When you are Lance Armstrong and you've survived 12 rumors on your lungs, two on your brain and a cancer-ravaged testicle the size of a lemon, the French Alps start to look like speed bumps. When you are Lance Armstrong and you keep an expired driver's license in your wallet because it shows you in Death's lobby, your face paler than 1% milk, your eyebrows and eyelashes and hair missing, and your eyes as two yellow moons, a six-hour ride up and down murderous mountains sounds like a Tupperware party.
So no wonder Armstrong delivered two of the most remarkable days in Tour de France history last week, tearing through the French Alps as if he were double-parked somewhere, dancing on his pedals, nobody coming within a yodel of him. No wonder he took both classic mountain stages, l' Alpe d'Huez and Chamrousse, and crumpled them in his riding gloves, making up 22 minutes on the leader in two days. No wonder he breezed through the next three stages, in the Pyrenees, taking possession of the leader's yellow Jersey last Saturday and opening up a five-minute, five-second lead on Sunday. Unless the Eiffel Tower falls on him, Armstrong will become the fifth man to win the Tour de France three years in a row. "It's just so much fun," he said.
Unless you're trying to catch him. "We keep waiting for this man to have a bad day," said the director of rival Team Telekom, Rudy Pevenage, "but the only bad day he has is the day after celebrating in Paris."
Did you expect any less? Could the Alps do anything to Armstrong that cancer didn't? Could they give him more stitches, sweats, shivers? Could they be more cruel? Could they leave him more swollen, aching, broken? Don't the mountains and the disease both call for heart monitors and doctors at the ready and unending attention to red-blood-cell counts? Don't you need an unbending will, a strength deep inside to get you through both?
No, the Alps separate men like Armstrong from the rest, and he knew it and he waited for them, waited through nine stages of meadows and flowers, waited in 24th and then 23 rd place, waited to get to the point in the Tour de France when hearts are truly measured. He waited until the sixth hour of stage 10 on July 17, waited until he got to the base of the unforgettable 12-mile, straight-up, 21-switchback Alpe d'Huez, waited in the back of the peloton and bluffed, pretended to be winded, grimaced every time a Telekom rider drifted by to spy on him, kept pretending to suck air for the cameras on the motorbikes, kept conserving his energy in a game of two-wheeled Texas hold 'em.
Then he turned and eyeballed his greatest rival, Germany's Jan Ullrich of Telekom, eyeballed him cold, as if to say, Let's cut to the chase, and took off up the mountain as if he had just knocked over a 7-Eleven. Within minutes he reeled in the leader, France's Laurent Roux, who was six minutes ahead of Armstrong when the attack began. "I had the feeling I was being passed by a motorcycle," said Roux. Armstrong won the stage by two full minutes-think Dallas 52, Buffalo 17—beat one rider by 42 minutes (seven others never finished) and worried that he had spent too much. "I may pay for this," he said.
However, the very next day after his Huez-cide ride, he whipped the time-trial field in "The Ride of Truth" to the top of Chamrousse, the ski resort where Jean-Claude Killy won three gold medals in the 1968 Olympics, as though he'd spent the last 24 hours lying by the pool. " America doesn't understand," said Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service teammate, Tyler Hamilton. "What he did here these last two days was like John Elway winning those two Super Bowls."
They understand in the chemo rooms. "I know they're out there," Armstrong said. "Sitting there with those damn drip poles, lying in those La-Z-Boys thinking, This guy had the same exact thing I do. If he can do it, I can do it. I think of them all the time. I want to motivate them. They motivate me."
Not that he needs it. That night, after melting the Alps, he had to do something hard. He and his wife, Kik, nervously opened an envelope from her obstetrician. The cancer treatment had left Armstrong sterile, but inside was news that the in vitro had worked again, that she was carrying twin girls.
That's the thing about being Lance Armstrong—once left for dead and now more alive than any other man in sports, once broken and now more than whole—every day is an envelope you can't wait to tear open.