When you are Lance Armstrong and you've survived 12 tumors on
your lungs, two on your brain and a cancer-ravaged testicle the
size of a lemon, the French Alps start to look like speed bumps.
When you are Lance Armstrong and you keep an expired driver's
license in your wallet because it shows you in Death's lobby,
your face paler than 1% milk, your eyebrows and eyelashes and
hair missing, and your eyes as two yellow moons, a six-hour ride
up and down murderous mountains sounds like a Tupperware party.
So no wonder Armstrong delivered two of the most remarkable days
in Tour de France history last week, tearing through the French
Alps as if he were double-parked somewhere, dancing on his
pedals, nobody coming within a yodel of him. No wonder he took
both classic mountain stages, l'Alpe d'Huez and Chamrousse, and
crumpled them in his riding gloves, making up 22 minutes on the
leader in two days. No wonder he breezed through the next three
stages, in the Pyrenees, taking possession of the leader's yellow
jersey last Saturday and opening up a five-minute, five-second
lead on Sunday. Unless the Eiffel Tower falls on him, Armstrong
will become the fifth man to win the Tour de France three years
in a row. "It's just so much fun," he said.
Unless you're trying to catch him. "We keep waiting for this man
to have a bad day," said the director of rival Team Telekom, Rudy
Pevenage, "but the only bad day he has is the day after
celebrating in Paris."
Did you expect any less? Could the Alps do anything to Armstrong
that cancer didn't? Could they give him more stitches, sweats,
shivers? Could they be more cruel? Could they leave him more
swollen, aching, broken? Don't the mountains and the disease both
call for heart monitors and doctors at the ready and unending
attention to red-blood-cell counts? Don't you need an unbending
will, a strength deep inside to get you through both?
No, the Alps separate men like Armstrong from the rest, and he
knew it and he waited for them, waited through nine stages of
meadows and flowers, waited in 24th and then 23rd place, waited
to get to the point in the Tour de France when hearts are truly
measured. He waited until the sixth hour of stage 10 on July 17,
waited until he got to the base of the unforgettable 12-mile,
straight-up, 21-switchback Alpe d'Huez, waited in the back of the
peloton and bluffed, pretended to be winded, grimaced every time
a Telekom rider drifted by to spy on him, kept pretending to suck
air for the cameras on the motorbikes, kept conserving his energy
in a game of two-wheeled Texas hold 'em.
Then he turned and eyeballed his greatest rival, Germany's Jan
Ullrich of Telekom, eyeballed him cold, as if to say, Let's cut
to the chase, and took off up the mountain as if he had just
knocked over a 7-Eleven. Within minutes he reeled in the leader,
France's Laurent Roux, who was six minutes ahead of Armstrong
when the attack began. "I had the feeling I was being passed by a
motorcycle," said Roux. Armstrong won the stage by two full
minutes--think Dallas 52, Buffalo 17--beat one rider by 42 minutes
(seven others never finished) and worried that he had spent too
much. "I may pay for this," he said.
However, the very next day after his Huez-cide ride, he whipped
the time-trial field in "The Ride of Truth" to the top of
Chamrousse, the ski resort where Jean-Claude Killy won three gold
medals in the 1968 Olympics, as though he'd spent the last 24
hours lying by the pool. "America doesn't understand," said
Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service teammate, Tyler Hamilton. "What
he did here these last two days was like John Elway winning those
two Super Bowls."
They understand in the chemo rooms. "I know they're out there,"
Armstrong said. "Sitting there with those damn drip poles, lying
in those La-Z-Boys thinking, This guy had the same exact thing I
do. If he can do it, I can do it. I think of them all the time. I
want to motivate them. They motivate me."
Not that he needs it. That night, after melting the Alps, he had
to do something hard. He and his wife, Kik, nervously opened an
envelope from her obstetrician. The cancer treatment had left
Armstrong sterile, but inside was news that the in vitro had
worked again, that she was carrying twin girls.
That's the thing about being Lance Armstrong--once left for dead
and now more alive than any other man in sports, once broken and
now more than whole--every day is an envelope you can't wait to
had just knocked over a 7-Eleven.