I don't care what you see and hear on television tonight. The best sports commercial of the last 25 years is Nike's "See Lance Ride" spot, launched earlier this summer.
Ask me about the 25 years before '79 and I'll say the same thing. Ask me about the quarter century still to come and my answer won't change.
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I can't stop watching it.
The opening shot, with the camera coptered in over the Northern California surf and training in on Lance, is both epic and intimate. The grand scale of what he's done these last six years and the quiet, lonely sacrifices that have made it possible are there in equal measure.
There's no voice-over, no confessions or explanations -- just the steady pulse of waves crashing and then the push of a repeated figure on acoustic guitar and, later, the sweet drone of a woman humming, like all of it, the grunt work and the glory, ain't nothing but a thing.
And it would be compelling enough just to watch him move in isolation like this, just to marvel at his drive, the way we did in the "What Am I On?" ads a couple years back. ("What am I on? I'm on my bike, working my ass off, six hours a day.") But we get more this time.
We get Lance training alongside a train riding the rails. We get a flock of geese flying over his head, a gang of Hell's Angels heading down the highway with him, and a crew of cancer kids rushing to the hospital window for a glimpse of him. We get a herd of buffalo hightailing across the plains in his wake, kids chasing him through a rainy tunnel, fireflies and bats swooping in his slipstream, a pack of city cyclists following him through the streets of San Francisco, and finally, a lone boy riding a BMX with a football helmet on, coming hard on Armstrong's rear wheel.
Johnny Burke said it. I'll say it: I get misty.
On the one hand, the sequence is about Lance. Like Dave Stoller racing the semi in "Breaking Away," he comes hard and keeps coming, at high speeds and across great distances. We know this about him. We've seen him ride clean through Jan Ullrich's heart on the hills of France. We've seen him crush Andreas Kloden on Le Grand Bornand. Seeing it played out here alongside the bikers and the buffalo is a chance to see it fresh, to admire the size of his heart all over again -- and even better, to feel the folklore in what he's done, to think of him alongside Bunyan and John Henry, or to imagine him as a magical character in some Native American creation myth.
On the other hand, the brilliance of the spot is that it isn't about Lance. Like Rocky running with the kids through the streets of Philadelphia, he pulls others into his rhythm. It becomes a gravitational thing, a harmony thing. It becomes less about the man alone on his bike and more about the connection between him and the things that move alongside him.
And it works both ways. He inspires the kids in the hospital with a raised fist. The enthusiasm of the amateurs and messengers on the streets of San Francisco, their push and flow, in turn feeds him. And in the last seconds of the ad, when the boy in the helmet rides up to Armstrong's bike, it's hard to tell whether the hero is pulling the kid or the kid is pushing the hero.
And just like that, with nothing but synchronized pictures of bodies in motion and a subtle, lilting soundtrack, the spot ads extra layers. Armstrong's illness is in it (how could it not be?) -- the way he's inspired others to stay strong in their own battles with cancer, and the way their stories have echoed in his head as he pushed through the pain of hard climbs and long hauls on the course. And the broader Lance phenomenon is in it, too -- the way his triumphs, in a sport most Americans didn't think or care about six years ago, have become metaphor and model for all of our accomplishments, in and out of sports, so that if you overcome long odds on the job or at school, you've pulled a Lance. And if you stare down your demons, you've gone Armstrong on 'em.
I'm gushing, I know. I can't help it.
Which brings me to my last, and maybe my favorite, point about the ad: It's earnest. In an era of snarky ironic poses and scatological punchlines, when most ads are looking to make you smirk or hoping you'll think they're hip, "See Lance Ride" plays it straight. Straight to the heart. Without apology, it goes for the big ideas and the looks to move you, to tears, to action, to something more. Like Stevie singing "Higher Ground," it says, "People, keep on moving." "And unless you've hardened your heart beyond recognition, it works.
Maybe you think I'm an innocent just for saying so. Maybe you think I've been suckered. This is an ad, you remind me. This is just a guise capitalism takes when it wants to take my money. The spot doesn't speak to ideas like will and connection; it just invokes them to get in my wallet.
Might be. Could be. But I'll tell you this: When I watch it, when I watch it again and again, I don't want to buy anything. I just want to ride.
(By the way, there is some excellent CGI work in the commercial from visual effects company A52 out of West Hollywood. The ad was conceived by the Wieden+Kennedy agency out of Portland. Read all about the tech side here.)
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. His "On Baseball" column appears weekly.