The main event
Armstrong doesn't hide the fact that the Tour de France is his top priority
Posted: Tuesday April 20, 2004 12:52PM; Updated: Tuesday April 20, 2004 3:39PM
MACON, Ga. -- Sometimes our sports heroes feed us such baloney that you can't help but wonder if they stay awake nights creating the gibberish. We're talking about athletes who at the sight of a microphone race from one random thought to the next, occasionally managing even to contradict themselves.
Then, of course, you run across the strong, silent type like Lance Armstrong. The word in media circles is that he can be prickly and thin-skinned -- if and when he's in the mood to chat. But get him to sit still for 20 minutes and he'll tell you the score, direct and to the point.
The Tour de Georgia -- a six-day, 641-mile trek Armstrong is currently undertaking, and his first stage race on U.S. soil since 1998? It's a nice April tune-up, yeah. But the world's greatest cyclist doubts he's in condition to win an event built around his presence.
The Olympics this summer in Athens? Here again, Armstrong would like to finally come home with gold after not winning in the three previous Games -- but it's not near the top of his agenda.
And what about a suggestion that his late-season schedule bears all the appearance of a Farewell Tour? Retirement isn't in the works, not at 32 -- unless the plug is pulled on his U.S. Postal Service team and his riding partners are sent scurrying into the night.
"I sit around some nights and I wonder what it would be like to be retired," Armstrong says. And to think I'd be retired in five or six months is hard for me to believe."
Armstrong is totally focused on July's Tour de France, and etching his name deeper in the record books with a sixth tour win. Everything else is secondary.
This is the "grand daddy," is how he describes the Tour de France. It's that attitude that defines Armstrong's considerable essence as an athlete. It is why he goes off by his lonesome, pedaling for six hours some days, leaving his three young children back in Texas for months at a time to ride and compete in Europe.
So when he's asked about the pressures of having to headline a rare show before American fans, Armstrong doesn't sugar coat it. The Tour de Georgia is a convenient spring exercise, booked largely because it allows him to spend the month of April in the States. It also plays well with the country's most famous cancer survivor that organizers have linked the race to benefit the Georgia Cancer Coalition.
"I don't want to denigrate the race and say it is just a preparation race, because I don't feel bad about the training I have done," Armstrong says matter-of-factly. "In reality, all the races we do before the Tour de France are preparation races.
"Sometimes it is nice to win those. I have won races in April, won races in May and June. But you leave there knowing it is just a step along the way to our Super Bowl. You win the Tour de France, you drink champagne. You win a race in June or in May, you skip the champagne.
"So this is another one of those races, but it is still a big event. We wouldn't show up if it wasn't. And it offers everything that we need. It has a time trial, has hilly stages, has long stages, warm weather, solid field, safe courses."
And, of course, it has Lance Armstrong.
That says it all. Organizers can bring back defending champ Chris Horner and mail invitations to top foreigners, none more charismatic than Italian sprinter Mario "Lion King" Cipollini, but it's serious stuff when Armstrong is seen pushing through the North Georgia mountains.
It may only be April and the real training for the Tour de France kicks in next month, but everyone in the field is ready for Armstrong to push the tempo before the Georgia stages end Sunday. Nothing less would be expected of one of sports' toughest competitors, someone fortunate to have recovered from a life-threatening illness.
As Bobby Julich, another top contender, explains, "This is Lance's world and we're squirrels just trying to get a nut. If he comes here ready to play, we're all suffering."
Only Armstrong fails to see his dominance in the same light. If you listen to him, his fifth Tour title last summer was a disappointing performance, a bit too close for comfort. And while others paint him as an Olympic favorite in August, he doesn't sound thrilled to be going to the Games. That's no shocker since his final test for Athens is the three-week, 2,109-mile Tour de France, which starts July 3 in Liege, Belgium.
"Again, that is the one that I wake up thinking about every day," he says. "Not to disrespect the Olympic Games, but I am focused on winning the Tour de France. I've committed to do the Olympics, I guess. But I have to be honest in saying that all the work that I do on a daily basis is focused on the Tour de France. And when I think about rivals, I think about rivals on the Tour, but not rivals in the Olympics."
Funny, though, for all his successes, Armstrong doesn't fancy himself the Babe Ruth of baseball or the Mary Lou Retton of gymnastics. He's not a pioneer who is bringing cycling to the American public. As he sees it, most everybody has had a bike at one time or another, but too often they sit unused in a garage, an "ornament on the wall."
Maybe staging big-time races in the U.S. can create a buzz, though the landscape is already flooded with spectator and participatory sports. The difference is cycling remains hugely popular in Europe, with a tradition that dates back a century or so.
"For me it was always a simple passion," Armstrong reveals. "Yeah, it's your first chance to really get away. You run around the corner, your mom will still find you.
"But if you ride your bike a mile away, she is not gonna find you."
With a mischievous grin, the champ is a kid again.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.