Loving every minute of it, Lance Armstrong rode the field into the ground to win an unprecedented sixth Tour de France
August 2nd, 2004 issue.
By Austin Murphy
This was most definitely not what they had in mind when they made dinner reservations at the Château de Germigney. Tucked away behind picturesque hay fields in the French village of Port-Lesney, the Château is a four-star hotel with a world-class restaurant. But as the diners savored their soupe crémeuse aux moules et saffron and their émincé de cĎur de filet de rumsteck last Saturday night, they were periodically startled by raucous laughter, robust booing and chants of "Six! Six! Six!" emanating from an adjacent room.
As the members of the U.S. Postal Service cycling team lined up for a group picture, their cacophony grew. There was George Hincapie in the second row, an adult beverage or two in his belly and a grin frozen on his face. Above him was team director Johan Bruyneel, who would later be seen wandering the Château in an aerodynamic racing helmet adorned with enormous steer's horns. To Bruyneel's left was Floyd Landis, the former mountain biker from Pennsylvania whose Mennonite relatives Lance Armstrong had pointed out to him two days earlier, while they suffered together up a French Alp called the Col de la Croix Fry. As Armstrong later allowed, "It's tough to miss eight women in bonnets."
It made sense that in addition to leading what must be regarded as the best team in the history of the Tour de France, Armstrong would serve as its unofficial relative spotter and sommelier. (He chose the wine that night at dinner.) By trouncing all comers in a 55-kilometer time trial on Saturday afternoon, the Texan had sewn up his record-breaking sixth victory in this most grueling of grand tours. His rule over the event, like his 6:19 final victory over Germany's Andreas Klöden, who came in second overall, was absolute. While Armstrong had enjoyed fatter winning margins in past Tours, he was never more dominant. He won the prologue and six of this year's 20 stages and conceded a seventh to a friend. When he wasn't carrying the day, he had quite a bit to say about who would.
Ask poor Filippo Simeoni. Moments after the completion of the 18th stage on Friday, Simeoni stood just beyond the finish line in Lons-le-Saunier, straddling his bike and decanting his woes to a circle of Italian journalists. "Today Armstrong showed the whole world what kind of person he is," charged the Italian, who rides for the Domina Vacanza team. "I've suffered another big injustice from him with the whole world watching."
Early in that day's ride across the vineyards of the Jura Mountains, Simeoni had bolted from the peloton to join a group of breakaway riders. And Armstrong had jumped on his wheel. Together they raced to the smaller group, whose riders looked at Armstrong in disbelief. "What are you doing here?" asked Vicente García Acosta of Spain. Did Armstrong, winner of four of the last five stages, intend to deprive one of them of even this morsel?
Motioning to Simeoni, Armstrong said, "I'll go if he goes."
"For the respect of the other riders," the Italian bitterly recounted, "I decided to drop back."
A CliffsNotes version of their feud: In 2002 Simeoni testified before an Italian judge that a doctor named Michele Ferrari had discussed the use of banned doping agents with him. Armstrong, for whom Ferrari is an occasional consultant, then described Simeoni to a French newspaper as a liar. Simeoni sued Armstrong for defamation. The case is pending.
Whatever you thought of Armstrong's flicking of the Italian in the 18th stage (some riders thought it a trifle bullying), it captured the essence of the 2004 Tour. All the huge talents thought to pose threats to Armstrong's streak -- Jan Ullrich of Germany, Tyler Hamilton of the U.S., Iban Mayo and Roberto Heras of Spain -- faded faster than a Ben Affleck vehicle. Armstrong imposed his will and bestrode the peloton like a crew-cut colossus.
While his teammates hit the hay after Saturday night's rowdy feast -- the next day's ceremonial ride into Paris awaited -- Armstrong stayed up. With his right leg splayed over the armrest of a chair in his room, he was cordial, chatty and astonishingly chipper for a man who'd put 2,000-plus miles on his legs over the previous 21 days. His resilience in this Tour was such that after most stages, the team doctors and soigneurs would ask him, half seriously, "Did you race today?"
Yes, but will he race next year? "For the last three or four years," he said, "a small part of me thought that if I were to win a sixth Tour, I was going to tell everybody, 'See ya later, I'm outta here, I'm done.'"
Relax, people. No Jim Brown redux here. "I'm more excited to race than I've ever been," he continued. "I love it, I'm physically able, I've got a great new sponsor" -- the Discovery Channel -- "and team in place that's better than ever." Besides, he added, "this was as much fun as I've ever had in a bike race."
His performance was a remarkable turnaround by a man whose life has been defined by a remarkable turnaround, his recovery from cancer. Yes, Armstrong won this race a year ago, but just barely, by 61 seconds. Although Ullrich crashed in the final time trial -- taking out a row of hay bales in the pouring rain -- it was the Texan who appeared to be on the slippery slope. His powers seemed to be waning. "It was a very serious wake-up call," says Bruyneel. "I think he took a few things for granted last year."
Despite rededicating himself in '04, Armstrong finished behind Mayo and Hamilton in a tune-up race in early June. After that he streamlined his life. "Turned off my computer, turned off my BlackBerry, turned off my phone and went into full training mode," says Armstrong. "Seven-, eight-hour days in the Pyrenees. We hit it hard." Each day he felt his strength increase. He was peaking at precisely the right time. The instant he started pedaling in the Tour de France prologue, he thought to himself, This is gonna be a good Tour.
It was good, but different. Unlike his previous wins, No. 6 was not marked by solo breakaways in the mountains. Unable to lose some of his rivals -- principally Ivan Basso, the brilliant young Italian with Team CSC who is his close friend and whom the Posties avidly wooed in the off-season -- Armstrong was caught up in three heart-stopping sprint finishes. That he won all three is a measure of how far he has traveled in this sport. From the mouthy post-adolescent with a huge engine and no idea of what to do with it, he has evolved into a cool old pro with a hitman's knack for knowing when to slip the knife in.
On July 20 Armstrong found himself in a group of four in a mad dash into the Alpine village of Villard-de-Lans. Pinned behind Basso just 300 yards from the finish and harangued through his earpiece by a screaming Bruyneel, who insisted that he win the stage and take the 20-second bonus, Armstrong slingshot NASCAR-style inside Basso and into a hard left turn. All but grazing the barriers on his right, he powered ahead of the Italian. Crossing the line, Armstrong punched the air, and you could see the riders behind him deflate.
The next day's stage was a kind of vertical soccer riot, a 15.5-kilometer time trial up the Alpe d'Huez. So deafeningly were Armstrong and his mates booed on their way up the mountain that they took to booing one another, as a sort of running joke, for the remainder of the race. Not all the vulgarities painted on the road were anti-Armstrong. RIP THEIR BALLS OFF, LANCE, exhorted one graffitem. He emasculated them only in a figurative sense, winning the stage while gaining 61 seconds on Ullrich and 2:23 on Basso. Though the first-ever time trial up the Alpe d'Huez may have been the most anticipated stage of this Tour, Armstrong had said all along that it would not be the most telling. He reserved that distinction for the next day's ride, a 204.5-kilometer grind with more Alps than The Sound of Music. This stage would present Armstrong's rivals with one final chance to draw blood from him. This was the day he spotted those relatives of Landis, who was sensational in pacing his boss up the climbs. Hoping to reward his vassal with a stage win, the Texan imparted this timeless advice as they crested the Col de la Croix Fry: "Run like you stole something, Floyd."
Landis did, but he was chased down by Ullrich and his T-Mobile teammate, Klöden, who attacked at the one-kilometer mark, quickly opening a 100-yard gap. Finding this unacceptable, the Postal patron reached once again for a gear unavailable to lesser men, passing a stunned Klöden for his fifth stage win. ("It was like he was in a bad dream," said Klöden's coach, Thomas Schedicrie.) On the podium Armstrong shook hands with Bernard Hinault, who smiled and said, "Perfect. No gifts."
Tour riders other than Armstrong had won five Tours: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Hinault and Miguel Induráin. That none succeeded in winning a sixth led to a belief, in the velo world, that it was simply too much to ask of a body in one lifetime.
The question now becomes, Will Armstrong go for seven? The answer is, Probably, but not necessarily in 2005. Although he claimed on Saturday to be uncertain of the terms of his contract with Discovery, it may not require him to ride in the Tour next year. He may instead ride in the three-week Giro d'Italia, a grand tour he has long wanted to try. The Giro's new director, Angelo Zomegnan, is a former cycling writer and longtime friend of Armstrong's. Moreover, next year the Giro plans to commemorate Armstrong's former Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli, who was killed when he crashed while descending a mountain in the '95 Tour.
While Armstrong repeatedly said that he "couldn't imagine" passing up the Tour de France next year, he wouldn't slam the door on that possibility. Let's face it, it's not as if he'd miss the French, many of whom refuse to believe he is not pharmaceutically enhanced. This much is certain: He will be spending less time in Europe than in years past. Armstrong, who is dating singer Sheryl Crow, has three children by his ex-wife, Kristin. Early in the Tour, Armstrong turned down an invitation to race in the Olympics, so desperate is he to be with his kids, whom he has not seen in three months.
"By the time I get home," he says, "my girls" -- twins Isabelle and Grace, who will be three in the fall -- "will be potty-trained. They'll be riding bikes." Five-year-old Luke "is already swimming across the pool. How the hell can I miss stuff like that?"
As Armstrong spoke, a man named Eddie entered the room with a basket of clean laundry. Holding up a pair of inside-out cycling shorts, Eddie asked, "These are yours?"
"No," Armstrong said.
Armstrong claimed the socks, adding, "That's my rain jacket, too."
"For sure this is yours," said Eddie, holding up a yellow jersey.
"Yeah," said Armstrong. "I'm the only guy who has one of those."