Reprinted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, May 20, 1996
The evidence was everywhere, along the potholed streets of Charlotte to the rolling hillsides of the Appalachians, through the one-cop hamlet of Boones Mill, Va., all the way to the sprawl of suburban Atlanta. It was written in the red, white and blue of homemade signs and in the bold headlines of small-town newspapers. It could be heard in the squeals of the freckly faced kids who lined the dusty roadways and seen in the respectful glances of the vanquished. Lance Armstrong didn't just win his second straight Tour DuPont, he turned it into a 12-day, 1,225-mile celebration of his arrival as American cycling's newest hero and of his ascendance to a place among the best riders in the world.
When the 24-year-old Armstrong cruised into Kennesaw, Ga., on May 12, 1996, more than three minutes ahead of France's Pascal Herv� in the overall Tour DuPont standings, he put the cherry on top of a remarkable 12-month run. Since the 1995 DuPont he has won his second career stage in the Tour de France and become the first American to take a World Cup race. In one year he has evolved into the 500-pound gorilla of the road race at the Atlanta Olympics and shown that he may even be ready to make serious noise at the Tour de France.
"He is Superman," says Switzerland's Tony Rominger, the world's second-ranked cyclist, who finished third in the DuPont.
Armstrong's bionic legs, savvy in the saddle and steel will may have dazzled his competitors, but it is his charisma and matinee-idol good looks that charmed the two-million-plus fans who turned out for the dozen stages of the DuPont.
"It's incredible the way the fans respond to Lance," says England's Sean Yates, one of Armstrong's Motorola teammates. "You might say they're making fools of themselves. You never see anything like it in this sport, even in Europe with their best riders."
How did Armstrong respond to the fans? "Every man dreams of being a rock star," he said, trying to swallow a grin. Then he came clean. "All this attention makes me a little uncomfortable. I'm just a regular guy."
Actually, that too is part of his appeal. Armstrong may be cool enough to be featured on MTV Sports, but he rarely meets a fan he doesn't have some nice words or an autograph for. He has down-to-earth interests, like fast cars and the occasional tall, cold one between training sessions. He's also a music buff, and he moved to Austin from the Dallas area a few years back when Austin became a rock hot spot.
Armstrong is a bit of Americana, a 5'10" slice of apple pie in a sport dominated by Europeans, which also contributes to his popularity here. Consider the heroic jingle of his name. Sort of like Buzz Lightyear.
Before the Tour DuPont, Armstrong's successes came in the long, steep European classics, one-day races in which he unleashed his horsepower and aggression. The 144-mile Olympic road race is also a one-day event, but the course is too flat for Armstrong's liking, opening it up for the sprinters. �"I have too much respect for the other riders' abilities to say I'm expecting to win the gold," says Armstrong. "But I'll be up there. And the Tour DuPont has shown me what kind of support I'm going to get."