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Heavenly Ascent

Making a molehill out of a mountain Lance Armstrong surged toward his second Tour de France win

  SI Cover Mike Powell/Allsport

By Ian Thomsen

Issue date: July 24, 2000

Sports Illustrated Flashback Lance Armstrong almost died four years ago, and on July 10 he nearly went to heaven. He was pedaling his bicycle powerfully toward the clouds atop the Pyrenees in southwest France, not far from the miraculous waters of Lourdes. It was a frigid, rainy day, and the icy winds were lashing the 162 Tour de France cyclists who dared climb the mountains, screaming at them to turn back and save themselves -- but Armstrong charged on. Like Don Quixote, he hears and sees only that which furthers his mission. "To me it was like a sunny day at the beach," he said on Sunday. "An absolutely perfect day."

It was certainly one that inspired awe. After beginning the 10th stage in 16th place, almost six minutes behind Alberto Elli of Italy, Armstrong picked up more than 10 minutes, opening a decisive lead of 4:14 over his most dangerous challenger, Jan Ullrich of Germany, the 1997 Tour champion. Even more impressive than the speed of Armstrong's climb up Mount Hautacam, which was hors de categorie (literally beyond categorization, or so steep that it exceeds the rating system), was the contrast between the expressions of his opponents, who were gnashing and fighting for each breath of thin air, and that of the 28-year-old Texan, who appeared grim, determined and at peace. It was an ascent that the legendary French climber Raymond Poulidor called unprecedented in the annals of cycling. "When I saw Armstrong," said French racer Stephane Heulot, "I had the impression I was watching someone descending a hill I was trying to scale."

By Monday, the Tour's final rest day, Armstrong had increased his advantage to 7:26 over Ullrich, who was now worried mainly about holding on to second place. With only six stages remaining in the 21-stage, 2,274.4-mile event, Armstrong seemed certain -- barring accident, injury or illness -- of wearing the yellow jersey at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris this Sunday as champion for the second straight year. "In principle we know who the winner is already," the manager of Ullrich's Deutsche Telekom team, Walter Godefroot, said after Armstrong's magnificent climb in stage 10. "No one can fight him."

It came as a huge shock last July when Armstrong won the Tour only three years after being diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Rather than being celebrated, his fantastic recovery became the subject of rumor and suspicion resulting in part from the fiasco of the previous year, when the Tour was marred by arrests and suspensions after an official team car was found to be carrying large amounts of the blood-doping agent EPO, the performance-enhancing drug of choice for modern riders. No charges were leveled against Armstrong, who admits that he has used EPO -- but only while undergoing four cycles of chemotherapy over a three-month period in 1996. At that time EPO boosted the red-cell count in his blood and was vital to keeping him alive.

How did the young man who suffered so much to stay alive react to the notion that he was risking his life to win a race? "Absurd," says Armstrong. The win-at-all-costs philosophy that plagues cycling and other sports is best revealed by the survey question routinely asked of high-level athletes: Would you take a drug that made you a champion, knowing that it would kill you in five years? In a 1995 poll of mostly Olympic-caliber U.S. athletes, more than 50 percent said they would. Armstrong believes that if those respondents could have been in his skin in 1996 -- after his hair had fallen out, revealing two horseshoe-shaped scars where doctors had removed tumors from his brain -- they would have answered differently.

"I've seen those results, and I find them hard to believe," Armstrong says. "If they are true, then those people are crazy. Look, I live for cycling right now, but one day it's going to end, and then there are going to be no more yellow jerseys, no more adoration -- we don't want your autograph, we don't want your picture, we don't want you to write a book. [His autobiography, It's Not About the Bike, is a best-seller.] One day I'm going to be a normal guy, and that's going to be fine."

For months after his cancer treatment he was adrift, with little ambition to return to the sport. When he decided to make his comeback during a cycling retreat to Boone, N.C., in 1998, he did so with new vigor. "I did train hard from '92 to '96, and I did have good results," says Armstrong, who in that time won a couple of Tour de France stages as well as the 1993 world championship. "But it was nothing compared with the training I'm doing now."

Armstrong and his wife, Kristin, whom he met in Austin while he was bald and frail from chemo, are almost Zen-like in their devotion to the here and now, and to the belief that what one does is less important than the pleasure one takes in doing it well. "For nine months out of the year it's like we're living in a monastery," Kristin said from Nice, where she was staying with their nine-month-old son, Luke. Each morning Lance -- being one of those fortunate souls who can ride his bike to work -- heads out to do his training. "And I go hard, for seven hours sometimes," he says. He returns, parks his bike in the garage and walks into the house wearing his famous work clothes.

"He comes home just like any other guy comes home," Kristin says. "The first thing he always says is, 'Where's my boy!' He doesn't look tired. He looks so happy and peaceful." Then he has a bite, naps, has dinner, spends a few hours around the house and goes to bed. "And that's that," Kristin says, without complaining. "Day in, day out, that's how we live. People see the highlights, but they don't see that it's a very, very serious commitment."

Armstrong has undergone profound changes physically as well as spiritually. The old Armstrong had a thick neck and shoulders, which, as five-time champion Eddy Merckx of Belgium told him many times, prevented him from succeeding at the Tour de France. Even Armstrong doubted his future in the great race: How could he win while carrying so much weight up the mountains? In the most unpredictable way, chemotherapy rescued him. The treatments whittled away his bulk, and while Armstrong regained his strength, he developed a new, relatively gaunt shape. He also switched from the standard method of training extremely hard to one in which he backs off slightly and goes longer. Now he weighs 160 pounds -- 20 less than the old Armstrong, who had finished only one Tour in four attempts.

As Armstrong has become sleeker, the 26-year-old Ullrich, who is possibly the most gifted rider in the Tour, has gotten beefier, having gained 10 pounds over the winter. Armstrong's other chief rival, Marco Pantani, went into seclusion in June 1999 after being thrown out of the Giro d'Italia when the results of a blood test raised suspicions of EPO use. In the fall he is expected to face criminal charges in Italy of "falsifying sporting results" and could serve time in jail. Two months ago Pantani made a surprise return to the sport in hopes of challenging Armstrong in France. "Ullrich and Pantani are friggin' posers," says Armstrong's longtime coach, Chris Carmichael. "You can't compete for the Tour de France with that kind of training."

To most workers in any job, success is a result of hard work. Before his illness, Armstrong was unwilling to make the necessary sacrifice. Now he welcomes it. "What is a sacrifice?" Armstrong asks. "You suffer a little during a training ride, you suffer during a race, and I like that. I would be really upset if I never had the opportunity to suffer. I would go crazy."

The new, improved Armstrong is tuned in to all kinds of things -- mainly those that affect his performance. He recalls every accusation and indignity that has appeared in the French press, because they help stoke his competitive fire. For all his determination to live in the moment, he's not above wanting to even the score for past insults. At the same time, he is more aware than ever of relationships. During a race last month through the Rhone Alps, Le Dauphine Libere, Armstrong did the grunt work in helping U.S. Postal Service teammate Tyler Hamilton win; he set the pace, shielded Hamilton from the wind, advised when to attack and when to back off. (Imagine Michael Jordan setting up Luc Longley to score 43 points in a playoff game.) He was thanking Hamilton for the help he provided at the Tour de France last year, and thanking him in advance for the work to come.

In football terms Armstrong is the ball-carrier and his eight Postal Service teammates are blocking for him. If he crosses the line first, then the whole team wins. So, as the team approached the first mountain stage on that miserable morning of July 10, its strategy was to go out together hard and fast in an attempt to break down as many of Armstrong's opponents as possible. They charged too fast. Halfway up the third climb Armstrong found himself alone among the top racers, unprotected. He was unable to make up any ground.

He had put in 119 miles that day when he reached the foot of the concluding 8.44-mile climb. The gradient ahead was rated at 7.9 percent -- or an average of 7.9 feet vertically per 100 feet traveled -- and was the steepest of the race to that point. Armstrong rose from his saddle and methodically pushed one foot down after another, as if crushing grapes. As he attacked the mountain, Ullrich sat frozen in his seat, unable to react. Alex Zulle of Switzerland, last year's runner-up, abandoned the chase after a few hundred yards. "When I looked back for him," says French rider Richard Virenque, who was in the lead group, "Armstrong just took off like a plane."

Javier Otxoa of Spain had broken away early and led the stage by 10:30 when the final ascent began. By the time Armstrong reached the end of the stage, he had shaved all but 42 seconds off the wobbling Otxoa's lead and seized his seemingly insurmountable overall advantage. Greg LeMond, the three-time winner from the U.S., only wished Armstrong had a rival who could have turned the stage into a terrific duel. "If Ullrich wasn't still searching for his form," says LeMond, "what was a five-minute gain in the mountains could have become a battle all the way to the top."

Perhaps Armstrong will inspire better efforts from others next year. How could anyone not take heart at the new life he has made from the old? Carmichael predicts that Armstrong has the mettle to overtake the mark of five Tour victories shared by Merckx and three others. But if Armstrong remains on his bike that long, it won't be to break a record. He will quit when he feels like it, because life is too short to be wasting time. "If he weren't enjoying what he's doing, if it didn't mean as much to him, he would do something else that did," Kristin says. "When Lance quits he will be at the top of the sport, not at the bottom."

"I love being wedded to my job, but I am going to get a divorce one day," Armstrong says. "For right now it's a good fling."

Issue date: July 24, 2000

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