He tried this retirement thing once before, you may recall, but it didn't take. After three surgeries, three months of chemo and a rocky year of recovery, Lance Armstrong returned to the peloton early in 1998 for all of two races. On a rain-soaked day in March, riding toward Sens in the Paris-Nice stage race, he sat up on his bike, coasted to the side of the road and called it quits. Armstrong was abandoning not only the race, he told anyone who would listen, but also the sport. * Friends and family told him not to be rash--postpone the retirement announcement--then talked him into a 10-day training camp in Boone, N.C. It was there, slicing through mist in the Appalachians, trading quips with his training partner, a garrulous, gap-toothed road racer by the name of Bob Roll, that Armstrong fell back in love with his bike. "It was like a switch being flipped," says Chris Carmichael, Armstrong's longtime coach, who was also in Boone. "Whatever issues he'd been wrestling with, he was able to put them behind him. All of a sudden, he was himself again. He was back." Armstrong returned to racing, placed fourth in that September's Tour of Spain and has won every Tour de France since.
"Six Tours in a row," marvels Roll, who has found gainful employment with the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), for which he has served as bike-racing analyst and resident beat poet since 1998. "I still can't get my mind around that, and now we're talking about seven. It's phantasmagoric."
What if the switch hadn't been flipped? What if Armstrong had hung up his cleated shoes, gone home to Austin and become, say, an assistant manager at Chuy's, the Tex-Mex joint he is known to haunt in the off-season?
In this grim alternate reality, Big Tex gets kind of big. He puts on weight and marks out the rest of his days recalling the signal triumphs of his career--the world championships in Oslo in 1993; not one but two Tour de France stage victories, in '93 and '95--and trying to corral B-list celebs for his golf tournament.
In this parallel universe Armstrong watches Jan Ullrich win three more Tours and thinks sullenly to himself, every time he sees the German ascend the podium, I was better than that guy.
Of course, to see the Tour, he must stay up until 11:30 p.m. for a half hour of canned highlights on ESPN, sandwiched between a bass-fishing show and World's Strongest Man. Because if Armstrong doesn't win the Tour in '99, OLN doesn't lay out the cash to buy the rights to televise the race. Without OLN drenching viewers with five hours of Tour coverage a day, Americans are not attracted to this peculiar sport by the millions. They fail to grasp its tactics and jargon and are never introduced to its cast of characters, from sex god and super sprinter Mario (the Lion King) Cipollini to the extravagantly mulleted Laurent Brochard to the tragic, late Marco Pantani.
And they never discover the charms of OLN's Tour broadcasting tandem of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, whose quirky, colorful utterances have inspired countless impersonations by weekend warriors out on group rides all over the republic:
And Bo Hamburger is, I dare to say it, fried! -- Liggett
See Roberto Heras digging deeply into his suitcase of courage! --Sherwen
Absent Armstrong, the Discovery Channel doesn't step up when the U.S. Postal Service decides to end its sponsorship of the team, electing instead to order more episodes of Monster Garage. Without Armstrong's Tour de France wins there are fewer bikers on the road in the U.S. and more dangerous roads for them to ride on. In 2001 the Texan threw his weight behind a Share the Road campaign in Marin County, Calif., designed to heighten motorists' awareness of cyclists.