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Stairway To Heaven
IAN THOMSEN
June 28, 2005
An otherworldly mountain climb made a second straight party in Paris inevitable
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June 28, 2005

Stairway To Heaven

An otherworldly mountain climb made a second straight party in Paris inevitable

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Then he has a bite, naps, has dinner, spends a few hours around the house and goes to bed. "And that's that," Kristin says, without complaining. "Day in, day out, that's how we live. People see the highlights, but they don't see that it's a very, very serious commitment."

Armstrong has undergone profound changes physically as well as spiritually. The old Armstrong had a thick neck and shoulders, which, as five-time champion Eddy Merckx of Belgium told him many times, prevented him from succeeding at the Tour de France. Even Armstrong doubted his future in the great race: How could he win while carrying so much weight up the mountains? In the most unpredictable way, chemotherapy rescued him. The treatments whittled away his bulk, and while Armstrong regained his strength, he developed a new, relatively gaunt shape. He also switched from the standard method of training extremely hard to one in which he backs off slightly and goes longer. Now he weighs 160 pounds--20 less than the old Armstrong, who had finished only one Tour in four attempts.

The new, improved Armstrong is also tuned to other things that can affect his performance. He recalls every accusation and indignity that has appeared in the French press, because they help stoke his competitive fire. For all his determination to live in the moment, he's not above wanting to even the score for past insults. At the same time, he is more aware than ever of relationships. During a race last month through the Rh�ne Alps, the Dauphin� Lib�r�, Armstrong did the grunt work in helping U.S. Postal Service teammate Tyler Hamilton win; he set the pace, shielded Hamilton from the wind, advised when to attack and when to back off. (Imagine Michael Jordan setting up Luc Longley to score 43 points in a playoff game.) He was thanking Hamilton for the help he provided at the Tour de France last year and thanking him in advance for the work to come.

In football terms Armstrong is the ballcarrier and his eight Postal Service teammates are blocking for him. If he crosses the line first, then the whole team wins. So, as the team approached the first mountain stage on that miserable morning of July 10, its strategy was to go out together hard and fast in an attempt to break down as many of Armstrong's opponents as possible. They charged too fast. Halfway up the third climb Armstrong found himself alone among the top racers, unprotected. He was unable to make up any ground.

He had put in 119 miles that day when he reached the foot of the concluding 8.44-mile climb. The gradient ahead was rated at 7.9%--or an average of 7.9 feet vertically per 100 feet traveled--and was the steepest of the race to that point. Armstrong rose from his saddle and methodically pushed one foot down after another, as if crushing grapes. As Armstrong attacked the mountain, Ullrich sat frozen in his seat, unable to react. Alex Zulle of Switzerland, last year's runner-up, abandoned the chase after a few hundred yards. "When I looked back for him," says French rider Richard Virenque, who was in the lead group, "Armstrong just took off like a plane."

Javier Otxoa of Spain had broken away early and led the stage by 10:30 when the final ascent began. By the time Armstrong reached the end of the stage, he had shaved all but 42 seconds off the wobbling Otxoa's lead and seized his seemingly insurmountable overall advantage. Greg LeMond, the three-time winner from the U.S., only wished Armstrong had a rival who could have turned the stage into a terrific duel. "If Ullrich wasn't still searching for his form," says LeMond, "what was a five-minute gain in the mountains could have become a battle all the way to the top."

Perhaps Armstrong will inspire better efforts from others next year. How could anyone not take heart at the new life he has made from the old? His longtime coach, Chris Carmichael, predicts that Armstrong has the mettle to overtake the mark of five Tour victories shared by Merckx and three others. But if Armstrong remains on his bike that long, it won't be to break a record. He will quit when he feels like it, because life is too short to be wasting time. "If he weren't enjoying what he's doing, if it didn't mean as much to him, he would do something else that did," Kristin says. "When Lance quits, he will be at the top of the sport, not at the bottom."

"I love being wedded to my job, but I am going to get a divorce one day," Armstrong says. "For right now it's a good fling."

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