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King of the Hill

On a route that could easily have stymied him, facing rivals who thought him vulnerable, Lance Armstrong became the first American to win the Tour de France four straight times

By Kelli Anderson

Issue date: August 5, 2002

Sports Illustrated FlashbackSomehow, somebody got the idea that Lance Armstrong could be beaten in the Tour de France this year. The talk started weeks before the event, indications that Spanish teams, which were riding well, were seeing cracks in his armor. Armstrong had won the Dauphine-Libere and the Midi Libre, two tough multiday stage races before the Tour, but he didn't win their individual time trials, events that used to be his strength. And didn't he finish second in the Criterium International last March? Didn't that show his vulnerability?

Then the Tour de France began, and there came the clearest sign of his decline: On July 15, in the ninth stage, Armstrong, who in winning the last three Tours had never lost an extended time trial, finished second. Said Team ONCE's Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, who was wearing the yellow jersey at the time, "The Tour has changed."

Thirteen days later Armstrong took his accustomed place on the winner's podium on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. He had become the first American to win the Tour four times and the fourth rider to win four in a row. By dominating the mountain stages and winning the second time trial by nearly a minute, he hammered home the point that the Tour hasn't changed, that he is still the master of this race. "After the first two mountain stages people realized Lance was as good as ever," said Team Rabobank's Levi Leipheimer, an American who finished eighth in his first Tour.

Despite the Tour's unusual layout this year, which stacked the five mountain stages at the end, it was perhaps Armstrong's easiest Tour win, if easy can be applied to a grueling three-week event that took riders over 2,032 miles of rolling valleys and vertiginous mountain peaks. With one-time winner and three-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany sidelined with a knee injury and legendary Italian climber Marco Pantani not racing because of a drug suspension, Armstrong had only one real challenger -- Spanish climber Joseba Beloki of ONCE, who finished 7:17 behind him.

"Every year the media comes up with something to describe my race," said the 30-year-old Armstrong, who is a native of Plano, Texas. "The first year it was 'the comeback.' Then it was the 'the confirmation.' I don't know what it was last year. This year, for me, it's 'the year of the team.' I can't say how I compare to the rider I was in 1999 or 2000 or 2001, but this team is much stronger than it has ever been. It has made it easier for me."

Armstrong's multinational team of riders surrounded him in the peloton and provided protection so perfect it came to be known as the Blue Guard or the Lancemobile. "We put this team together specifically for this course, and it turned out to be the best team I have ever seen," said Postal team director Johan Bruyneel, a 37-year-old former cyclist from Belgium who rode in seven Tours.

There was little that didn't go Postal's way. The weather was usually dry, and the heat, at times, was Texas-like. Even Gonzalez de Galdeano's getting the yellow jersey early "worked out perfectly for us," said Postal's assistant team director, Dirk Demol. "We were hoping that a French rider would get it -- it's such a big deal in France that his team would have to defend it -- or a rider from ONCE would get it, because we know that if [team director] Manolo Saiz's team does well, he wants more and more and more [and makes his team stay at the front]."

With someone else bearing the burden of the golden fleece as the Tour rolled through the rolling hills and windswept flats of northern France, Armstrong settled in near the front of the peloton, where accidents are less likely to occur. (A near crash on July 13 cost him 27 seconds.) As expected, the Postal Service team didn't begin its express delivery until the first mountain stage, in the Pyrenees on July 18, when Armstrong was 26 seconds behind Gonzalez de Galdeano. One by one the Posties burned themselves out and fell away like booster stages on a rocket launch as they led Armstrong on a chase of 33-year-old Laurent Jalabert of France on the final climb to La Mongie. The soon-to-be-retired JaJa had been on a solo break for about 40 km in pursuit of a stage win when he turned to see Armstrong, fellow Postie Roberto Heras and ONCE's Beloki charge past with about two miles remaining. With 200 meters to go, Armstrong pulled away from the other two to win the stage and the yellow jersey, which he never relinquished. The next day, when Armstrong again bolted past Jalabert on a steep climb for his third of four stage wins, he gave Jalabert what the Frenchman would recall as a "sad look." Passing the popular Jalabert was "a shame," Armstrong said later. "He deserves to win."

Not as long as Armstrong is riding. Asked at the end of the second week whether he thought he was "too much of a force for the Tour's own good," Armstrong replied, "I don't know. But I know that I love the race. I love everything that it stands for. It is what they pay me to do. This is my job. They say, 'Lance, we want you to win the Tour de France.' That's what the team wants, what the sponsors want, what cycling fans in America want, what cancer survivors around the world want."

Armstrong's dominance in the world's toughest cycling event after nearly succumbing to testicular cancer six years ago has made him a celebrity. In the U.S., where most of the public knows and cares little about his sport, he's undeniably famous, though if the U.S. Postal Service's huge, climate-controlled team bus rolled down the street in Seattle or New Orleans, most citizens would assume it was carrying mail, not the world's best cyclist. In France, however, the bus is a gray-and-blue magnet to autograph seekers and media hordes from around the world. Other Tour teams have similar buses, but none of the other teams set up retractable-tape barriers as soon as they pull into a stage's departure town. No other team has bouncers. Armstrong travels the Tour with two bodyguards, at least one of whom is with him in public at all times.

Few people outside his entourage are allowed on the bus. Friends like comedian Robin Williams, who pulled up to the bus on a bike in the southwestern town of Lavelanet before stage 13, or cancer patients who want a word of encouragement and a photo from their hero are the main exceptions. "Those are motivating moments for me," says Armstrong of his visits with cancer patients. "That's the way I can give back to someone who is in the same position I was."

Aside from those patients, the people who most appreciate Armstrong's accomplishments are other elite athletes. On July 10, the day the Postal Service team finished second in the 68-km team time trial between Epernay and Chateau-Thierry, Armstrong was up for the Best Male Athlete award at the ESPYs in Los Angeles. The honor went to Tiger Woods, but hockey great Wayne Gretzky couldn't stop talking about Armstrong after the event.

"I follow the Tour de France about as much as the average North American person," said Gretzky. "I only know of it because of the success that Lance Armstrong has had. Michael Jordan was the greatest athlete I ever saw. Tiger Woods is now at a point where he is going to go down in history as something special. There's not a question that Lance Armstrong belongs with those two guys. Not only because of what he has done as an athlete, but also what he has been able to come back from."

Armstrong draws similar praise in Europe -- but not from everyone. While French journalist Francois Thomazeau estimates that "80 percent of the French public respects and loves Lance," it was the other 20% that made its presence felt on the grueling climb to Mont Ventoux in Provence on July 21. Armstrong, who is randomly tested for drugs throughout the year and has always been clean, has nevertheless faced suspicion that given his domination of a drug-tainted sport, he must be illegally boosting his performance. And so he was heckled with cries of "Dope!" as he chased France's Richard Virenque, a rider who confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs with the Festina team that was ousted from the Tour in 1998 and served a nine-month suspension. While Virenque would credit his eventual win in that stage to the cheering of the crowds, Armstrong heard little support for himself. "It's disappointing," said Armstrong. "A boo is a lot louder than a cheer. If you have 10 people cheering and one person booing, all you hear is the booing."

For all his amazing performances in the Tour, Armstrong still doesn't receive the deferential treatment from the peloton that past greats like Eddy Merckx (five Tour victories) did. "Every day we come to the start with the same desire: to ride the race the way we want," said Postie Viatcheslav Ekimov, a 36-year-old Russian who was riding in his 12th Tour and helping Armstrong to victory for the third time. "But that's become more difficult. It used to be that the yellow jersey was respected. In the '90s, for example, if there was any word from the yellow jersey that we should take it easy today, everyone just agreed. But now it's a different generation, a different time. There are a lot of young riders with ambition. Everybody realizes that one day could make your whole year. So everybody tries to take his chance. Now, all the last stages just scare me. We know it's going to be so hard, so tough, so speedy. Sometimes you know there is going to be a break that you are going to have to chase all day."

Imagine the plight of those other riders in the peloton: They know there's going to be one guy they'll need to chase year after year.

By dominating the mountain stages and winning the second time trial, Armstrong proved he's still the master of the race.

This year's race was perhaps Armstrong's easiest win, if easy can be applied to a 2,032-mile, three-week event.

"This is the year of the team," says Armstrong. "This team is much stronger than ever. It's made it a lot easier for me."

Issue date: August 5, 2002