Force Majeure

In Lance Armstrong's seventh and final triumph in the Tour de France, the race was all but over as soon as he started
December 26, 2005

You wouldn't think that a 2,242-mile ordeal could be distilled into a single, indelible vignette. But then, Lance Armstrong had a singular knack for delivering these gooseflesh moments. There was the Look in 2001, his piercing gaze into the soul of Jan Ullrich on the l'Alpe d'Huez, followed immediately by an assault for which the German had no answer. There was the Detour across a fallow cornfield to avoid a fallen foe in '03, which enabled him to lose only 36 seconds to the stage winner that day. The remarkable characteristic of the Catch, the defining moment of his seventh and final Tour de France victory, was that Armstrong delivered it in the first half hour of a three-week race.

After getting a late start on his training, Armstrong had not performed well in the months leading to the '05 Tour. His rivals dared to hope. The race began with a 19-kilometer time trial on the Atlantic coast; as defending champion, Armstrong was the last rider out of the start house. Ullrich, who along with Italy's Ivan Basso presented the most serious threat to the 33-year-old Texan's reign, rolled down the ramp a minute before him.

Armstrong's right shoe came unclipped from its pedal at the bottom of the ramp, costing him several seconds as he fell behind. Recovering quickly, he was soon devouring the course with his trademark, metronomic cadence. Ahead was Ullrich, the Tour winner in '97 but a man whose career since then had been defined by his failure to beat Armstrong. Past the halfway point of the stage a live shot from a helicopter pulled away from Ullrich to reveal--could this be?--Armstrong already within 100 yards. Closing inexorably, a moment later Armstrong blew by his rival as a Corvette overtakes a VW on the Autobahn.

Armstrong was gracious after the stage, reminding reporters that Ullrich had suffered a training accident the day before, when he tumbled through the rear windshield of his team car. This politesse, which came more easily to Armstrong in the latter stages of his career, stood in stark contrast to his demeanor on the bike, when he always seemed to be obeying an inner voice telling him it was not enough to defeat his opponents; he must demoralize them, crush their will. The peloton will not miss Lance Armstrong. Race fans will.

HOCKEY A Dashing Makeover

There was a low rumble and then a loud ovation as Christina Aguilera, a Pittsburgh-area native, strode out to sing the national anthem before the Penguins' home opener against the Boston Bruins. Ms. Genie-in-a-Bottle was lending cachet to a sport that sorely needed it, even before a lockout obliterated the 2004-05 season. A pop star was signaling a high-C change in the NHL's fortunes--not that the Oct. 8 game was over when the skinny lady sang.

No, Pittsburgh rookie Sidney Crosby scored his first goal that night, knocking in a rebound. Given his wizardry with the puck through much of the first half of the season, the goal was hardly a standout, but it will be one for the ages if his career path, as expected, traces the arcs of Gretzky's and Lemieux's. Between Crosby, 18, and the Washington Capitals' dynamic rookie left wing, Alexander Ovechkin, the league might have a Magic Johnson--Larry Bird tandem to market for the next decade or two.

The Bruins rallied twice from two-goal deficits to win 7-6. During the Dead Puck Era starting in the mid-'90s, when six goals by both teams was more than a decent night's work, two goals down in the third period was akin to a loss. Now it was just a speed bump, surmounted with speed and pluck.

The game was also the first evidence that hockey's dramatic makeover--the removal of the red line, the extra space in the attacking zones and the other sops to skill players--would be a riotous success. The 7-6 track meet was a tarantella on the grave of the somnambulant hockey that had pushed the NHL to the brink of irrelevance. It might still teeter until U.S. fans realize that the league isn't peddling hockey's New Coke but an update of the classic version. But now the game is worthy of a wider audience. Indeed, at week's end the NHL attendance was up from 2003-04. New game, new star, new dynamic. On a bleak autumnal night the NHL hit all the right notes.

HORSE RACING Alex the Great

Fans know their crowd noises: the guttural groan after a vicious football hit, the communal sigh when a putt lips out, the crescendo as a home run leaves the park. They are part of the soundtrack of sports.

On the afternoon of May 21 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, a record Preakness crowd of 115,318 made a less common sound: a gasp. At the top of the stretch, favored Afleet Alex clipped heels with 13-1 long shot Scrappy T and stumbled, his nose nearly touching the loamy earth as jockey Jeremy Rose clung to the horse's black mane. In the time required for stunned spectators to process the prospect of serious injury or a death on the track, Alex bounded back into a full stride, gobbled up Scrappy T and roared to a 4 3/4-length victory.

Sentimental fans and bloodless railbirds alike would call it one of the most remarkable performances in racing history, testimony to the athleticism of both the horse and his jockey.

Perhaps it was even more. Afleet Alex, who two weeks earlier had lost the Kentucky Derby to Giacomo in the final strides, ran for more than the five owners who had bought him for a paltry $75,000. He ran for his 60-year-old breeder, former Royal Air Force pilot John Silvertand, who received a diagnosis of colon cancer and told he had three months to live when Alex was just a baby. "Planning ahead is a big part of not giving up," Silvertand said last spring while following Alex around the country. "Alex has given me something to plan for."

He ran for Alex Scott, a girl from Wynnewood, Pa., who battled neuroblastoma for most of her eight years before dying in August 2004. She left behind the beginnings of Alex's Lemonade Stand, which she started on her front lawn when she was four, promising to use her profits to fight pediatric cancer. Afleet Alex's owners donated a portion of their earnings to Alex's cause, and lemonade stands were set up at racetracks, helping the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation raise $3.5 million in 2005, up from $1.4 million the previous year.

Afleet Alex went on to win the Belmont Stakes by seven lengths, becoming the fifth consecutive horse to win two Triple Crown races. He did not run again, forced into a December retirement by a degenerative bone condition that his trainer, Tim Ritchey, said was probably related to his Preakness mishap with Scrappy T.

The story of Afleet Alex's recovery that day will outlive all who saw it, finding a place in racing lore. So, too, will Rose's explanation. "It was little Alex," he said, "reaching down and keeping me on."

BOXING A Perfect 10

There is no better platform for heroics than boxing, which is why the sport persists so stubbornly. But in most fights this year, bravado was a no-show. The heavyweights were a lackluster lot, and even the marquee middleweights disappointed their fans. The standbys (Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, Félix Trinidad) all got old and beaten. Not even Oscar De La Hoya, as reliable a draw as there is, could rouse himself to flash his shiny teeth. Yet with one fight--one round, really--boxing served up a reminder of just how exciting the sport can be.

It was the first go-round between lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo and Diego Corrales, a good matchup but not a fight that was going to draw national attention. The attraction rested largely on the boxers' heritage; promoters have discovered that, in the absence of Olympic stars or menacing heavyweights, the only surefire bets these days are Latin fighters, who have enough appeal in the Southwest and some urban areas to make pay-per-view worthwhile. The sport has been trending toward niche markets for some time, and this was merely another example.

But the action was purely mainstream that May 7 night, when the two men fought out of desperation for 10 rounds, cutting through language and culture. And nobody who saw the 10th round can comfortably count boxing out. Just the memory of Castillo, breaking through after nearly 30 minutes of nonstop action, flooring Corrales twice, is enough to give the sport a lifetime exemption. But how about Corrales, his face now a smeared paste of flesh, regaining his strength--nobody knows how--and knocking Castillo out? Top that?

On the off chance that two fighters might, fistic fans will endure the usual cynical promotions, which promise little but a wink. They'll watch the heavyweights plod through their paces and reluctantly sit tight as the old-timers earn that one last payday. Because in between--and nobody knows when--there's going to be another heroic round that will forgive the sport all its sins.

NASCAR Trackside Transformation

They were all together. The son, father, mother and stepfather, kneeling side by side on the most hallowed real estate in American motor sports. As 250,000 fans stood and cheered on Aug. 7, Tony Stewart and his family kissed the bricks at the finish line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the touchstone moment of NASCAR's 2005 season, Stewart had just won the Allstate 400 to seize the points lead from Jimmie Johnson--and to clinch the approval of NASCAR Nation. "It's funny how you can go from the bad guy to the good guy so quickly," Stewart said last month. "I've grown up a little, and fans are finally seeing the side of me that my friends and family see."

The transformation of Stewart was remarkable in both its speed and certainty. During the introductions in Daytona last February, Temperamental Tony--as he was often called for his feuds with other drivers and the media--was met with a thunderclap of boos. But then when Stewart returned to Daytona in July and won the Pepsi 400, he parked his number 20 Home Depot Chevy at the finish line, hopped out and scaled the 15-foot catch-fence to grab the checkered flag from the flagman.

The crowd was so taken with Stewart's impromptu vault that it let out one of the loudest roars in Daytona history. By the time Stewart was puckering up at the Brickyard--a native of Columbus, Ind., he became the first Hoosier to win at the Speedway since 1940--it was clear that all of his past sins had been absolved. "Tony is obviously gaining more fans by the day," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., "and I think that's good for our sport."

Stewart's surging popularity came at the perfect time for NASCAR. Before the green flag dropped on the Chase for the Championship, racing executives worried that television ratings would drop from the record levels of 2004; two of the circuit's more magnetic personalities, Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, had failed to qualify for the 10-race playoff. But as Stewart cruised to the title over the last quarter of the season, the ratings were up slightly from '04. He had earned the affection of those who once relished telling him just where he and his mother could go.

"It's a lot more fun hearing cheers," says Stewart. "I've never had a better year in my life."

THE BEST ...

Young labor leader
By pushing forward negotiations, U.S. forward Landon Donovan, 23, helped end a dispute that threatened to keep the Americans from qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

THE BEST ...

Pressure performance
Generally regarded as the world's best player, Efren Reyes won the inaugural International Pool Tour event, the $1 million King of the Hill 8-Ball Shootout.

THE BEST ...

Climax to a race
At the Golden Corral 500, Carl Edwards passed Jimmie Johnson in the last turn of the last lap, banged into the side of Johnson's Chevy and won by .028 of a second.

THE BEST ...

Victory speech
After his 2-year-old, Stevie Wonderboy, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, owner Merv Griffin told the media, "Welcome to The Merv Griffin Show. My guests today are...."

THE BEST ...

Campaign for a good cause
Arsenal striker Thierry Henry, a native of France, launched the Stand Up Speak Up program to fight racism in European soccer stadiums.

THE BEST ...

Example of groping for extra revenue
Until they came to their senses and canceled the promotion, the Islanders were offering fans a chance to drop the ceremonial first puck for $500.

THE BEST ...

And least appreciated fighter
Welterweight champ Floyd Mayweather Jr. remains the gold standard, no matter how unpopular. Has there ever been a fighter with such hand speed?

THE BEST ...

Off-season acquisition
Kings center Craig Conroy has always been a cohesive force in NHL dressing rooms, and this season he's flourishing as a potent offensive force as well.

THE BEST ...

Attempt to infuriate the British
Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bought Manchester United, setting off protests against U.S. imperialism in the sports world.

THE BEST ...

Cinematic nickname
Having disposed of Roy Jones Jr. on Oct. 1, light heavyweight Antonio Tarver will play Mason (the Line) Dixon in the upcoming Rocky Balboa.

THE BEST ...

Smack talk
"They name streets after guys like that: 'One Way' and 'Dead End,'" said Tony Stewart of Greg Biffle, after Biffle failed to yield to the leaders late in the NASCAR race at Martinsville.

THE BEST ...

Example of unfulfilled potential
George Steinbrenner's 3-year-old colt Bellamy Road won the Wood Memorial last April but hasn't won since.

THE BEST ...

Example of party crashing
In just its fifth year as a varsity program, the Northwestern women's lacrosse team, led by Kristen Kjellman, stunned the East Coast powers and won the NCAA title.

THE BEST ...

Comeback
Four years after coming out of retirement, surfer Kelly Slater finally overtook nemesis Andy Irons to reclaim the season championship.

THE BEST ...

Fledgling dynasty
In only the second season of NCAA women's bowling, the Nebraska Cornhuskers struck once again, defending their 2004 title as they defeated Central Missouri State in the finals in April.

THE BEST ...

P.R. maneuver
Within minutes of the Coyotes' announcing Wayne Gretzky as their coach, the NHL reinstated Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi, suspended for his vicious sucker punch of an opponent.

PHOTOPhotograph by Eric Gaillard/ReutersPEDAL TO METTLE Armstrong came down the start-house ramp inauspiciously but recovered quickly to crush his rivals' spirits.
TWO PHOTOSDAVID BERGMAN (DONOVAN); NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (RACE CAR) THREE PHOTOSNIKE/GETTY IMAGES (HENRY); ED MULHOLLAND/WIREIMAGE.COM (MAYWEATHER); MATT BROWN/ICON SMI (CONROY) PHOTOSTEVE MARCUS/REUTERS (BOXERS)RING OF FIRE Even before Corrales (right) made his remarkable 10th-round comeback, his May brawl with Castillo was a classic. THREE PHOTOSELIOT J. SCHECTER/GETTY IMAGES (GLAZER); ROGELIO SOLIS/AP (TARVER); ADAM COGLIANESE/NY RACING ASSN./AP (BELLAMY ROAD) THREE PHOTOSCARLETON HALL/WIREIMAGE.COM (KJELLMAN) SERGIO MORALES/REUTERS (SLATER); TIM DEFRISCO (BERTUZZI)
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)