping, I reached out to Andy to get his take, both on Lance and LIVESTRONG.

Here’s what he told me:

“With the help of my friends, I raised over $30,000 for LIVESTRONG in a relatively short amount of time. I did it during chemo. I wrote about it every day, and posted it for the world to read. Every day.

Then, one day, I came out the other side. Chemo was over. I was feeling better. I kept writing, and my journey was far from over, but my traffic dropped from 1000+ hits a day to around 30 a day.

While my “fan club” dwindled, LIVESTRONG never went away. When I’ve needed someone to talk to, they’ve been there. When I’ve worried about fertility, they’ve been there. When I’ve visited LIVESTRONG headquarters, I’ve been treated like royalty. Doug Ulman still greets me like a friend.

They are the kindest people I’ve met – before, during and long after chemo.

Meeting Lance, lining up on the start line with Lance, riding with Lance, eating dinner at Lance’s house — all of that was glamorous and exciting. But Lance isn’t my hero. Never was. Doug Ulman and the people doing the work are the real heroes in Austin.”

We’d made our decision to support LIVESTRONG again at the 2013 edition of ARTCRANK Austin long before I had my conversation with Andy. It’s a commitment we made in late 2011 when I first met with Brian Myers of LIVESTRONG, and one that we’ve never had cause to doubt. But Andy’s words reminded of why we made that commitment in the first place.

The real heroes are the people at LIVESTRONG whose names you don’t know. The ones who work every day with men, women and children who’ve just gotten the worst news of their lives. And they’re people like Andy, who in their own darkest hours find the courage not just to fight cancer, but to fight for something larger than themselves.

We’ve been proud to stand with them. And we’ll be proud to do it again.

– Charles Youel


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