Reprinted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, August 2, 2004
This was most definitely not what they had in mind when they made dinner reservations at the Ch�teau de Germigney. Tucked away behind picturesque hay fields in the French village of Port-Lesney, the Ch�teau is a four-star hotel with a world-class restaurant. But as the diners savored their soupe cr�meuse aux moules et saffron and their �minc� de coeur de filet de rumsteck on July 24, they were periodically startled by raucous laughter, robust booing and chants of "Six! Six! Six!" emanating from an adjacent room.
As the members of the U.S. Postal Service cycling team lined up for a group picture, their cacophony grew. There was George Hincapie in the second row, an adult beverage or two in his belly and a grin frozen on his face. Above him was team director Johan Bruyneel, who would later be seen wandering the Ch�teau in an aerodynamic racing helmet adorned with enormous steer's horns. To Bruyneel's left was Floyd Landis, the former mountain biker from Pennsylvania whose Mennonite relatives Lance Armstrong had pointed out to him two days earlier, while they suffered together up a French alp called the Col de la Croix Fry. As Armstrong later allowed, "It's tough to miss eight women in bonnets."
It made sense that in addition to leading what must be regarded as the best team in the history of the Tour de France, Armstrong would serve as its unofficial relative spotter and sommelier. (He chose the wine that night at dinner.) By trouncing all comers in a 55-kilometer time trial that afternoon, the Texan had sewn up his record sixth victory in this most grueling of grand tours. His rule over the event, like his 6:19 margin over Germany's Andreas Kl�den, who came in second, was absolute. While Armstrong had enjoyed fatter winning margins in past Tours, he was never more dominant. He won the prologue and six of this year's 20 stages and conceded a seventh to a friend. When he wasn't carrying the day, he had quite a bit to say about who would.
Ask poor Filippo Simeoni. Moments after the completion of the 18th stage on July 23, Simeoni stood just beyond the finish line in Lons-le-Saunier, straddling his bike and decanting his woes to a circle of Italian journalists. "Today Armstrong showed the whole world what kind of person he is," charged the Italian, who rides for the Domina Vacanza team. "I've suffered another big injustice from him with the whole world watching."
Early in that day's ride across the vineyards of the Jura Mountains, Simeoni had bolted from the peloton to join a group of breakaway riders. And Armstrong had jumped on his wheel. Together they raced to the smaller group, whose riders looked at Armstrong in disbelief. "What are you doing here?" asked Vicente Garc�a Acosta of Spain. Did Armstrong, winner of four of the last five stages, intend to deprive one of them of even this morsel?
Motioning to Simeoni, Armstrong said, "I'll go if he goes." "For the respect of the other riders," the Italian bitterly recounted, "I decided to drop back."
A CliffsNotes version of their feud: In 2002 Simeoni testified before an Italian judge that a doctor named Michele Ferrari had discussed the use of banned doping agents with him. Armstrong, for whom Ferrari is an occasional consultant, then described Simeoni to a French newspaper as a liar. Simeoni sued Armstrong for defamation. (The case has been filed and awaits a trial date.)
Whatever you thought of Armstrong's flicking of the Italian in the 18th stage (some riders thought it a trifle bullying), it captured the essence of the 2004 Tour. All the huge talents thought to pose threats to Armstrong's streak-- Jan Ullrich of Germany, Tyler Hamilton of the U.S., Iban Mayo and Roberto Heras of Spain--faded faster than a Ben Affleck vehicle. Armstrong imposed his will and bestrode the peloton like a crew-cut colossus.
While his teammates hit the hay after their rowdy July 24 feast--the next day's ceremonial ride into Paris awaited-- Armstrong stayed up. With his right leg splayed over the armrest of a chair in his room, he was cordial, chatty and astonishingly chipper for a man who'd put 2,000-plus miles on his legs over the previous 21 days. His resilience in this Tour was such that after most stages the team doctors and soigneurs would ask him, half seriously, "Did you race today?"