It was a simple question, posed on the eve of the 17th stage of the Tour de France. It was 11:15 p.m. in the darkened restaurant of an old stone hotel in a town called Brive-la-Galliarde, but Lance Armstrong wasn't sleepy. As a weary waiter with a napkin slung over his shoulder laid out place settings for the next morning's breakfast, the world's best cyclist shot the breeze.
He spoke of his high hopes for the Texas Longhorns offense next season and of his eagerness to reunite the next day with his wife and son, whom he hadn't seen for nearly a week. He held forth on the three Tour stages he had already won (he would add a fourth two days later) and on a friend he had lost. One question stopped the torrent of words: Are you the patron?
The patron is the unquestioned boss of the peloton, a dominant personality who commands favors, respect, even fear from the other riders in the Tour. He admonishes and badgers, bestows blessings and bears grudges. Had Armstrong become that person? He hemmed and hawed and finally offered what Woodward and Bernstein would have recognized as a nondenial denial. "I think the days of the true patrons are over," he said. "There are a lot of leaders, a lot of guys who command a lot of respect. Maybe I'm one of those."
Four days later the 29-year-old Texan rode up the Champs-Elys�es to claim his third consecutive Tour victory. He finished six minutes and 44 seconds ahead of Jan Ullrich of Team Deutsche Telekom, who had basically conceded the race a week earlier. Armstrong's short, familiar trip up the podium belied the long ascent he has made over nine years. In that time he has gone from tactically inept kid—a brash rider with an amazing gift but no clue as to how to use it—to inspirational cancer survivor to the most dominant figure in his sport.
His triumph on Sunday put Armstrong in elite company. He is one of only eight riders since the Tour began in 1903 to have won the race at least three times. While he is not the only American in that group—Greg LeMond won in 1986, '89 and '90—no other American has commanded so much respect in the peloton. Ironically, Armstrong has yet to earn LeMond's respect (page 38), but other legends of the Tour are less grudging with their endorsements.
" Armstrong could win five, he could win six, he could win seven," says five-time Tour winner Eddy (the Cannibal) Merckx, 56, widely considered the greatest cyclist ever, 'as long as he stays focused on the Tour de France." Merckx made this prediction last Thursday while walking in the Loire Valley town of Montlu�on with Bernard Hinault, 46, who, like Merckx, is a quintuple Tour winner. (Merckx won from 1969 through '72 and in '74; Hinault in '78, '79, '81, '82 and '85.) Each of these men, in his day, was the iron-fisted boss of the peloton. When the tactics of opposing teams became irksome to Hinault, for instance, he would ride to the front and punish the offenders by set-ring an inhuman pace for an hour or so.
Although cycling has seen dominant riders, the sport has not had a true patron in more than a decade—not since Hinault's last lour, in 1986. LeMond's Tour wins were stretched over five years at a time when cycling was still chauvinistically European. Miguel Indur�in, who won the race five times in a row beginning in '91, was a quiet farm boy with no interest in the job of patron.
But over the last year Armstrong has proved to be a worthy successor to Hinault. Armstrong didn't just win this Tour; he won with courage and panache, doing Ullrich the favor of easing up in the moments after the German crashed in the Pyrenees during the 13th stage and offering a victory in that same stage to Laurent Jalabert (who was too knackered to take him up on it). "It's been a long time since cycling had a real boss," says Johan Bruyneel, director of the U.S. Postal Service team, for which Armstrong rides, and a former Tour rider. "Right now in the Tour de France, people consider Lance the boss."
He wields power in matters large and small. For example, one of the Tour's quaint traditions allows riders to sprint two or three minutes ahead if the course goes through their hometown. All requests for such privileges now go through Armstrong. "He is the big sheriff," says Italian rider Davide Bramati, a member of the Mapei-Quick Step team. "He is the law in the peloton."
Armstrong's rise to sheriff has been gradual and unlikely. He began his pro career as the sort of insolent hothead that a patron would feel compelled to rap on the knuckles. He infuriated his elders by attacking (I'm young, I've got legs, I'm from Texas—I'm going!) at inappropriate times. In Armstrong's book It's Not About the Bike, he recalls an incident from one of his first pro races, in the early '90s, in which former world champion Moreno Argentin mistook him for another American, Andy Bishop. Insulted, Armstrong responded with a profane blast. He had a lot to learn.