The first time I met Lance Armstrong was at a Tour de France press conference in 2001. He was waiting for his answers to be translated into French. I sneaked him a note asking for a one-on-one interview. He wrote something on it and handed it back. I've kept that note to this day.
It read, Damn, you look a lot older than your picture!
That's why for five straight Tours, I've felt comfortable asking him, "When can I ride in The Car?" And every time he has felt comfortable saying, "No chance."
The Car is the Discovery Team's main chase car, the one that boss Johan Bruyneel drives right behind the peloton. If you're in it, you can hear the cool strategy Bruyneel yells into the riders' earpieces and what they say back to him.
This year, in Armstrong's last Tour, he finally gave in. I got to ride in The Car with Bruyneel and one of the team's mechanics.
Me and my big yap.
It was last Friday, during stage 13, a 108-mile, slightly flat ride from Miramas to Montpellier. "Boring stage," everybody said. "Discovery is just going to protect Lance's lead and try not to wreck." And it was boring--if you were riding a bike. But if you were with Bruyneel, who drives as if his boxers were on fire, it was about as boring as flossing a shark.
Bruyneel and his Subaru wagon from hell weave through cars, motorcycles, pedestrians and bikers while he's reading maps and stat sheets, watching the dash-mounted TV and the navigation system, peeling an orange and yapping in five different languages on his cell and into two walkie-talkies.
And all this on puny roads jammed with hundreds of thousands of people. "Ever hit anybody?" I asked, my fingernails buried a quarter-inch into the dash and my shrimp quiche coming up. "Don't think so," Bruyneel said, laughing. "Run over a few toes maybe."
Well, except for two days before, when Bruyneel was handing water bottles to his rider Yaroslav (Popo) Popovych and smashed into the CSC team car. The Discovery car then slid into Popo, knocking him on his butt.