Relax, people. No Jim Brown redux here. "I'm more excited to race than I've ever been," he continued. "I love it, I'm physically able, I've got a great new sponsor"—the Discovery Channel—"and team in place mat's better than ever." Besides, he added, "this was as much fun as I've ever had in a bike race."
His performance was a remarkable turnaround by a man whose life has been defined by a remarkable turnaround, his recovery from cancer. Yes, Armstrong won this race a year ago, but just barely, by 61 seconds. Although Ullrich crashed in the final time trial-taking out a row of hay bales in the pouring rain—it was the Texan who appeared to be on the slippery slope. His powers seemed to be waning. "It was a very serious wake-up call," says Bruyneel. "I think he took a few things for granted last year."
Despite rededicating himself in '04, Armstrong finished behind Mayo and Hamilton in a tune-up race in early June. After that he streamlined his life. "Turned off my computer, turned off my BlackBerry, turned off my phone and went into full training mode," says Armstrong. "Seven-, eight-hour days in the Pyrenees. We hit it hard? Each day he felt his strength increase. He was peaking at precisely the right time. The instant he started pedaling in the Tour de France prologue, he thought to himself, This is gonna be a good Tour.
It was good, but different. Unlike his previous wins, No. 6 was not marked by solo breakaways in the mountains. Unable to lose some of his rivals—principally Ivan Basso, the brilliant young Italian with Team CSC who is his close friend and whom the Posties avidly wooed in the off-season—Armstrong was caught up in three heart-stopping sprint finishes. That he won all three is a measure of how far he has traveled in this sport. From the mouthy post-adolescent with a huge engine and no idea of what to do with it, he has evolved into a cool old pro with a hitman's knack for knowing when to slip the knife in.
On July 20 Armstrong found himself in a group of four in a mad dash into the Alpine village of Villard-de-Lans. Pinned behind Basso just 300 yards from the finish and harangued through his earpiece by a screaming Bruyneel, who insisted that he win the stage and take the 20-second bonus, Armstrong slingshot NASCAR-style inside Basso and into a hard left turn. All but grazing the barriers on his right, he powered ahead of the Italian. Crossing the line, Armstrong punched the air, and you could see the riders behind him deflate.
The next day's stage was a kind of vertical soccer riot, a 15.5-kilometer time trial up the Alpe d'Huez (page 156). So deafeningly were Armstrong and his mates booed on their way up the mountain that they took to booing one another, as a sort of running joke, for the remainder of the race. Not all the vulgarities painted on the road were anti-Armstrong. RIP THEIR BALLS OFF, LANCE, exhorted one graffitem. He emasculated them only in a figurative sense, winning the stage while gaining 61 seconds on Ullrich and 2:23 on Basso. Though the first-ever time trial up the Alpe d'Huez may have been the most anticipated stage of this Tour, Armstrong had said all along that it would not be the most telling. He reserved that distinction for the next day's ride, a 204.5-kilometer grind with more Alps than The Sound of Music. This stage would present Armstrong's rivals with one final chance to draw blood from him. This was the day he spotted those relatives of Landis, who was sensational in pacing his boss up the climbs. Hoping to reward his vassal with a stage win, the Texan imparted this timeless advice as they crested the Col de la Croix Fry: "Run like you stole something, Floyd."
Landis did, but he was chased down by Ullrich and his T-Mobile teammate, Kl�den, who attacked at the one-kilometer mark, quickly opening a 100-yard gap. Finding this unacceptable, the Postal patron reached once again for a gear unavailable to lesser men, passing a stunned Kl�den for his fifth stage win. ("It was like he was in a bad dream," said Kl�den's coach, Thomas Schedicrie.) On the podium Armstrong shook hands with Bernard Hinault, who smiled and said, "Perfect. No gifts."
Four riders other than Armstrong had won five Tours: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Hinault and Miguel Indur�in. That none succeeded in winning a sixth led to a belief, in the velo world, that it was simply too much to ask of a body in one lifetime.
The question now becomes, Will Armstrong go for seven? The answer is, Probably, but not necessarily in 2005. Although he claimed on Saturday to be uncertain of the terms of his contract with Discovery, it may not require him to ride in the Tour next year. He may instead ride in the three-week Giro d'Italia, a grand tour he has long wanted to try. The Giro's new director, Angelo Zomegnan, is a former cycling writer and longtime friend of Armstrong's. Moreover, next year the Giro plans to commemorate Armstrong's former Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli, who was killed when he crashed while descending a mountain in the '95 Tour.
While Armstrong repeatedly said that he "couldn't imagine" passing up the Tour de France next year, he wouldn't slam the door on that possibility. Let's face it, it's not as if he'd miss the French, many of whom refuse to believe he is not pharmaceutically enhanced. This much is certain: He will be spending less time in Europe than in years past. Armstrong, who is dating singer Sheryl Crow, has three children by his ex-wife, Kristin. Early in the Tour, Armstrong turned down an invitation to race in the Olympics, so desperate is he to be with his kids, whom he has not seen in three months.