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Magnifique

A dominating performance in the mountains won Lance Armstrong, the new master of the peloton, his third straight Tour de France

By Austin Murphy

Issue date: August 6, 2001

Sports Illustrated Flashback It was a simple question, posed on the eve of the 17th stage of the Tour de France. It was 11:15 p.m. in the darkened restaurant of an old stone hotel in a town called Brive-la-Galliarde, but Lance Armstrong wasn't sleepy. As a weary waiter with a napkin slung over his shoulder laid out place settings for the next morning's breakfast, the world's best cyclist shot the breeze.

He spoke of his high hopes for the Texas Longhorns offense next season and of his eagerness to reunite the next day with his wife and son, whom he hadn't seen for nearly a week. He held forth on the three Tour stages he had already won (he would add a fourth two days later) and on a friend he had lost. One question stopped the torrent of words: Are you the patron?

The patron is the unquestioned boss of the peloton, a dominant personality who commands favors, respect, even fear from the other riders in the Tour. He admonishes and badgers, bestows blessings and bears grudges. Had Armstrong become that person? He hemmed and hawed and finally offered what Woodward and Bernstein would have recognized as a nondenial denial. "I think the days of the true patrons are over," he said. "There are a lot of leaders, a lot of guys who command a lot of respect. Maybe I'm one of those."

Four days later the 29-year-old Texan rode up the Champs-Elysees to claim his third consecutive Tour victory. He finished six minutes and 44 seconds ahead of Jan Ullrich of Team Deutsche Telekom, who had basically conceded the race a week earlier. Armstrong's short, familiar trip up the podium belied the long ascent he has made over nine years. In that time he has gone from tactically inept kid -- a brash rider with an amazing gift but no clue as to how to use it -- to inspirational cancer survivor to the most dominant figure in his sport.

His triumph on Sunday put Armstrong in elite company. He is one of only eight riders since the Tour began in 1903 to have won the race at least three times. While he is not the only American in that group -- Greg LeMond won in 1986, '89 and '90 -- no other American has commanded so much respect in the peloton. Ironically, Armstrong has yet to earn LeMond's respect, but other legends of the Tour are less grudging with their endorsements.

"Armstrong could win five, he could win six, he could win seven," says five-time Tour winner Eddy (the Cannibal) Merckx, 56, widely considered the greatest cyclist ever, "as long as he stays focused on the Tour de France." Merckx made this prediction last Thursday while walking in the Loire Valley town of Montlucon with Bernard Hinault, 46, who, like Merckx, is a quintuple Tour winner. (Merckx won from 1969 through '72 and in '74; Hinault in '78, '79, '81, '82 and '85.) Each of these men, in his day, was the iron-fisted boss of the peloton. When the tactics of opposing teams became irksome to Hinault, for instance, he would ride to the front and punish the offenders by setting an inhuman pace for an hour or so.

Although cycling has seen dominant riders, the sport has not had a true patron in more than a decade -- not since Hinault's last Tour, in 1986. LeMond's Tour wins were stretched over five years at a time when cycling was still chauvinistically European. Miguel Indurain, who won the race five times in a row beginning in '91, was a quiet farm boy with no interest in the job of patron.

But over the last year Armstrong has proved to be a worthy successor to Hinault. Armstrong didn't just win this Tour; he won with courage and panache, doing Ullrich the favor of easing up in the moments after the German crashed in the Pyrenees during the 13th stage and offering a victory in that same stage to Laurent Jalabert (who was too knackered to take him up on it). "It's been a long time since cycling had a real boss," says Johan Bruyneel, director of the U.S. Postal Service team, for which Armstrong rides, and a former Tour rider. "Right now in the Tour de France, people consider Lance the boss."

He wields power in matters large and small. For example, one of the Tour's quaint traditions allows riders to sprint two or three minutes ahead if the course goes through their hometown. All requests for such privileges now go through Armstrong. "He is the big sheriff," says Italian rider Davide Bramati, a member of the Mapei-Quick Step team. "He is the law in the peloton."

Armstrong's rise to sheriff has been gradual and unlikely. He began his pro career as the sort of insolent hothead that a patron would feel compelled to rap on the knuckles. He infuriated his elders by attacking (I'm young, I've got legs, I'm from Texas -- I'm going!) at inappropriate times. In Armstrong's book It's Not About the Bike, he recalls an incident from one of his first pro races, in the early '90s, in which former world champion Moreno Argentin mistook him for another American, Andy Bishop. Insulted, Armstrong responded with a profane blast. He had a lot to learn.

Each year Armstrong has gained a clearer understanding of the rules of the game. After racing the great Italian climber Marco Pantani up murderous Mont Ventoux in last year's Tour, he eased up at the line, allowing the Italian to win the stage. Pantani, nothing if not proud, was insulted rather than moved by the gesture. He found it patronizing and didn't hesitate to say so.

With no Pantani to contend with this year, Armstrong dominated the mountain stages. While his victory on the fabled Alpe d'Huez made the best theater -- he pantomimed agony to deceive his opponents -- not until stage 13 on July 21, the penultimate day in the mountains, did he break the will of Ullrich and put the race on ice. The course took the peloton 121 miles over six cols, or peaks, in the Pyrenees en route to a ski station called Pla d'Adet. Four of the peaks were rated one (climbs are ranked on a scale of four to one; the lower the number, the nastier the ascent), and the final climb was hors categorie, beyond category -- the Tour's way of saying, You don't want to know.

Armstrong started the stage in third place overall, four minutes up on Ullrich but nine behind Team Bonjour's Francois Simon, the race leader. The first rated climb took the riders to a jagged summit called Col du Portet d'Aspet, a pass with a precipitous descent. Speeding down this mountain during the Tour six years earlier, Fabio Casartelli of Italy had lost control of his bike, crashed into a concrete barrier and died, leaving a widow and a one-month-old son. One of Casartelli's Motorola teammates at the time was the then 23-year-old Armstrong.

On a training ride in June, Armstrong had gone past the spot of Casartelli's accident, now marked with a marble memorial. Armstrong had gotten off his bike and wept. As he zipped past the memorial on stage 13, Armstrong felt a surge of confidence. "I knew I was going to win that day," he would say.

Others had different ideas. Jalabert, the redoubtable French climbing specialist, got loose on a solo breakaway that lasted nearly 60 miles, to the delight of the half million or so spectators lining the mountain passes. An increasingly desperate Ullrich, meanwhile, kept the pressure on Armstrong, right until the moment he went off the road on his way down the Col de Peyrosourde, somersaulting into a creek. Seeing the crash, Armstrong slowed. He had no desire to profit from his rival's accident. Only after Ullrich had hauled his bike out of the creek and been back in the saddle for a while did Armstrong ride away from him, past Jalabert and into the yellow jersey.

Not everyone was celebrating Armstrong's ascent. Jean-Marie LeBlanc, the Tour's directeur general, had criticized him in a French paper for lack of "warmth," for his unwillingness to speak French and for his decision to retain two bodyguards--or, as LeBlanc called them, "gorillas." While Armstrong shrugged off the remarks, they stung. "The truth is," he said with four days left in race, "I've really tried to respect the event and the French people." Indeed, Armstrong, who has a home near Nice, often signs autographs and conducts interviews in French, though, as he admits, "the little French I do have is brutal and ugly and sparse."

The French have been slow to warm to him. They resent the fact that while their heroes, foremost among them Richard Virenque, the second-place finisher in the '97 Tour, have been disgraced by revelations of doping, the American who has a stranglehold on their most prized sporting event continues to test clean. If he isn't on drugs, they wonder, then how is he doing it?

It doesn't hurt that Armstrong trains harder than anyone else in the sport. While other teams focus on the spring classics, Armstrong and select Posties are riding the Alps and Pyrenees. Often he heads into the mountains alone. After hammering up the Col de Madeleine on a rainy day in May, he was frustrated to learn that L'Alpe d'Huez was snowed in. "Anyone else would've gotten in the car, had some hot tea and gone home," says Bruyneel. "Lance turned his bike around, rode to the bottom of the Madeleine and went up it again, just so he could get another big climb that day."

That singlemindedness, that strength and strength of will, are Armstrong's chief currency in the peloton. "I am very passionate about cycling," says the Dutch rider Erik Dekker, who won three stages at last year's Tour, "but I cannot match Lance. Mentally, he is unique."

He is also the beneficiary of a superb, selfless team whose primary goal is to win the Tour de France. After Armstrong was isolated on some key climbs last year, U.S. Postal brought in the cycling equivalent of two juco transfers: Roberto Heras and Jose Luis Rubiera of Spain. Heras is one of the world's best pure climbers and Rubiera is his trusted lieutenant. There they were, escorting Armstrong on the last ascent of the final mountain stage. "It was perfect protection," says Armstrong. "It was a clinic."

When Ullrich attacked for the final time, less than a mile from the summit on the way to Luz-Ardiden in stage 14, Armstrong pulled even with him. As they crossed the line together, the German extended his right hand, which Armstrong grasped. It was a gracious gesture -- a gesture, Ullrich would explain, of concession. It was the gesture of a man who knows who is boss.

Issue date: August 6, 2001

 


 
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