The evidence was everywhere, along the potholed streets of Charlotte to the rolling hillsides of the Appalachians, through the one-cop hamlet of Boones Mill, Va., all the way to the sprawl of suburban Atlanta. It was written in the red, white and blue of homemade signs and in the bold headlines of small-town newspapers. It could be heard in the squeals of the freckly faced kids who lined the dusty roadways, and seen in the respectful glances of the vanquished. Lance Armstrong didn't just win his second straight Tour DuPont, he turned it into a 12-day, 1,225-mile celebration of his arrival as American cycling's newest hero and of his ascendance to a place among the best riders in the world.
When the 24-year-old Armstrong cruised into Kennesaw, Ga., on Sunday, more than three minutes ahead of France's Pascal Herv� in the overall Tour DuPont standings, he put the cherry on top of a remarkable 12-month run. Since last season's DuPont, he has won his second career stage in the Tour de France and become the first American to take a World Cup race, at the San Sebastian world championships in Spain. After a sizzling spring in Europe, where he won the prestigious Fl�che Wallone Classic in Belgium and had six second-place finishes. Armstrong has sprinted to seventh in the world road-racing rankings and could crack the top five when new ratings are released this week. In one year he has evolved into the 500-pound gorilla of the road race at the Atlanta Olympics and shown that he may even be ready to make serious noise at the Tour de France.
"He is Superman," says Switzerland's Tony Rominger, the world's second-ranked cyclist, who finished third at the DuPont.
"Bye, king" is how Herv� bid Armstrong adieu.
Armstrong's bionic legs, savvy in the saddle, and steel will may have dazzled his competitors, but it is his charisma and matinee-idol good looks that charmed the two-million-plus fans who turned out for the dozen stages of the Tour DuPont.
Biggest thing...since Willie Nelson was the headline splashed across the front page of The Roanoke (Va.) Times the day after Armstrong won the fifth stage there, for one of his five stage victories. In Blacksburg, Va., each of five teenyboppers in bikinis adorned her taut tummy with a letter from his first name. Not to be outdone, two doughy fellows in Bristol, Tenn., stood shirtless in a chilly rain to show off the LANCE and the ARMSTRONG emblazoned on their bellies (vertically, though there was room enough to go horizontally). In Boones Mill, the Sons of Confederate Veterans turned out with muskets to salute Armstrong. "We have standing orders not to shoot the one in the yellow jersey," said one militia man, referring to the leader's jersey Armstrong wore for the last 10 stages. "The others are fair game."
"It's incredible the way the fans respond to Lance," says England's Sean Yates, one of Armstrong's Motorola teammates and, at 36, a dean of international cycling. "You might say they're making fools of themselves. You never see anything like it in this sport, even in Europe with their best riders."
How did Armstrong respond to the fans? "Every man dreams of being a rock star," he said, trying to swallow a grin. Then he came clean. "I get embarrassed by all this stuff. I really do. All this attention makes me a little uncomfortable. I'm just a regular guy."
Actually that too is part of his appeal. Armstrong may be cool enough to be featured on MTV Sports, but he rarely meets a fan he doesn't have some nice words or an autograph for. He has down-to-earth interests, like fast cars and the occasional tall, cold one between training sessions. He's also a music buff, and he moved to Austin from the Dallas area a few years back when Austin became a rock hot spot. "We did training camp in Austin last year," says another Motorola teammate, George Hincapie. "That'll never happen again because we spent way too much time with Lance in his rock-and-roll joints."
Armstrong is a bit of Americana, a 5'10" slice of apple pie in a sport dominated by Europeans, which also contributes to his popularity here. Consider the heroic jingle of his name. Sort of like Buzz Lightyear. Then there's what Yates sardonically calls "the big, tough cowboy bit." Armstrong was born and raised in Piano, Texas, and he's proud of it. He slid on a 10-gallon hat to celebrate last year's victory at the DuPont and then sounded a nationalistic note in his faint twang, saying, "I don't think you should have to have 10 interpreters to interview the winner of the race."