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Armstrong's rise to sheriff has been gradual and unlikely. He began his pro career as the sort of insolent hothead that a patron would feel compelled to rap on the knuckles. He infuriated his elders by attacking (I'm young, I've got legs, I'm from Texas--I'm going!) at inappropriate times. In Armstrong's book It's Not About the Bike, he recalls an incident from one of his first pro races, in the early '90s, in which former world champion Moreno Argentin mistook him for another American, Andy Bishop. Insulted, Armstrong responded with a profane blast. He had a lot to learn.
Each year Armstrong has gained a clearer understanding of the rules of the game. After racing the great Italian climber Marco Pantani up murderous Mont Ventoux in the 2000 Tour, he eased up at the line, allowing the Italian to win the stage. Pantani, nothing if not proud, was insulted rather than moved by the gesture. He found it patronizing and didn't hesitate to say so.
With no Pantani to contend with this year, Armstrong owned the mountain stages. While his victory on the fabled Alpe d'Huez made the best theater--he pantomimed agony to deceive his opponents--not until stage 13 on July 21, the penultimate day in the mountains, did he break the will of Ullrich and put the race on ice. The course took the peloton 121 miles over six cols, or peaks, in the Pyrenees en route to a ski station called Pla d'Adet. Four of the peaks were rated 1 (climbs are ranked on a scale of 4 to 1; the lower the number, the nastier the ascent), and the final climb was hors cat�gorie, "beyond category"--the Tour's way of saying, You don't want to know.
Armstrong started the stage in third place overall, four minutes up on Ullrich but nine behind Team Bonjour's Fran�ois Simon, the race leader. The first rated climb took the riders to a jagged summit called Col du Portet d'Aspet, a pass with a precipitous descent. Speeding down this mountain during the Tour six years earlier, Fabio Casartelli of Italy had lost control of his bike, crashed into a concrete barrier and died, leaving a widow and a one-month-old son. One of Casartelli's Motorola teammates at the time was the then 23-year-old Armstrong.
On a training ride four weeks before the start of the Tour, Armstrong had gone past the spot of Casartelli's accident, now marked with a marble memorial. Armstrong had gotten off his bike and wept. As he zipped past the memorial on stage 13, Armstrong felt a surge of confidence. "I knew I was going to win that day," he would say.
Others had different ideas. Jalabert, the redoubtable French climbing specialist, got loose on a solo breakaway that lasted nearly 60 miles, to the delight of the half million or so spectators lining the mountain passes. An increasingly desperate Ullrich, meanwhile, kept the pressure on Armstrong, right until the moment he went off the road on his way down the Col de Peyrosourde, somersaulting into a creek. Seeing the crash, Armstrong slowed. He had no desire to profit from his rival's accident. Only after Ullrich had hauled his bike out of the creek and been back into the saddle for a while did Armstrong ride away from him, past Jalabert and into the yellow jersey.
Not everyone was celebrating Armstrong's ascent. Jean-Marie LeBlanc, the Tour's directeur g�n�ral, had criticized him in a French paper for lack of "warmth," for his unwillingness to speak French and for his decision to retain two bodyguards--or, as LeBlanc called them, "gorillas." While Armstrong shrugged off the remarks, they stung. "The truth is," he said with four days left in the race, "I've really tried to respect the event and the French people." Indeed, Armstrong, who has a home near Nice, often signs autographs and conducts interviews in French, though, as he admits, "the little French I do have is brutal and ugly and sparse."
The French have been slow to warm to him. They resent the fact that while their heroes, foremost among them Richard Virenque, the second-place finisher in the '97 Tour, have been disgraced by revelations of doping, the American who has a stranglehold on their most prized sporting event continues to test clean. If he isn't on drugs, they wonder, then how is he doing it?
It doesn't hurt that Armstrong trains harder than anyone else in the sport. While other teams focus on the spring classics, Armstrong and select Posties are riding the Alps and the Pyrenees. Often he heads into the mountains alone. After hammering up the Col de Madeleine on a rainy day in May, he was frustrated to learn that Alpe d'Huez was snowed in. "Anyone else would've gotten in the car, had some hot tea and gone home," says Bruyneel. "Lance turned his bike around, rode to the bottom of the Madeleine and went up it again, just so he could get another big climb that day."
That single-mindedness, that strength and strength of will, are Armstrong's chief currency in the peloton. "I am very passionate about cycling," says the Dutch rider Erik Dekker, who won three stages at last year's Tour, "but I cannot match Lance. Mentally, he is unique."