It was a sweet gesture, and it was as subtle as a ten-gallon
hat. Two hundred meters from the finish line in last Friday's
18th stage of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong set about
dedicating his victory in that stage to Motorola teammate Fabio
Casartelli, who had been killed three days earlier in a crash.
So what if Armstrong nearly gave himself tendinitis in both
elbows pointing to the sky and blowing kisses to the heavens?
When you are 23 and from Texas, and you are honoring a friend
buried the day before, with a victory in the world's biggest
bike race, you don't worry about laying it on a little thick.
This was the year reality overtook hyperbole at the Tour de
France, long known for its "killer" mountain stages. But no one
overtook Miguel Indurain of Spain, who finished the three-week
race four minutes and 35 seconds ahead of Alex Zulle of
Switzerland and whose ceremonial Sunday stroll along the Champs
Elysees was the anticlimactic end to a race he had sewn up a
As he has in winning the Tour each year since 1991, the
introverted Indurain employed a cold, calculating style, and
what little he had to say was of little interest. And, fairly or
unfairly, Big Mig's unprecedented win--neither Jacques Anquetil
nor Eddy Merckx nor Bernard Hinault, the only other riders to
have won five Tours, won them in succession--was eclipsed by
events that marred and then elevated the sport.
The 24-year-old Casartelli was killed after the ascent to the
Col de Portet d'Aspet, the first of the six climbs in the
Pyrenees that the riders had to make on July 18. The cyclists
were coming off a rest day, the second of two in the 20-stage
grind, and the pace had been brisk. Minutes after beginning his
descent Casartelli, traveling at about 55 mph, leaned into a
curve and went down, causing a crash that brought down several
riders. He fell headlong and fractured his skull.
Casartelli was taken by helicopter to a hospital in nearby
Tarbes, where he died shortly after arrival. Astonishingly, the
Tour organizers proceeded with the afternoon's festive postrace
awards program, as if nothing had happened. Stage winner Richard
Virenque, who had yet to be informed of the tragedy, mounted a
podium in Cauterets and, grinning, accepted the ceremonial
bouquet and a smooch on each cheek from a pair of lovelies. The
Tour's lack of sensitivity elicited outrage all over Europe,
particularly in Italy. Had a French rider come to grief, it was
suggested, the Tour would have responded differently.
The cyclists--foremost among them the veteran Italian
riders--decided something had to be done. "No one felt like
racing," said Andrea Peron, Casartelli's roommate. Word went
around the peloton at Tarbes the next morning: There would be no
race. The patron, Indurain, had been consulted and "gave his
nod," according to one rider.
After observing a minute of silence and then wiping their
eyes--for beneath their garish, aerodynamic shades, many of these
tough men wept--the cyclists set off on a stage that was not so
much a race as a hearseless cortege.
Ten kilometers from the finish the remaining riders of the
Motorola team--Armstrong, Peron, Frankie Andreu, Steve Bauer,
Alvaro Mejia and Stephen Swart--went to the front. With the
finish line in sight and the pack a respectful 200 meters back,
the Motorolans formed a kind of flying wing and rolled across
the finish together. Crossing a few feet ahead of the others, by
design, was Peron.
A LESSON IN DIGNITY proclaimed the French newspaper L'Equipe the
next day, and so it had been. "This sport is so dog-eat-dog,"
said Armstrong, Motorola's team leader. "For 130 guys to come
together like that showed the class of the peloton."
Class, yes; common sense, no. Even as they rode in honor of
Casartelli, their unhelmeted heads invited a similar tragedy.
The riders complain about how hot it gets under the helmets.
Fair enough. But if the cyclists were completely candid, they
would have admitted that vanity was an equally powerful reason
why few of them wear protective headgear on a regular basis.
They liked the way their hair streamed behind them when they
rode. Armstrong did don a helmet the day after Casartelli's
death, but two stages later the headgear was back collecting
dust in the Motorola car.
Team spokesman Paul Sherwen said he had been told by a Tour
doctor, Gerard Porte, that Casartelli's injuries would have been
fatal whether or not he had been wearing a helmet. "But," added
Sherwen, "that's just one opinion." Racers must wear helmets in
the U.S. and in some European countries, but not in France. When
the Tour tried to force riders to wear headgear several years
ago, the cyclists simply refused. The issue faded away, and it
was resurrected by the death of a rider--albeit the first one as
the result of a crash in 60 years.
If the homage to Casartelli helped the riders bring their
mourning period to a close, it also closed out any chance for
Zulle and his ONCE team to catch Indurain, who rides for
Banesto. The uncontested stage on July 19 featured three nasty
climbs in the Pyrenees interspersed with long flats--ideal
terrain for ONCE to have launched assaults on the champion. Yet
Zulle and his teammates were in the forefront of those who
wanted to ride for Casartelli.
Zulle had been the last obstacle on Indurain's radar. One by one
the contenders had taken runs at him; one by one they had been
calmly dispatched. Indurain's main challenger coming into the
race was thought to have been Tony Rominger of Switzerland, but
Rominger fizzled early, his fade attributed by some to his
decision to ride hard in the Giro D'Italia, a three-week race
that ended in early June.
Indurain, by comparison, coasts unapologetically through the
early season in order to peak in France. This is the main
criticism that has been leveled against him by Merckx, who along
with Hinault does for cycling what Jim Brown and Wilt
Chamberlain do for their former sports in the U.S.: take
potshots at those with the temerity to threaten their records.
If Merckx was "the Cannibal," devouring everyone in front of
him, Indurain is "the Boa," winning Tours by patiently squeezing
the hope out of his foes. Says Bauer, "Miguel tends to just
lets things fall into place, and then, when it's his moment,
The late afternoon of July 8 did not look like Indurain's
moment. A lull seemed to have fallen over the Tour. With a time
trial, his specialty, coming the next day, surely Indurain would
be husbanding his energy in the final stretch of the seventh
stage, a 203-kilometer roller coaster from Charleroi through the
Belgian Ardennes to Liege.
But as the pack neared the summit of the day's penultimate
climb, a sharp ascent up Mont Theux, Indurain took the 1995 Tour
by the throat. "People talk about his heart and lungs," says
Bauer, "but he's pretty smart, too. If he sees you're out of
place or suffering, he'll turn the screws."
Sensing the complacency of the pack, Big Mig simply powered away
from it. Tucked away in Indurain's slipstream was ONCE's Johan
Bruyneel, whose eventual victory in the stage was itself a
tribute to Indurain. Bruyneel refused to take his turn at the
front, letting Indurain do all the work until very near the end.
Among the riders who were served a helping of Indurain's dust
that day was Armstrong. "He just rode me off his wheel,"
marveled the former triathlete from Austin. "Nobody's going to
touch him. He's superhuman."
If the future of American cycling sounded a tad forlorn, he had
his reasons. Armstrong was still looking for his second Tour de
France stage win in an uneven three-year pro career.
Motorola's plan to spring Armstrong for a win in one of the
early, flat stages of this year's Tour had had to be revised.
Sprinting into Dunkirk on July 6, Armstrong had crashed hard
after he was sideswiped by the Italian sprinter Giovanni
Lombardi, and he lost more than two minutes in the race
standings and much of his hide, incurring painful abrasions on
his right elbow, both legs, even his back.
The new plan: Get Armstrong through the mountains, let his
wounds heal, then think about winning a stage. Laboring up one
of the 21 switchbacks of the fabled Alpe d'Huez on July 12,
Armstrong took heart upon seeing that someone had painted
longhorns on the road. Then he took another spill when a
spectator's camera strap snagged his handlebars.
Feeling frisky with the Pyrenees behind him on July 15,
Armstrong attacked early in the 245-kilometer stage from Mende
to Revel. The finish came down to a cold war of nerves between
Armstrong and Sergei Outschakov of Ukraine. Outschakov
outsprinted Armstrong to the finish. His best chance for a stage
win gone, it seemed that the best Armstrong could hope for was
to finish the race.
Trifles such as stage wins faded into insignificance on July 18
when Armstrong went around a curve and had to brake hard to
avoid a third fall. "There were bodies all over the road," he
said afterward. One of them was Casartelli, who was curled into
a fetal position. "I thought he was holding his knee," Armstrong
said. After winning the gold medal in the road race at the 1992
Olympics, Casartelli had been plagued by knee problems.
Armstrong spent the next 20 kilometers looking over his
shoulder. Finally, once rider Erik Breukink, who had gone down
in the pileup but emerged unscathed, gently told Armstrong, "You
can stop looking for him. He's not coming."
The death of a rider was announced on the radio frequency to
which all the team cars are tuned, and the news made its way
through the peloton. Bauer was crying, and he actually welcomed
the hellish ascent up the Col du Tourmalet. "It was easier just
to turn all your emotion into anger and focus on surviving the
stage," he said.
At the team hotel, Motorola team director Jim Ochowicz asked his
cyclists, "So what do people want to do?" There was silence
until John Hendershot, one of the trainers, stood up. He said
the easy way out would be for them all to abandon the race. The
harder thing, he said, "would be to work through this as a team
and finish the race, the way Fabio wanted to do." No one
That night was "terrible," according to Armstrong. "Riding
together for Fabio the next day made things a little better."
Two days after the memorial procession, 15 minutes into the 18th
stage, an undulating, 166.5-kilometer ride to Limoges, Armstrong
turned to Andreu, the only other U.S. rider in the race, and
said, "I've got legs today."
He proved it with 70 kilometers to go, joining a breakaway group
of a dozen riders, and proved it again 30 kilometers from the
finish. As the bunch relaxed at the end of an ascent, Armstrong
suddenly surged, building his lead at one point to 1:15. With
the finish line in sight, he took his hands off the handlebars
and signaled to his fallen friend. "Today," he said afterward,
"I had the strength of two men."
Ochowicz missed Armstrong's stage win. He was among the
thousands who attended Casartelli's funeral in Albese, the tiny
village outside Como, Italy, where the rider was raised. After
the service Annalisa Casartelli carried her infant son, Marco,
to the casket and held him over it to give him a chance to say
goodbye to his father.
Perhaps when he is older Marco will learn of the events of July
1995 and arrive at this conclusion: My father must have been
someone special, to have inspired so much generosity in so many.