He was the American. That thought never left Lance Armstrong. The fast-food landscape was his landscape. The country music was his music. For this little stretch of his calendar year he walked like everyone else, talked like everyone else and could read every road sign he saw. The language was his language. The crowd was his crowd. Shouldn't the race be his race? He was the American.
"I don't want to finish second again," he said in Wilmington, Del.
"I don't think you should have to have 10 interpreters to interview the winner of the race," he said in Asheville, N.C.
"We were riding, and we came up to the new stadium," he said in Charlotte. "I said, 'Whoa. That's where the new NFL team the Carolina Panthers are going to play, isn't it? Cool.' "
He might be the expatriate from Austin for eight months a year, living in a condominium in Milan, Italy, or traveling the many spokes of the high-powered European bicycling circuit, but this was home. If the Tour DuPont was supposed to be America's premier cycling event and he was supposed to be America's premier cyclist, then shouldn't he be the winner of the damn thing? This was his time. He was 23, and there had been enough talk about potential and the future.
Armstrong's grand cycling dream might be to finish with arms raised in victory on the Champs �lys�es at the end of the Tour de France some July afternoon—repeating the pose of three-time American champion Greg LeMond. But the intermediate dream was to finish in front of the field in a parking lot at a shopping mall in Greensboro, N.C., on Sunday after a 12-day, 1,130-mile trip through four Middle Atlantic states. The only U.S. winner in the six-year history of the race had been LeMond in 1992. Now he was retired. Armstrong was the designated American hopeful.
"I took time off before this race, but I was very disciplined," Armstrong said, meaning he cut out late nights and rations of Shiner Bock beer. "I was home in Austin, but I didn't do a lot of the things I normally do."
Armstrong's weakness in the past two Tour DuPonts—he finished second both times—was the time trials, in which riders cover a course alone against the clock rather than with their teammates and the rest of the peloton, or pack. This was where he lost in 1994 to 29-year-old Viatcheslav Ekimov of Russia. This also was where he had done most of his work since last year's race. He had changed his position on the bike for better aerodynamics. He had changed his outlook. Time trials used to be a dread. Now he awaited them.
"I think I'm stronger," Armstrong said. "I've never felt better. I just hope I can keep this form for as long as it takes."
Armstrong took control of the race on the fourth stage, from Lynchburg, Va., to Blacksburg, Va., pulling ahead a mile from the top of the third of four mountains to be covered that day and increasing his lead on the descent. With Ekimov left behind and forced to deal with Armstrong's six Motorola teammates, Armstrong had a two-minute, 45-second bulge over Ekimov by the time he completed the stage in front of a large crowd on the campus of Virginia Tech.