The phone rings early on a Sunday night in Piano, Texas, and Linda Walling answers in a hurry. Lance? The motors of motherhood do not stop running even when your only child is grown and gone, off somewhere in the wide world. There can be a cutback, sure, a turn to other things, but how do you totally redirect what has been the focus of most of your adult life? A mother will always be a mother, wanting to make sure that everything is all right.
"This is when he usually calls, on Sunday," Walling says. "Every time the phone rings, I expect it's him.""
Her son is 22-year-old Lance Armstrong, America's top rider of bicycles, heir to Greg LeMond's role on the international road-racing circuit, a young guy with a movie-star name and an unlimited future. Now the calls can come from any exotic or not-so-exotic area code imaginable. Lance is on the road as many as 250 days a year, usually a half-dozen time zones away. Today he is a bit closer, in Pittsburgh, riding in the Thrift Drug Classic. A one-hour difference. "He won this race a year ago," Linda says. "Where is he? It should be over by now...."
If she had had other children, maybe her attention would be diffused. If there had been a man around, if it hadn't been mostly just Lance and Linda, the two of them growing together, working together, as she came through two quick and troubled marriages, maybe the link would not be so strong. She is happily married now to John Walling, a man she has known for seven years. They are hitting their second anniversary, but Lance...Lance still is No. 1. She says that straight-out.
"You only have your children around for a short time." she says. "You better spend your time with them while you can, because then they're gone. For a long time there were just the two of us. All I did. my life, was going to work and raising my son, and I was happy to do it."
Who else has seen all that the two have seen together? He was born when she was only 17, and they went from there with little help. She made the meals and paid the bills and paid attention. He grew and became a man. Wasn't that the deal? When he was in fifth grade, thinking that he was going to be a runner, she was the one driving him to the 10-km races every weekend, a little kid running against all the grown-up men. When he began swimming, she was the one who drove to the lake, who paid for the $25-an-hour ride on a jet ski that was an after-practice treat. When he moved to the bike, she was the one waiting by the phone as he went on solo training runs all the way to the Oklahoma border and back, calls coming every now and then to pick him up at some gas station along the route because he hadn't drunk enough water and was now dehydrated.
Calls? She has had lots of calls. There was a call after a guy ran Lance off the road and then threw a gas can at him. There was a call after a collision with a car in ninth grade. Lance flying over the car's hood. There were calls from St. Croix Island and Venezuela when he was running in triathlons as a high school kid. There was a call from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he said he had cycled past dead dogs in the streets and past soldiers with machine guns. How old was he then? Fifteen? Sixteen? That was a call. "It's terrible sometimes, but you have to have confidence in what you teach your child." Linda says. "I've always marched to the beat of a different drum. I didn't raise him to go to college but to be his own person. Self-sufficient. You have to let them go."
Gone, he is. Gone on the bike ride of all bike rides.
The goal is winning the Tour de France. Of course it is. There is only one bicycle race most Americans know about, no matter how many industry statistics are printed about how many bicycles have been sold in the U.S. and how many bicycle riders have been added to the population. The Tour de France stands alone. LeMond was the first American to win it, which he did three times, coming from nowhere, a virtual expatriate and revolutionary, pedaling down the Champs-Ely-sees at the end of 23 days of racing, with a loopy grin on his face. LeMond is 33 now, heading off the stage. A replacement is needed. Armstrong is the obvious choice.
He is the defending world cycling champion. He is either the youngest or the second-youngest winner of a Tour de France stage—history is cloudy on the subject. He is young and strong, 5'10". 165 pounds, broad across the shoulders, gifted and...not ready.