It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. Clinging to a 15-second lead over Germany's Jan Ullrich with less than a week to go in the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong was making his move to get an unshakable grip on the yellow jersey and his record-tying fifth straight Tour victory. With less than 10 kilometers to go on the climb to Luz-Ardiden in the French Pyrenees on July 21, Armstrong started sprinting up the mountain, attacking the 29-year-old Ullrich and a small group of other riders. Then, suddenly, Armstrong was sprawled on the asphalt, his handlebar inadvertently snagged by a fan who was waving a yellow cotton knapsack given to spectators by Cr�dit Lyonnais, the sponsor of the yellow jersey.
That would be the turning point of the Tour. While Ullrich & Co. slowed to allow Armstrong and another downed rider, Iban Mayo, to get back into the race (returning a similar courtesy Armstrong had granted Ullrich after a fall during the Tour two years ago), Armstrong remounted and got going, only to have his right foot slip off the pedal, causing him to fall crotch-first onto his top bar. "When I saw that," says Armstrong's personal coach, Chris Carmichael, who was watching on TV, "I thought, This is going to be a good thing. Lance rides much better when he has some emotion."
Fueled by pain, anger and the concern that the Tour was slipping away, the 31-year-old Armstrong sprinted past Ullrich and cranked his way up the last eight kilometers on a bike with a cracked rear chainstay. As he rode, the usually deadpan Armstrong wore a look Carmichael hadn't seen on his friend's face since 1996. "I saw the same thing when he was fighting [testicular] cancer," says Carmichael. "The same fortitude, the same intensity. It was eerie."
"I was desperate," Armstrong said later in describing his only stage win of the Tour, which stretched his lead over Ullrich to 1:07
If the French like drama in their Tour, and suffering from its champions, they had to be ecstatic about this year's race. Given the return of 1997 Tour champion and four-time runner-up Ullrich, who sat out the 2002 race with a suspension for using the recreational drug Ecstasy, Armstrong had predicted that the Tour would be tight. But the centennial edition of the world's greatest bike race was a classic in part because the elements that no rider can control—illness, weather conditions, spectator interference, crashes—shaped much of the race. (For more on Armstrong see THE LIFE OF REILLY, page 82.)
As the Tour moved into Week 2 and Armstrong's customary showplace, the Alps, he seemed off his game. He had been lucky to escape relatively unscathed from the mass crash near the finish of stage 1 that sent a few riders home and left Armstrong's former U.S. Postal Service teammate Tyler Hamilton, the leader of Team CSC, with a fractured right collarbone. Armstrong was also feeling the effects of a virus he had caught from his three-year-old son, Luke. Even in the smaller climbs the peloton could sense something different about Armstrong. He didn't have the same acceleration, the same quick cadence he usually does, and the heat was bothering him. "Everyone could see he had weaknesses," said David Millar, a Brit who rides for Cofidis. "He was tired. He was having to push himself, which was maybe not a new experience for Lance, but was a new experience for the rest of us to see. It gave everyone hope."
On the ride to L' Alpe d'Huez, a beyond-category climb famous for its 21 switchbacks and teeming crowds, Armstrong was attacked by a string of riders, including Hamilton, who had continued in the race despite excruciating shoulder and back pain. Conserving his energy, Armstrong stayed behind ONCE's Joseba Beloki, who was runner-up in last year's Tour. Armstrong came in third and took the yellow jersey. The next day, on a brutally hot stage to Gap, Beloki and Team Telekom's Alexandre Vinokourov came after Armstrong again. With a little more than four kilometers to go, Armstrong and Beloki were chasing Vinokourov down a winding descent when Beloki lost control and crashed, fracturing his right wrist, elbow and femur. Armstrong, who was behind him, swerved to the left and rode down a grassy slope across a switchback. He had to dismount and leap—bike in hand—over a ditch before rejoining the race. Again, Armstrong was lucky. There was no drop-off, no rocks. "That may have been the luckiest day I ever had," he said later.
Though Beloki was out of the race, there were plenty of other challengers, including Ullrich. In the first individual time trial, on July 18, a day in which the temperature reached 104�, Ullrich swallowed up the hilly 47-kilometer course in 58:32. Racing last Armstrong arrived at the end parched. He had run out of water and finished 1:36 behind Ullrich, who was now just 34 seconds behind. "I had an incredible crisis," Armstrong said afterward. "At one point I felt like I was pedaling backward. It's the most thirsty I've been in a time trial."
After losing 19 more seconds to Ullrich in the first Pyrenees stage, on July 19, Armstrong arrived at the finish in Loudenvielle-Le Louron the next day holding that 15-second lead but looking confused and depressed. He even conceded that the world might be witnessing his decline as a Tour champion. "It's obvious I'm not riding as well as in years past, and I don't know why," he said. "Something's not clicking."
The next day Ullrich took a gamble that may have cost him the race. On the long climb to Luz-Ardiden, Ullrich attacked, hoping to shock Armstrong, who refused to take the bait. Armstrong reeled in Ullrich to within a half mile. "For me, tactically, it was not the time to go," Armstrong said. "He was going so strong that I thought, O.K., if you are going to ride like that all day, you can win the Tour de France, because I can't continue. But perhaps it was a little bit early for an effort like that."