Few people outside his entourage are allowed on the bus. Friends like comedian Robin Williams, who pulled up to the bus on a bike in the southwestern town of Lavelanet before stage 13, or cancer patients who want a word of encouragement and a photo from their hero are the main exceptions. "Those are motivating moments for me," says Armstrong of his visits with cancer patients. "That's the way I can give back to someone who is in the same position I was."
Aside from those patients, the people who most appreciate Armstrong's accomplishments are other elite athletes. On July 10, the day the Postal Service team finished second in the 68-km team time trial between Epernay and Ch�teau-Thierry, Armstrong was up for the Best Male Athlete award at the ESPYs in Los Angeles. The honor went to Tiger Woods, but hockey great Wayne Gretzky couldn't stop talking about Armstrong after the event.
"I follow the Tour de France about as much as the average North American person," said Gretzky. "I only know of it because of the success that Lance Armstrong has had. Michael Jordan was the greatest athlete I ever saw. Tiger Woods is now at a point where he is going to go down in history as something special. There's not a question that Lance Armstrong belongs with those two guys. Not only because of what he has done as an athlete, but also what he has been able to come back from."
Armstrong draws similar praise in Europe—but not from everyone. While French journalist Francois Thomazeau estimates that "80 percent of the French public respects and loves Lance," it was the other 20% that made its presence felt on the grueling climb to Mont Ventoux in Provence on July 21. Armstrong, who is randomly tested for drugs throughout the year and has always been clean, has nevertheless faced suspicion that given his domination of a drug-tainted sport, he must be illegally boosting his performance. And so he was heckled with cries of "Dop�!" as he chased France's Richard Virenque, a rider who confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs with the Festina team that was ousted from the Tour in 1998 and served a nine-month suspension. While Virenque would credit his eventual win in that stage to the cheering of the crowds, Armstrong heard little support for himself. "It's disappointing," said Armstrong. "A boo is a lot louder than a cheer. If you have 10 people cheering and one person booing, all you hear is the booing."
For all his amazing performances in the Tour, Armstrong still doesn't receive the deferential treatment from the peloton that past greats like Eddy Merckx (five Tour victories) did. "Every day we come to the start with the same desire: to ride the race the way we want," said Postie Viatcheslav Ekimov, a 36-year-old Russian who was riding in his 12th Tour and helping Armstrong to victory for the third time. "But that's become more difficult. It used to be that the yellow jersey was respected. In the '90s, for example, if there was any word from the yellow jersey that we should take it easy today, everyone just agreed. But now it's a different generation, a different time. There are a lot of young riders with ambition. Everybody realizes that one day could make your whole year. So everybody tries to take his chance. Now, all the last stages just scare me. We know it's going to be so hard, so tough, so speedy. Sometimes you know there is going to be a break that you are going to have to chase all day."
Imagine the plight of those other riders in the peloton: They know there's going to be one guy they'll need to chase year after year.