We see fewer of those solo breakaways now that he's in his mid-30s; less of Armstrong floating alone into the cols. So far it hasn't mattered. Unable to drop some of his rivals in the mountains last July, the Texan discovered a knack for dispatching them in sprint finishes, of which he won three. That he must rely on his wiles to win stages in the twilight of his career is a measure of how far this former hothead has come. Carmichael tells the story of taking a team to the amateur world championships in Japan in 1990. Race day dawned hot and humid; the coach warned his charges to conserve energy and to stay off the front for the first half of the 115-mile race.
Early in, one rider had taken a 45-second lead on the peloton. As he pedaled past Carmichael, who was stationed by a checkpoint, the 18-year-old Armstrong cheerfully flashed the Hook 'em Horns sign. "I almost threw a water bottle at him," recalls the coach, who instead shouted, "What the f--- are you doing?"
Armstrong finished 11th. While it would be years before he showed even a rudimentary grasp of strategy, he has evolved into a master tactician. "He doesn't need to ride you off his wheel [drop you by brute force]," says his coach. "He'll use the terrain and other teams; he'll let his opponents wear themselves out. He'll play mind games. He is the ultimate predator."
He may need those mind games this July, more than in Tours past. Talking to Armstrong's people, one gets the sense that the patron has had a tougher time getting motivated for number 7 than he did for number 6.
He could show up with a beer gut and still be favored to win a seventh. Yes, his trusted yeoman Viatcheslav Ekimov is out, having crashed and fractured vertebrae while on a ride with Armstrong this spring. Newcomers, however, include Paolo (the Falcon) Savoldelli, a tremendous downhiller coming off his second win of the Giro d'Italia, and Yaroslav Popovych, a young Ukrainian with a huge upside. "The loss of Eki sucks," says Dan Osipow, a vice president at Tailwind Sports, co-owner of the Discovery team. "But you've got a Tour team now of Lance, [George] Hincapie, [Manuel] Beltran, [Chechu] Rubiera, and now you're gonna throw in Popovych and Savoldelli. That's the best team [Lance] ever had."
Between "Popo" and the talented Tom Danielson, whom Armstrong paced to victory in April's Tour de Georgia, Discovery's future is as bright as it could be, considering the squad is about to say goodbye to the man who, along with his friend the Cannibal, will go down as one of the top two riders of all time. It came as a mild shock, as I peered into next season, to think that how Armstrong fares in his final pro race is of only slightly greater interest to me than how his teammates will do in Year 1 A.L.--After Lance, whose legacy, to me, is straightforward:
He was the greatest Tour rider, ever. He used his celebrity bully pulpit to do more good than any athlete, ever. (And he's just warming up.) He so increased our appreciation of the world's greatest bike race that we will go on watching it, even after he is gone.