The phone rings early on a Sunday night in Piano, Texas, and Linda Walling answers in a hurry. Lance? The motors of motherhood do not stop running even when your only child is grown and gone, off somewhere in the wide world. There can be a cutback, sure, a turn to other things, but how do you totally redirect what has been the focus of most of your adult life? A mother will always be a mother, wanting to make sure that everything is all right.
"This is when he usually calls, on Sunday," Walling says. "Every time the phone rings, I expect it's him.""
Her son is 22-year-old Lance Armstrong, America's top rider of bicycles, heir to Greg LeMond's role on the international road-racing circuit, a young guy with a movie-star name and an unlimited future. Now the calls can come from any exotic or not-so-exotic area code imaginable. Lance is on the road as many as 250 days a year, usually a half-dozen time zones away. Today he is a bit closer, in Pittsburgh, riding in the Thrift Drug Classic. A one-hour difference. "He won this race a year ago," Linda says. "Where is he? It should be over by now...."
If she had had other children, maybe her attention would be diffused. If there had been a man around, if it hadn't been mostly just Lance and Linda, the two of them growing together, working together, as she came through two quick and troubled marriages, maybe the link would not be so strong. She is happily married now to John Walling, a man she has known for seven years. They are hitting their second anniversary, but Lance...Lance still is No. 1. She says that straight-out.
"You only have your children around for a short time." she says. "You better spend your time with them while you can, because then they're gone. For a long time there were just the two of us. All I did. my life, was going to work and raising my son, and I was happy to do it."
Who else has seen all that the two have seen together? He was born when she was only 17, and they went from there with little help. She made the meals and paid the bills and paid attention. He grew and became a man. Wasn't that the deal? When he was in fifth grade, thinking that he was going to be a runner, she was the one driving him to the 10-km races every weekend, a little kid running against all the grown-up men. When he began swimming, she was the one who drove to the lake, who paid for the $25-an-hour ride on a jet ski that was an after-practice treat. When he moved to the bike, she was the one waiting by the phone as he went on solo training runs all the way to the Oklahoma border and back, calls coming every now and then to pick him up at some gas station along the route because he hadn't drunk enough water and was now dehydrated.
Calls? She has had lots of calls. There was a call after a guy ran Lance off the road and then threw a gas can at him. There was a call after a collision with a car in ninth grade. Lance flying over the car's hood. There were calls from St. Croix Island and Venezuela when he was running in triathlons as a high school kid. There was a call from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he said he had cycled past dead dogs in the streets and past soldiers with machine guns. How old was he then? Fifteen? Sixteen? That was a call. "It's terrible sometimes, but you have to have confidence in what you teach your child." Linda says. "I've always marched to the beat of a different drum. I didn't raise him to go to college but to be his own person. Self-sufficient. You have to let them go."
Gone, he is. Gone on the bike ride of all bike rides.
The goal is winning the Tour de France. Of course it is. There is only one bicycle race most Americans know about, no matter how many industry statistics are printed about how many bicycles have been sold in the U.S. and how many bicycle riders have been added to the population. The Tour de France stands alone. LeMond was the first American to win it, which he did three times, coming from nowhere, a virtual expatriate and revolutionary, pedaling down the Champs-Ely-sees at the end of 23 days of racing, with a loopy grin on his face. LeMond is 33 now, heading off the stage. A replacement is needed. Armstrong is the obvious choice.
He is the defending world cycling champion. He is either the youngest or the second-youngest winner of a Tour de France stage—history is cloudy on the subject. He is young and strong, 5'10". 165 pounds, broad across the shoulders, gifted and...not ready.
"His ability is like an iceberg," says Chris Carmichael, national coaching director for the U.S. Cycling Federation. "Two thirds of it is still under the surface. It will take two more years to come out."
Two years. Two years of questing to win this front-page European event coming from a back-page cycling country. The mix of domestic anonymity and international celebrity is the lot of the American bicycle racer. The pressure is everywhere—the new Greg LeMond—and at the same time it is nowhere. Crazy. "Who knows who I am?" Armstrong says, "I don't know. Who knows what the Tour de France even is? I remember watching the NBA playoffs a few years ago, Chicago against Portland, which had lost the first game by 33 points. A reporter asked Danny Ainge, who was with Portland then, if that game would have any effect on the next game. Ainge said, "This isn't the Tour de France. We don't start Game 2 down 33 points." I was so impressed. He knew about the Tour de France. Does he know about me? I have no idea."
The path is not so easy as simply following LeMond's track, doing what LeMond did. LeMond was the quirky American, virtually riding alone, working in anonymity until he suddenly was there, plastered across the covers of magazines. Cycling has changed. The American successors to LeMond will not have the same sort of underdog quiet. For the American team, now sponsored by Motorola, there are suddenly endorsements and cocktail parties and money and expectations.
Two years. The idea is that a cyclist does not hit his prime until he is 24 or 25, that his mind has to catch up with his body. Sure, the young cyclist can win assorted one-day and five-day events, but the rigors of the 23 days in France are too much. The Pyrenees are on one side of the map and the Alps are on the other, and no event exacts a greater day-to-day price. Fall behind by 33 points one day in this game, and there is no hope the next. There can be no bad days. Simple as that.
"I don't have the miles inside me yet," Armstrong says, "I'm hesitant to even talk about the Tour de France. I don't know if I'm capable of winning it. Even the riders don't talk about it. It's almost taboo to talk about it. It's just so big."
"You have to be seasoned for the Tour," says Motorola general manager Jim Ochowicz. "Lance hasn't had much experience with the big mountains. To win the Tour...there are no timeouts. There can be no injuries. A cold can be a nightmare. The Tour takes victims, during the race and after. You can be out for a month, for a year after the Tour. You don't just go and win it. It's a process of testing limits, learning. That is what Lance has to do. He has to get the miles."
As a kid Armstrong wanted to play the traditional sports. He tried football and baseball and basketball, with Linda in the stands encouraging him. They were not his games. He lacked the speed, the coordination. Endurance was his strength. Want to play? Let's play forever, see who drops first. He found running, Linda taking him to all those races, medals and ribbons piling up because he was champion of all his age groups. After moving to the swimming and then the bicycling, he combined his three sports in the triathlon. He liked the individual sports, the only child training alone, measuring what he could do. He was keeping a planner by the time he was in eighth grade, recording his workouts and things to do for the next day. By high school he was the national sprint-course triathlon champion. Twice. "But one problem with the triathlon was that I didn't like the swimming all that much," he says. "It seemed everyone went into the water at the same time, thrashed around and pretty much came out of the water at the same time. Then, on the bike, everyone was drafting, staying close together. So the race basically became a 10K run, which was my worst part. I looked at what I did best, what I liked best. Riding the bicycle. I went with that."
He was on his own by the time he was 18, moving to Austin, Texas, living in an apartment, traveling with the U.S. amateur cycling team. Linda bit her lip and helped him pick out his furniture and let him go. He has been going ever since, turning pro after the 1992 Olympics, during which he finished 14th in the road race. His first Tour dc France was a year ago with Motorola, a trip designed to be a first dip into chilly water. He rode in the first 11 stages of the 21-stage race, winning the eighth stage, from Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢lons-sur-Marne to Verdun, and departed soon afterward. By the time he left, he had fallen to 62nd in the standings and there was no reason to continue.
His big win came a month later at the world championships, a one-day event on a circuit that went around and around Oslo. Linda was in the stands in the rain at the finish line, watching the racers come past again and again in a blur and then focusing on the action on a large video screen that showed wet streets and collisions everywhere. On the final sprint Armstrong took charge, breaking early, aggressive as always, outlasting the best racers in the world. He brought Linda with him to the victory stand, a totally irregular procedure, sharing the triumph.
"The day changed my life," he says. "The expectation levels grew. I can look back now and see levels that I have hit, and I know there are other levels ahead."
He will be at the Tour this month. The plan is the same as last year, to have him ride until he is tired and then retire. He will concentrate on defending his world title in Sicily in August. He will ride other races. Half the year he will be based outside Milan in an apartment near Lake Como, the other half he'll be based in Austin. But most of the time he'll be traveling, collecting miles toward the future.
"One of the first times he went away on his own was when he was 15." Linda says as she waits for the call. "He went up for the Chicago Triathlon. The reservations were made, perfect, but when he got to the hotel they said there were no rooms and there was nothing they could do. He called, and I said, 'Get me the manager,' and I started screaming. A while later Lance called back. Mom,' he said, "you won't believe it. I have a room on the top floor. There's a phone in the bathroom.' "
"You look at athletes in all sports, and it takes them some time." Linda says. "There are things they have to learn. That's part of the job. Troy Aikman, he must have been about 22 when he came to Dallas. He didn't win a game his first season.... I go out to see Lance when he asks me to. There are times he needs me. I can be his buffer. We just sit and talk for hours, talk about anything except racing."
"I thought for three days before naming him," Linda says. "I had a name picked out if he had been a girl. I wasn't expecting a boy. I picked Lance because I liked the sound of it and no one else was named Lance. I wanted him to be special."
The phone does not ring again until the next morning. Lance is apologetic. The race in Pittsburgh finished late. The team had to go directly to the next race in West Virginia, so the vans had to be packed and there was a drive through the night. There really wasn't time or a chance to call.
"Well...," Linda says.
"Oh, I won in Pittsburgh." Lance says. More miles, Good miles.