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So maybe he pulls it off. Maybe next month he becomes the first man to win the Tour six times. "There's a very small part of me that wants to break this record," he said a few weeks ago in a hotel room in France. "There's a big part of me that wants to win the Tour de France, and another part that says, 'Oh, by the way, you do that, you make history.' I'm no fool: That's a cool thing."
But talking about himself in parts, in sentences burdened with qualifiers, was not Armstrong's way before. No other active cyclist hurled himself at the Tour with such single-minded fury. He had Americans with no interest in cycling suddenly caring about who was wearing the yellow jersey. The rewards have been massive: He earns $16 million a year. He has made it clear, with the Discovery Channel agreement, that he will ride in the Tour again next year; the deal, in fact, requires it.
Hours before this year's climb up Mount Ventoux, Postal cyclist George Hincapie said that Armstrong is a more relaxed, more complete rider this year. "He's stronger than I've ever seen him," said Hincapie, who has ridden with him for 14 years. Armstrong looked anything but strong, though, as he struggled up desolate, sun-blasted Ventoux. His will faded at the halfway point, and the only message he sent was one of vulnerability. Gasping to a fifth-place finish, head down, he looked, for the first time, old.
He has sandbagged opponents before, of course. But Armstrong made drastic changes in his schedule to be with his kids in the States this spring, opting out of European races and the chance to measure his top opponents. "I needed to be with my children," he says. "If that's the reason I lose the Tour de France, so be it."
In the course of one conversation, Armstrong both mulls retirement and pronounces himself horrified by the idea. There's no avoiding the end-of-an-era feeling that hangs over the U.S. Postal Service team; next year most of the members will return under the Discovery Channel banner, but as rider Floyd Landis puts it, "It won't be like this." Even though in '05 Armstrong could conceivably be racing for his seventh Tour win, everyone on the team is thinking about life after Lance.
Winning five straight Tours is Armstrong's legacy, of course, but he didn't do it alone. No one talks much about last year's winning team time trial, or about how in stage 15 the eight other USPS riders helped Armstrong turn his slim 15-second lead over Jan Ullrich into a 67-second advantage. But the fact is, the other USPS riders are a big part of this decade's greatest sports dynasty. "That team is amazing," says former Postal rider Christian Vande Velde. "They're some of the best riders in the world—George, Chechu Rubiera, Floyd, Triki Beltran, [Viatcheslav] Ekimov, my idol since I was 12—and when new guys come in, they do just as much damage."
Armstrong has welded all this talent into a team dedicated to his success. He also brought in Johan Bruyneel, who has been the team's director for five years. The team's United Nations makeup (Swiss cook, Mexican mechanic, Polish masseur, riders from Portugal, Spain and Russia) should stop anyone tempted to celebrate Armstrong's triumphs as purely American efforts. Armstrong pays his teammates well (all Tour winnings—some $400,000 for the overall victory plus bonuses—go to them), and the rest of the year he wisely switches roles with them, breaking wind and chasing down breakaways while they pocket the wins. "You weed out the guys who have personal ambition," he says, referring to riders such as Heras and Tyler Hamilton, who have left to become team leaders themselves. The others know their places.
"As far as putting your ego behind you?" asks one of Armstrong's domestiques, Landis. "It's like anything in life: There's probably 100 people who want to be President, but nearly all have to accept that they're not going to be, and they end up in Congress. But God only knows why you'd want to be President."
At this point the rider from Texas might ask the same question. There are only three other men alive, his fellow five-time Tour winners (Anquetil died in 1987), who know what it's like to tangle with the press and the French fans and spend months hearing that your time at the top is nearly done. The Discovery Channel's sponsorship appealed to Armstrong because of the network's long-term promise to turn him into an on-air talent. He's already planning his next act.
The morning after his debacle on Ventoux, as Armstrong got ready for the new book's stabs at his reputation, a Postal staffer parked in front of his leader's hotel and turned up the car stereo, so that the sound of a woman's voice filled the courtyard. The first cut is the deepest, Sheryl Crow sang, over and over. Was it a joke? A warning? It felt like the beginning of the end.