Lance rides into the sunset, clouding America's future
Posted: Tuesday July 26, 2005 3:43PM; Updated: Tuesday July 26, 2005 5:00PM
With Armstrong retiring, it may be awhile before another American wins the Tour.
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
PARIS -- Sunday dawned damp and gray here, weather to match my mood. This would be last stage of Lance Armstrong's career, his final at-bat, as it were. And while the man the French call Le Boss may be looking forward to life without saddle sores, to some beach time with Sheryl Crow and his kids, I'm feeling some yellow withdrawal.
Pulling for Armstrong always has felt a bit like cheating. (It would feel like cheating, I should say, if I could pull for any athlete -- or put aside for even a moment the ironclad ethics that have defined my career in journalist.)
You know what I'm saying. To be a sports fan is to ally yourself, through ups and downs, in sickness and in health, to your favorite team. But this immutable law of fandom has never applied to Lance. Armstrong fans weren't spoiled; Yankees fans were spoiled. Armstrong fans were beyond spoiled, having lived in some alternate reality in which, while there may be occasional suspense and uncertainty -- Whoa, check it out: Ivan Basso is up seven seconds at the first time check! Can Lance come back? -- there are no disappointments, no major defeats. There is no downside. Of course Lance made up those seven seconds against Basso in the final time trial in St. Etienne. Of course he padded his lead that day and won the race the next.
Through seven years and seven Tour de France wins, Armstrong fretted and suffered -- put in the time in the wind tunnel, reconned the mountains, weighed his food -- so we wouldn't have to. It was glorious while it lasted, right through the moment he crossed the finish line on the Champs Elysées.
Now, the hangover. Yes, I know it's a golden era in American cycling. We may be losing Lance, Levi Leipheimer told me in June, "But we still have the best-ever group of riders left over." Check it out: Levi finished sixth in the Tour de France, his third top-10 finish in this race. (Still, he must have been bummed. Had his Gerolsteiner teammates not fallen asleep at the wheel on Sunday, allowing Alexandre Vinokourov to sprint ahead and win the stage on the Champs Elysées, Leipheimer would have come in fifth.)
Les autres Americains: Floyd Landis placed a highly respectable ninth, though I expected better from him. It didn't help that his Phonak team seemed, at times, in disarray. Team Discovery super-domestique George Hincapie's 14th-place finish included an epic victory in the Tour's most brutal stage. As Armstrong pointed out, who knows where the Big Hink would finish this race if he was allowed to ride for himself?
With a smoking fourth-place finish in the final time trial, CSC rider Bobby Julich jumped to 17th. And no American seemed to be having a better time at this Tour than Saunier-Duval's Chris Horner, who rode aggressively, smiled constantly and got some serious face time on TV. Back home, tending to his wounds, was David Zabriskie, who shocked the Tour by winning its opening time trial, then spent three days in yellow before crashing hard and abandoning the race.
So even if no American wins this race over the next few years, U.S. cyclists will be in the mix, winning stages, animating the race. Once those guys are out of the picture, however -- only Zabriskie will be under 30 next year -- the situation becomes a bit grim. The ascendance of Armstrong did not correspond, unfortunately (inexcusably?), with a corresponding uptick in grooming of young riders.