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
Sunday, more than three minutes ahead of France's Pascal Herve
in the overall Tour DuPont standings, he put the cherry on top
of a remarkable 12-month run. Since last season's DuPont, he has
won his second career stage in the Tour de France and become the
first American to take a World Cup race, at the San Sebastian
world championships in Spain. After a sizzling spring in Europe,
where he won the prestigious Fleche Wallone Classic in Belgium
and had six second-place finishes, Armstrong has sprinted to
seventh in the world road-racing rankings and could crack the
top five when new ratings are released this week. 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 at the DuPont.
"Bye, king" is how Herve bid Armstrong adieu.
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 Tour DuPont.
BIGGEST THING ... SINCE WILLIE NELSON was the headline splashed
across the front page of The Roanoke (Va.) Times the day after
Armstrong won the fifth stage there, for one of his five stage
victories. In Blacksburg, Va., each of five teenyboppers in
bikinis adorned her taut tummy with a letter from his first
name. Not to be outdone, two doughy fellows in Bristol, Tenn.,
stood shirtless in a chilly rain to show off the LANCE and the
ARMSTRONG emblazoned on their bellies (vertically, though there
was room enough to go horizontally). In Boones Mill, the Sons of
Confederate Veterans turned out with muskets to salute
Armstrong. "We have standing orders not to shoot the one in the
yellow jersey," said one militia man, referring to the leader's
jersey Armstrong wore for the last 10 stages. "The others are
"It's incredible the way the fans respond to Lance," says
England's Sean Yates, one of Armstrong's Motorola teammates and,
at 36, a dean of international cycling. "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. "I get embarrassed by all this stuff. I really do.
All this attention makes me a little uncomfortable. I'm just a
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. "We did training camp in Austin
last year," says another Motorola teammate, George Hincapie.
"That'll never happen again because we spent way too much time
with Lance in his rock-and-roll joints."
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. Then there's what Yates sardonically calls
"the big, tough cowboy bit." Armstrong was born and raised in
Plano, Texas, and he's proud of it. He slid on a 10-gallon hat
to celebrate last year's victory at the DuPont and then sounded
a nationalistic note in his faint twang, saying, "I don't think
you should have to have 10 interpreters to interview the winner
of the race."
That kind of sentiment will surely set the flags waving at the
Olympics, much to the chagrin of the other riders. "In Europe he
already rides on so much emotion, and that is why he's so
strong," says Herve. "Bring him here, in front of the home fans,
and he will be almost unbeatable."
Before the Tour DuPont, Armstrong's successes this spring 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,
especially France's Laurent Jalabert, the world's top-ranked
"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. It's going to be huge."
Of course, there's a little French race to be run in the weeks
before the Olympics. If Armstrong is in fact the next Greg
LeMond, he will need to make a run at the Tour de France. But
here's the pickle: The explosiveness that makes Armstrong so
tough in the classics and short stage races like the DuPont is
exactly what drags him down in the 21-stage Tour de France. He's
a sturdy 175 pounds, and that's a lot of beef to schlep up the
Pyrenees and the Alps day after day. Short of dropping 15
pounds, Armstrong's best hope to steal a tour is to crush the
time trials, which has been the secret to Miguel Indurain's five
straight wins. Once a weakness, Armstrong's time trialing has
gotten so good that he set a DuPont record with an average speed
of 32.89 mph during the third stage. "I will contend for the
Tour de France," Armstrong says. "I know that now. It's not
going to happen this year. I could kill myself to finish third,
but what's the use with the Olympics just 10 days later? I'm
going to the tour strictly for preparation."
That may sound like heresy, but being the new poster boy for
cycling in this country has changed a few priorities. A
victorious ride down the Champs Elysees would be nice, but
there's nothing like winning the big one in front of the folks
"These last two weeks I've seen how much a gold medal would mean
to the fans and to cycling," Armstrong says. And here he pauses.
"I'm starting to learn about my place in the sport."