It was a sweet gesture, and it was as subtle as a ten-gallon hat. Two hundred meters from the finish line in last Friday's 18th stage of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong set about dedicating his victory in that stage to Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli, who had been killed three days earlier in a crash. So what if Armstrong nearly gave himself tendinitis in both elbows pointing to the sky and blowing kisses to the heavens? When you are 23 and from Texas, and you are honoring a friend buried the day before, with a victory in the world's biggest bike race, you don't worry about laying it on a little thick.
This was the year reality overtook hyperbole at the Tour de France, long known for its "killer" mountain stages. But no one overtook Miguel Induráin of Spain, who finished the three-week race four minutes and 35 seconds ahead of Alex Zülle of Switzerland and whose ceremonial Sunday stroll along the Champs Elysées was the anticlimactic end to a race he had sewn up a fortnight earlier.
As he has in winning the Tour each year since 1991, the introverted Induráin employed a cold, calculating style, and what little he had to say was of little interest. And, fairly or unfairly, Big Mig's unprecedented win—neither Jacques Anquetil nor Eddy Merckx nor Bernard Hinault, the only other riders to have won five Tours, won them in succession—was eclipsed by events that marred and then elevated the sport.
The 24-year-old Casartelli was killed after the ascent to the Col de Portet d'Aspet, the first of the six climbs in the Pyrenees that the riders had to make on July 18. The cyclists were coming off a rest day, the second of two in the 20-stage grind, and the pace had been brisk. Minutes after beginning his descent Casartelli, traveling at about 55 mph, leaned into a curve and went down, causing a crash that brought down several riders. He fell headlong and fractured his skull.
Casartelli was taken by helicopter to a hospital in nearby Tarbes, where he died shortly after arrival. Astonishingly, the Tour organizers proceeded with the afternoon's festive postrace awards program, as if nothing had happened. Stage winner Richard Virenque, who had yet to be informed of the tragedy, mounted a podium in Cauterets and, grinning, accepted the ceremonial bouquet and a smooch on each cheek from a pair of lovelies. The Tour's lack of sensitivity elicited outrage all over Europe, particularly in Italy. Had a French rider come to grief, it was suggested, the Tour would have responded differently.
The cyclists—foremost among them the veteran Italian riders—decided something had to be done. "No one felt like racing," said Andrea Peron, Casartelli's roommate. Word went around the peloton at Tarbes the next morning: There would be no race. The patron, Induráin, had been consulted and "gave his nod," according to one rider.
After observing a minute of silence and then wiping their eyes—for beneath their garish, aerodynamic shades, many of these tough men wept—the cyclists set off on a stage that was not so much a race as a hearseless cortege.
Ten kilometers from the finish the remaining riders of the Motorola team—Armstrong, Peron, Frankie Andreu, Steve Bauer, Alvaro Mejía and Stephen Swart—went to the front. With the finish line in sight and the pack a respectful 200 meters back, the Motorolans formed a kind of flying wing and rolled across the finish together. Crossing a few feet ahead of the others, by design, was Peron.
A lesson in dignity proclaimed the French newspaper L'Equipe the next day, and so it had been. "This sport is so dog-eat-dog," said Armstrong, Motorola's team leader. "For 130 guys to come together like that showed the class of the peloton."
Class, yes; common sense, no. Even as they rode in honor of Casartelli, their unhelmeted heads invited a similar tragedy. The riders complain about how hot it gets under the helmets. Fair enough. But if the cyclists were completely candid, they would have admitted that vanity was an equally powerful reason why few of them wear protective headgear on a regular basis. They liked the way their hair streamed behind them when they rode. Armstrong did don a helmet the day after Casartelli's death, but two stages later the headgear was back collecting dust in the Motorola car.