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If Lance fails to become a household name in America, its health suffers in other ways. Say the Lance Armstrong Foundation fails to get off the ground. That's $85 million, to date, that never goes out to cancer survivorship, research and education programs. Not only does Armstrong not appear on SI's cover seven times, he never shows up on the cover of Philanthropy World magazine. By getting back on his bike, Armstrong gave focus and hope to countless cancer patients. Without his superstardom--and this, finally, is where our alternate universe crumbles under the weight of its own implausibility--there would be no yellow bracelets.
"That's a pretty grim prospect," says Roll when asked to consider what the world would be like if Armstrong hadn't raced after 1998. "There would've been a couple of [Americans] finish in the top 10 at the Tour in the last six years. Maybe."
But Armstrong toughed it out. What was it like, riding those 10 days with him? "I've never changed my impression of him," says Roll. "He was a genuinely sweet guy, eager and curious. But when he's on the bike, racing, he's ferocious. He's your worst nightmare."
This predatory Armstrong is the one Europeans saw and were slow to warm to. It wasn't that he dominated their Super Bowl that chapped their backsides so much as how he did it. The Tour is, after all, the world's most grueling athletic event: All the Continentals ask is an occasional show of humanity from the riders. Give them the half-mad rictus of the Cannibal, Eddy Merckx. Give them the agony etched in the face of Virenque as he embarks on yet another futile solo breakaway. Armstrong gave them nothing. There was that day in the Alps four years ago when he looked like a soup sandwich cresting the Col de la Madeleine. Hopes were high in the peloton, until Armstrong rocketed from the bunch on the day's final climb. Turned out he'd been bluffing.
He raced like a cyborg and prepared like a CEO. Greg LeMond had raised eyebrows in Europe, winning the Tour in 1989 with such newfangled accoutrements as aero bars and an aerodynamic time-trialing helmet. Armstrong picked up where LeMond left off, questioning every assumption about bike technology.
Says Carmichael, "Lance's attitude has always been, Just because it's tradition isn't a reason to continue doing it." After shocking the velo world with his win in '99, Armstrong knew his victory would be considered a fluke and was determined to be even more dominating. "His attitude was, Let's go out and get the best and brightest," adds Carmichael. The Posties did, retaining top-notch physical therapists, coaches and aerodynamic and biomechanical specialists. By '03 the team had assembled what was called the F1 Consortium, a group that comprises, among others, specialists from Trek, which makes Armstrong's bikes; from Nike, which outfits him; and from Giro, his milliner, as it were. When they weren't streamlining Armstrong's kit and rig, it seemed the F1 boys probably could've figured out a way to repair the Hubble telescope.
All the F1 brainstorming doesn't mean F-all if Armstrong isn't in shape come July. His approach to training, like his approach to equipment, is untraditional. Most European riders are obliged by their sponsors in the early season to ride in at least some of the one-day classics and shorter races on the continent. Armstrong, who turns 34 in September, races sparingly in the spring, using those weeks to scout out the Tour's crucial stages.
Why don't more riders prepare like Armstrong? "Because they can't," argues Roll, who disputes the claim that the Euros don't emulate Armstrong because they're too busy racing the classics. "To ride three or four mountain passes on the same day, then have the ability to recover, physiologically and mentally--very few guys are capable of doing that. If everyone did what Lance did, there'd be no one left in the peloton. They'd all be baked by mid-May."
Armstrong's recon missions have paid handsome dividends, such as on the cold, rainy day in 2000 when he climbed a dastardly Pyrenean peak called Hautacam on a training ride. Upon reaching the summit, Armstrong told his manager, Johan Bruyneel, that he didn't yet "understand" the climb, hadn't mastered it. He wanted to ride it again.