They should've buried Lance Armstrong this time.
They had him laid out like a yard sale on a Pyrenees road. Had him sick, white-mouthed and dizzy. Had him riding in the weeds, riding borrowed bikes and cracked bikes. Hell, once they had him carrying his bike. Had him scabbed and swollen, hip throbbing, saddle sores mounting, out of water and luck and hope. But they didn't bury him. Couldn't. Now here he is, with his first beer and the last laugh on this Sunday night in July in his swank Paris hotel suite, sitting gingerly on a saddle sore--"the size of Pikes Peak," he says--and toasting his ugliest yet most magnificent Tour de France victory, his fifth straight. But cinq nearly sank him.
"At one point, as I was crashing," he says with a grin as big as Texas, "I actually thought, O.K., this Tour is finished for me. I mean, I was already down to my last chance." Armstrong and his three-year-old son, Luke, play a little game. Lance asks Luke, "What does Daddy do?" And Luke always answers, "Daddy makes them suffer."
But this Tour was all about Armstrong suffering. Diarrhea to start. Hideous road rash left over from a pre-Tour tumble, ripped flesh that turned even doctors' faces chalky. A shoe snafu that caused hip tendinitis. A pileup during stage 1 that produced new grotesqueries, including an 18-inch-long tire track across his back.
That was just the beginning. There was the day he darted to avoid a crash and wound up in knee-high weeds. A rabid mountain biker, Armstrong simply churned through the weeds until he came to a ditch, clicked out of his pedals, held the bike in the air, leaped over the ditch and discovered he was in front of the leaders again. "Mon petit shortcut," he told French TV.
It got worse. In the brick-oven heat of stage 12, Armstrong miscalculated the amount of water he would need--"Dumb," he says--and became so dehydrated he could barely keep the bike upright. He was dizzy, face beet-red and swollen, eyes bulging, a pasty white ring around his mouth. In the last 30 minutes of that stage, he says, he lost 14 pounds, and 1 minute, 36 seconds to rival Jan Ullrich of Germany. Says Armstrong, "That's as close as I've come to just getting off the bike and quitting."
For the next two days he looked as though he should have. "At breakfast he just didn't look like Lance," said Armstrong's best friend on the U.S. Postal Service team, George Hincapie. "We were all freaking out. We're like, Oh, s---, we're in trouble."
Yes, they were. With six stages left, Armstrong's lead over Ullrich was only 15 seconds. "Do you know how little 15 seconds is?" Armstrong says. "It's nothing!" Nothing that can't be lost when a little boy on the Luz-Ardiden in the Pyrenees accidentally catches the strap of his tote bag on Armstrong's handlebar, sending him flying off his bike for a taste of asphalt.
Armstrong picked himself up and rethreaded the bike chain--screaming "every swear word I know"--then climbed back on and realized his dream of six straight wins was on ruin's doorstep. After all, getting to four straight and then starting over isn't practical.
"It was one of the most intense feelings I've had in my life," he says. "Your back is against the ropes. They're coming at you, and you've been losing it all week, and now you're about to lose it all. What's your answer? What are you gonna do?"