The path is not so easy as simply following LeMond's track, doing what LeMond did. LeMond was the quirky American, working in anonymity until he suddenly was there, plastered across the covers of magazines. Cycling has changed. The American successors to LeMond will not have the same sort of underdog quiet. For the American team, now sponsored by Motorola, there are suddenly endorsements and cocktail parties and money and expectations.
Two years. The idea is that a cyclist does not hit his prime until he is 24 or 25, that his mind has to catch up with his body. Sure, the young cyclist can win assorted one-day and five-day events, but the rigors of the 23 days in France are too much. The Pyrenees are on one side of the map and the Alps are on the other, and no event exacts a greater day-to-day price. Fall behind by 33 points one day in this game and there is no hope the next. There can be no bad days. Simple as that.
"I don't have the miles inside me yet," Armstrong says. "I'm hesitant to even talk about the Tour de France. I don't know if I'm capable of winning it. Even the riders don't talk about it. It's almost taboo to talk about it. It's just so big."
"You have to be seasoned for the Tour," says Motorola general manager Jim Ochowicz. "Lance hasn't had much experience with the big mountains. To win the Tour ... there are no timeouts. There can be no injuries. A cold can be a nightmare. The Tour takes victims, during the race and after. You can be out for a month, for a year after the Tour. You don't just go and win it. It's a process of testing limits, learning. That is what Lance has to do. He has to get the miles."
As a kid Armstrong wanted to play the traditional sports. He tried football and baseball and basketball, with Linda in the stands encouraging him. They were not his games. He lacked the speed, the coordination. Endurance was his strength. Want to play? Let's play forever, see who drops first. He found running, Linda taking him to all those races, medals and ribbons piling up because he was champion of all his age groups. After moving to the swimming and then the bicycling, he combined his three sports in the triathlon. He liked the individual sports, the only child training alone, measuring what he could do. He was keeping a planner by the time he was in eighth grade, recording his workouts and things to do for the next day. By high school he was the national sprint-course triathlon champion. Twice. "But one problem with the triathlon was that I didn't like the swimming all that much," he says. "It seemed everyone went into the water at the same time, thrashed around and pretty much came out of the water at the same time. Then, on the bike, everyone was drafting, staying close together. So the race basically became a 10K run, which was my worst part. I looked at what I did best, what I liked best. Riding the bicycle. I went with that."
He was on his own by the time he was 18, moving to Austin, living in an apartment, traveling with the U.S. amateur cycling team. Linda bit her lip and helped him pick out his furniture and let him go. He has been going ever since, turning pro after the 1992 Olympics, during which he finished 14th in the road race. His first Tour de France was a year ago with Motorola, a trip designed to be a first dip into chilly water. He rode in the first 11 stages of the 20-stage race, winning the eighth stage, from Ch�lons-sur-Marne to Verdun, and departed soon afterward. By the time he left, he had fallen to 62nd in the standings and there was no reason to continue.
His big win came a month later at the world championships, a one-day event on a circuit that went around and around Oslo. Linda was in the stands in the rain at the finish line, watching the racers come past again and again in a blur and then focusing on the action on a large video screen that showed wet streets and collisions everywhere. On the final sprint Armstrong took charge, breaking early, aggressive as always, outlasting the best racers in the world. He brought Linda with him to the victory stand, a totally irregular procedure, sharing the triumph.
"The day changed my life," he says. "The expectation levels grew. I can look back now and see levels that I have hit, and I know there are other levels ahead."
He will be at the Tour in July. The plan is the same as last year, to have him ride until he is tired and then retire. He will concentrate on defending his world title in Sicily in August. He will ride other races. Half the year he will be based outside Milan in an apartment near Lake Como, the other half he'll be based in Austin. But most of the time he'll be traveling, collecting miles toward the future.
"One of the first times he went away on his own was when he was 15," Linda says. "He went up for the Chicago Triathlon. The reservations were made, perfect, but when he got to the hotel they said there were no rooms and there was nothing they could do. He called, and I said, 'Get me the manager,' and I started screaming. A while later Lance called back. 'Mom,' he said, 'you won't believe it. I have a room on the top floor. There's a phone in the bathroom.'"