Somehow, somebody got the idea that Lance Armstrong could be beaten in the Tour de France this year. The talk started weeks before the event, indications that Spanish teams, which were riding well, were seeing cracks in his armor. Armstrong had won the Dauphin�-Lib�r� and the Midi Libre, two tough multiday stage races before the Tour, but he didn't win their individual time trials, events that used to be his strength. And didn't he finish second in the Criterium International last March? Didn't that show his vulnerability?
Then the Tour de France began, and there came the clearest sign of his decline: On July 15, in the ninth stage, Armstrong, who in winning the last three Tours had never lost an extended time trial, finished second. Said Team ONCE's Igor Gonz�lez de Galdeano, who was wearing the yellow jersey at the time, "The Tour has changed."
Thirteen days later Armstrong took his accustomed place on the winner's podium on the Champs-�lys�es in Paris. He had become the first American to win the Tour four times and the fourth rider to win four in a row. By dominating the mountain stages and winning the second time trial by nearly a minute, he hammered home the point that the Tour hasn't changed, that he is still the master of this race. "After the first two mountain stages people realized Lance was as good as ever," said Team Rabobank's Levi Leipheimer, an American who finished eighth in his first Tour.
Despite the Tour's unusual layout this year, which stacked the five mountain stages at the end, it was perhaps Armstrong's easiest Tour win, if easy can be applied to a grueling three-week event that took riders over 2,032 miles of rolling valleys and vertiginous mountain peaks. With one-time winner and three-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany side-lined with a knee injury and legendary Italian climber Marco Pantani not racing because of a drug suspension, Armstrong had only one real challenger—Spanish climber Joseba Beloki of ONCE, who finished 7:17 behind him.
"Every year the media comes up with something to describe my race," said the 30-year-old Armstrong, who is a native of Piano, Texas. "The first year it was 'the comeback.' Then it was the 'the confirmation.' I don't know what it was last year. This year, for me, it's 'the year of the team.' I can't say how I compare to the rider I was in 1999 or 2000 or 2001, but this team is much stronger than it has ever been. It has made it easier for me."
Armstrong's multinational team of riders surrounded him in the peloton and provided protection so perfect it came to be known as the Blue Guard or the Lance-mobile. "We put this team together specifically for this course, and it turned out to be the best team I have ever seen," said Postal team director Johan Bruyneel, a 37-year-old former cyclist from Belgium who rode in seven Tours.
There was little that didn't go Postal's way. The weather was usually dry, and the heat, at times, was Texas-like. Even Gonz�lez de Galdeano's getting the yellow jersey early "worked out perfectly for us," said Postal's assistant team director, Dirk Demol. "We were hoping that a French rider would get it—it's such a big deal in France that his team would have to defend it—or a rider from ONCE would get it, because we know that if [team director] Manolo Saiz's team does well, he wants more and more and more [and makes his team stay at the front]."
With someone else bearing the burden of the golden fleece as the Tour rolled through the rolling hills and windswept flats of northern France, Armstrong settled in near the front of the peloton, where accidents are less likely to occur. (A near crash on July 13 cost him 27 seconds.) As expected, the Postal Service team didn't begin its express delivery until the first mountain stage, in the Pyrenees on July 18, when Armstrong was 26 seconds behind Gonz�lez de Galdeano. One by one the Posties burned themselves out and fell away like booster stages on a rocket launch as they led Armstrong on a chase of 33-year-old Laurent Jalabert of France on the final climb to La Mongie. The soon-to-be-retired Jaja had been on a solo break for about 40 km in pursuit of a stage win when he turned to see Armstrong, fellow Postie Roberto Heras and ONCE's Beloki charge past with about two miles remaining. With 200 meters to go, Armstrong pulled away from the other two to win the stage and the yellow jersey, which he never relinquished. The next day, when Armstrong again bolted past Jalabert on a steep climb for his third of four stage wins, he gave Jalabert what the Frenchman would recall as a "sad look." Passing the popular Jalabert was "a shame," Armstrong said later. "He deserves to win."
Not as long as Armstrong is riding. Asked at the end of the second week whether he thought he was "too much of a force for the Tour's own good," Armstrong replied, "I don't know. But I know that I love the race. I love everything that it stands for. It is what they pay me to do. This is my job. They say, 'Lance, we want you to win the Tour de France.' That's what the team wants, what the sponsors want, what cycling fans in America want, what cancer survivors around the world want."
Armstrong's dominance in the world's toughest cycling event after nearly succumbing to testicular cancer six years ago has made him a celebrity. In the U.S., where most of the public knows and cares little about his sport, he's undeniably famous, though if the U.S. Postal Service's huge, climate-controlled team bus rolled down the street in Seattle or New Orleans, most citizens would assume it was carrying mail, not the world's best cyclist. In France, however, the bus is a gray-and-blue magnet to autograph seekers and media hordes from around the world. Other Tour teams have similar buses, but none of the other teams set up retractable-tape barriers as soon as they pull into a stage's departure town. No other team has bouncers. Armstrong travels the Tour with two bodyguards, at least one of whom is with him in public at all times.