Lance Armstrong almost died four years ago, and on July 10 he
nearly went to heaven. He was pedaling his bicycle powerfully
toward the clouds atop the Pyrenees in southwest France, not far
from the miraculous waters of Lourdes. It was a frigid, rainy
day, and the icy winds were lashing the 162 Tour de France
cyclists who dared climb the mountains, screaming at them to
turn back and save themselves--but Armstrong charged on. Like
Don Quixote, he hears and sees only that which furthers his
mission. "To me it was like a sunny day at the beach," he said
on Sunday. "An absolutely perfect day."
It was certainly one that inspired awe. After beginning the 10th
stage in 16th place, almost six minutes behind Alberto Elli of
Italy, Armstrong picked up more than 10 minutes, opening a
decisive lead of 4:14 over his most dangerous challenger, Jan
Ullrich of Germany, the 1997 Tour champion. Even more impressive
than the speed of Armstrong's climb up Mount Hautacam, which was
hors de categorie (literally beyond categorization, or so steep
that it exceeds the rating system), was the contrast between the
expressions of his opponents, who were gnashing and fighting for
each breath of thin air, and that of the 28-year-old Texan, who
appeared grim, determined and at peace. It was an ascent that
the legendary French climber Raymond Poulidor called
unprecedented in the annals of cycling (chart, page 45). "When I
saw Armstrong," said French racer Stephane Heulot, "I had the
impression I was watching someone descending a hill I was trying
By Monday, the Tour's final rest day, Armstrong had increased
his advantage to 7:26 over Ullrich, who was now worried mainly
about holding on to second place. With only six stages remaining
in the 21-stage, 2,274.4-mile event, Armstrong seemed
certain--barring accident, injury or illness--of wearing the
yellow jersey at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris this Sunday as
champion for the second straight year. "In principle we know who
the winner is already," the manager of Ullrich's Deutsche
Telekom team, Walter Godefroot, said after Armstrong's
magnificent climb in stage 10. "No one can fight him."
It came as a huge shock last July when Armstrong won the Tour
only three years after being diagnosed with testicular cancer
that had spread to his lungs and brain. Rather than being
celebrated, his fantastic recovery became the subject of rumor
and suspicion resulting in part from the fiasco of the previous
year, when the Tour was marred by arrests and suspensions after
an official team car was found to be carrying large amounts of
the blood-doping agent EPO, the performance-enhancing drug of
choice for modern riders. No charges were leveled against
Armstrong, who admits that he has used EPO--but only while
undergoing four cycles of chemotherapy over a three-month period
in 1996. At that time EPO boosted the red-cell count in his blood
and was vital to keeping him alive.
How did the young man who suffered so much to stay alive react to
the notion that he was risking his life to win a race? "Absurd,"
says Armstrong. The win-at-all-costs philosophy that plagues
cycling and other sports is best revealed by the survey question
routinely asked of high-level athletes: Would you take a drug
that made you a champion, knowing that it would kill you in five
years? In a 1995 poll of mostly Olympic-caliber U.S. athletes,
more than 50% said they would. Armstrong believes that if those
respondents could have been in his skin in 1996--after his hair
had fallen out, revealing two horseshoe-shaped scars where
doctors had removed tumors from his brain--they would have
"I've seen those results, and I find them hard to believe,"
Armstrong says. "If they are true, then those people are crazy.
Look, I live for cycling right now, but one day it's going to
end, and then there are going to be no more yellow jerseys, no
more adoration--we don't want your autograph, we don't want your
picture, we don't want you to write a book. [His autobiography,
It's Not About the Bike, is a best-seller.] One day I'm going to
be a normal guy, and that's going to be fine."
For months after his cancer treatment he was adrift, with little
ambition to return to the sport. When he decided to make his
comeback during a cycling retreat to Boone, N.C., in 1998, he did
so with new vigor. "I did train hard from '92 to '96, and I did
have good results," says Armstrong, who in that time won a couple
of Tour de France stages as well as the 1993 world championship.
"But it was nothing compared with the training I'm doing now."
Armstrong and his wife, Kristin, whom he met in Austin while he
was bald and frail from chemo, are almost Zen-like in their
devotion to the here and now, and to the belief that what one
does is less important than the pleasure one takes in doing it
well. "For nine months out of the year it's like we're living in
a monastery," Kristin said from Nice, where she was staying with
their nine-month-old son, Luke. Each morning Lance--being one of
those fortunate souls who can ride his bike to work--heads out to
do his training. "And I go hard, for seven hours sometimes," he
says. He returns, parks his bike in the garage and walks into the
house wearing his famous work clothes.
"He comes home just like any other guy comes home," Kristin says.
"The first thing he always says is, 'Where's my boy!' He doesn't
look tired. He looks so happy and peaceful." Then he has a bite,
naps, has dinner, spends a few hours around the house and goes to
bed. "And that's that," Kristin says, without complaining. "Day
in, day out, that's how we live. People see the highlights, but
they don't see that it's a very, very serious commitment."
Armstrong has undergone profound changes physically as well as
spiritually. The old Armstrong had a thick neck and shoulders,
which, as five-time champion Eddy Merckx of Belgium told him many
times, prevented him from succeeding at the Tour de France. Even
Armstrong doubted his future in the great race: How could he win
while carrying so much weight up the mountains? In the most
unpredictable way, chemotherapy rescued him. The treatments
whittled away his bulk, and while Armstrong regained his
strength, he developed a new, relatively gaunt shape. He also
switched from the standard method of training extremely hard to
one in which he backs off slightly and goes longer. Now he weighs
160 pounds--20 less than the old Armstrong, who had finished only
one Tour in four attempts.
As Armstrong has become sleeker, the 26-year-old Ullrich, who is
possibly the most gifted rider in the Tour, has gotten beefier,
having gained 10 pounds over the winter. Armstrong's other chief
rival, Marco Pantani, went into seclusion in June 1999 after
being thrown out of the Giro d'Italia when the results of a
blood test raised suspicions of EPO use. In the fall he is
expected to face criminal charges in Italy of "falsifying
sporting results" and could serve time in jail. Two months ago
Pantani made a surprise return to the sport in hopes of
challenging Armstrong in France. "Ullrich and Pantani are
friggin' posers," says Armstrong's longtime coach, Chris
Carmichael. "You can't compete for the Tour de France with that
kind of training."
To most workers in any job, success is a result of hard work.
Before his illness, Armstrong was unwilling to make the necessary
sacrifice. Now he welcomes it. "What is a sacrifice?" Armstrong
asks. "You suffer a little during a training ride, you suffer
during a race, and I like that. I would be really upset if I
never had the opportunity to suffer. I would go crazy."
The new, improved Armstrong is tuned in to all kinds of
things--mainly those that affect his performance. He recalls
every accusation and indignity that has appeared in the French
press, because they help stoke his competitive fire. For all his
determination to live in the moment, he's not above wanting to
even the score for past insults. At the same time, he is more
aware than ever of relationships. During a race last month
through the Rhone Alps, Le Dauphine Libere, Armstrong did the
grunt work in helping U.S. Postal Service teammate Tyler
Hamilton win; he set the pace, shielded Hamilton from the wind,
advised when to attack and when to back off. (Imagine Michael
Jordan setting up Luc Longley to score 43 points in a playoff
game.) He was thanking Hamilton for the help he provided at the
Tour de France last year, and thanking him in advance for the
work to come.
In football terms Armstrong is the ball-carrier and his eight
Postal Service teammates are blocking for him. If he crosses the
line first, then the whole team wins. So, as the team approached
the first mountain stage on that miserable morning of July 10,
its strategy was to go out together hard and fast in an attempt
to break down as many of Armstrong's opponents as possible. They
charged too fast. Halfway up the third climb Armstrong found
himself alone among the top racers, unprotected. He was unable to
make up any ground.
He had put in 119 miles that day when he reached the foot of the
concluding 8.44-mile climb. The gradient ahead was rated at
7.9%--or an average of 7.9 feet vertically per 100 feet
traveled--and was the steepest of the race to that point.
Armstrong rose from his saddle and methodically pushed one foot
down after another, as if crushing grapes. As he attacked the
mountain, Ullrich sat frozen in his seat, unable to react. Alex
Zulle of Switzerland, last year's runner-up, abandoned the chase
after a few hundred yards. "When I looked back for him," says
French rider Richard Virenque, who was in the lead group,
"Armstrong just took off like a plane."
Javier Otxoa of Spain had broken away early and led the stage by
10:30 when the final ascent began. By the time Armstrong reached
the end of the stage, he had shaved all but 42 seconds off the
wobbling Otxoa's lead and seized his seemingly insurmountable
overall advantage. Greg LeMond, the three-time winner from the
U.S., only wished Armstrong had a rival who could have turned the
stage into a terrific duel. "If Ullrich wasn't still searching
for his form," says LeMond, "what was a five-minute gain in the
mountains could have become a battle all the way to the top."
Perhaps Armstrong will inspire better efforts from others next
year. How could anyone not take heart at the new life he has
made from the old? Carmichael predicts that Armstrong has the
mettle to overtake the mark of five Tour victories shared by
Merckx and three others. But if Armstrong remains on his bike
that long, it won't be to break a record. He will quit when he
feels like it, because life is too short to be wasting time. "If
he weren't enjoying what he's doing, if it didn't mean as much
to him, he would do something else that did," Kristin says.
"When Lance quits he will be at the top of the sport, not at the
"I love being wedded to my job, but I am going to get a divorce
one day," Armstrong says. "For right now it's a good fling."
Mettle to the Pedal
At 10:50 a.m. on July 10, Lance Armstrong began the 127-mile
10th stage of the Tour de France in 16th place, 5:54 behind the
overall leader, Elli Alberto. Armstrong did little to improve
his position--until he reached the forbiddingly steep Mount
Hautacam, the final climb, at 4:30 p.m. Over the next 8.44
miles, he not only cut stage leader Javier Oxtoa's advantage
from 10:30 to a mere 42 seconds but also seized the overall lead
race," Armstrong says, "and I like that."