On the 25th of July 2004, two cancer survivors crossed a finishing line on the Champs-Élysées to complete one of the toughest endurance races in the world. For three weeks the two men had ridden their bicycles up mountain passes in the Pyrenees and through Ski resorts in the Alps, endured extreme heat and icy rain, battled against raging head winds and ignored the howls of pain from every muscle fibre in their bodies.
Neither man is a stranger to suffering.
In 1996 the promising cycling career of Lance Armstrong was abruptly cut short when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Given a survival chance of only 40% by his doctor following surgery, few people thought that Lance would even be able to watch another Tour de France on television, never mind compete in one. But in 1999, after successfully completing an intensive programme of chemotherapy treatment, Lance Armstrong not only competed in the Tour de France, he won it. And he kept on wining.
As one man drew a line under a dark chapter of his life, another man’ struggle was just beginning.
Matthew Wilson is a professional cyclist, and unless you’re an avid cycling fan or from Melbourne Australia, then you’re unlikely to have heard of him. Before being diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, Matthew Wilson was already struggling to make his name in professional cycling and was taking time off from the sport to consider his future. Uninspired by the prospect of overcoming illness only to return to juggling three jobs he didn’t care for, Matt was convinced by his friend and fellow cyclist Baden Cooke to get back on his bike after recovering from the disease.
In 2003, Matt Wilson was competing in his first Tour de France. Unlike the triumphant return of Lance Armstrong in 1999, this was no fairytale. And whilst Lance was winning his record equalling 5th Tour de France, Matt was forced to abandon at the half-way mark, at which point he was 167th of 171 and almost 2 hours behind the leader and eventual winner.
Twelve months later, and whilst Lance was toasting his 6th Tour victory with champagne on the Champs-Élysées, Matthew Wilson realised a dream and hauled his broken body over the finish line in 144th place out of 147 that finished.
Under different circumstances, the achievement of Matthew Wilson might have made headline news. He might have been regarded as a patron for cancer sufferers everywhere and elevated as a beacon of hope for what can be achieved in the face of adversity. Instead, his story went untold.
Lance retired with millions of dollars of prize money, sponsorships and endorsements.
Matthew Wilson still rides his bike, crediting his 1st place in the 2007 Herald Sun Tour in his home country as the biggest victory of his cycling career.
Both men survived cancer. Both men survived the Tour de France. But there was a chasm between them.
In 2012, Lance tumbled down the void under an avalanche of evidence that he participated in the use of banned performance enhancing drug. He was stripped of all 7 of his Tour de France victories.
Meanwhile Matthew Wilson was promoted to the position of manager for the cycling team he rides for, after the previous head stepped down after admitting to doping offences when competing.
While professional cycling burned, every cheat to ever turn a pedal and make a living from the sport stood by with a match in their hand.
But from the ashes rises our phoenix.
It’s taken 8 years to arrive, but Matthew Wilson can now become the beacon of hope we deserve.