Motorola's plan to spring Armstrong for a win in one of the early, flat stages of this year's Tour had had to be revised. Sprinting into Dunkirk on July 6, Armstrong had crashed hard after he was sideswiped by the Italian sprinter Giovanni Lombardi, and he lost more than two minutes in the race standings and much of his hide, incurring painful abrasions on his right elbow, both legs, even his back.
The new plan: Get Armstrong through the mountains, let his wounds heal, then think about winning a stage. Laboring up one of the 21 switchbacks of the fabled Alpe d'Huez on July 12, Armstrong took heart upon seeing that someone had painted longhorns on the road. Then he took another spill when a spectator's camera strap snagged his handlebars.
Feeling frisky with the Pyrenees behind him on July 15, Armstrong attacked early in the 245-kilometer stage from Mende to Revel. The finish came down to a cold war of nerves between Armstrong and Sergei Outschakov of Ukraine. Outschakov outsprinted Armstrong to the finish. His best chance for a stage win gone, it seemed that the best Armstrong could hope for was to finish the race.
Trifles such as stage wins faded into insignificance on July 18 when Armstrong went around a curve and had to brake hard to avoid a third fall. "There were bodies all over the road," he said afterward. One of them was Casartelli, who was curled into a fetal position. "I thought he was holding his knee," Armstrong said. After winning the gold medal in the road race at the 1992 Olympics, Casartelli had been plagued by knee problems.
Armstrong spent the next 20 kilometers looking over his shoulder. Finally, ONCE rider Erik Breukink, who had gone down in the pileup but emerged unscathed, gently told Armstrong, "You can stop looking for him. He's not coming."
The death of a rider was announced on the radio frequency to which all the team cars are tuned, and the news made its way through the peloton. Bauer was crying, and he actually welcomed the hellish ascent up the Col du Tourmalet. "It was easier just to turn all your emotion into anger and focus on surviving the stage," he said.
At the team hotel, Motorola team director Jim Ochowicz asked his cyclists, "So what do people want to do?" There was silence until John Hendershot, one of the trainers, stood up. He said the easy way out would be for them all to abandon the race. The harder thing, he said, "would be to work through this as a team and finish the race, the way Fabio wanted to do." No one disagreed.
That night was "terrible," according to Armstrong. "Riding together for Fabio the next day made things a little better."
Two days after the memorial procession, 15 minutes into the 18th stage, an undulating, 166.5-kilometer ride to Limoges, Armstrong turned to Andreu, the only other U.S. rider in the race, and said, "I've got legs today."
He proved it with 70 kilometers to go, joining a breakaway group of a dozen riders, and proved it again 30 kilometers from the finish. As the bunch relaxed at the end of an ascent, Armstrong suddenly surged, building his lead at one point to 1:15. With the finish line in sight, he took his hands off the handlebars and signaled to his fallen friend. "Today," he said afterward, "I had the strength of two men."