It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. Clinging to a
15-second lead over Germany's Jan Ullrich with less than a week
to go in the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong was making his move
to get an unshakable grip on the yellow jersey and his
record-tying fifth straight Tour victory. With less than 10
kilometers to go on the climb to Luz-Ardiden in the French
Pyrenees on July 21, Armstrong started sprinting up the mountain,
attacking the 29-year-old Ullrich and a small group of other
riders. Then, suddenly, Armstrong was sprawled on the asphalt,
his handlebar inadvertently snagged by a fan who was waving a
yellow cotton knapsack given to spectators by Credit Lyonnais,
the sponsor of the yellow jersey.
That would be the turning point of the Tour. While Ullrich & Co.
slowed to allow Armstrong and another downed rider, Iban Mayo, to
get back into the race (returning a similar courtesy Armstrong
had granted Ullrich after a fall during the Tour two years ago),
Armstrong remounted and got going, only to have his right foot
slip off the pedal, causing him to fall crotch-first onto his top
bar. "When I saw that," says Armstrong's personal coach, Chris
Carmichael, who was watching on TV, "I thought, This is going to
be a good thing. Lance rides much better when he has some emotion."
Fueled by pain, anger and the concern that the Tour was slipping
away, the 31-year-old Armstrong sprinted past Ullrich and cranked
his way up the last eight kilometers on a bike with a cracked
rear chainstay. As he rode, the usually deadpan Armstrong wore a
look Carmichael hadn't seen on his friend's face since 1996. "I
saw the same thing when he was fighting [testicular] cancer,"
says Carmichael. "The same fortitude, the same intensity. It was
"I was desperate," Armstrong said later in describing his only
stage win of the Tour, which stretched his lead over Ullrich to
August 3, 2003
If the French like drama in their Tour, and suffering from its
champions, they had to be ecstatic about this year's race. Given
the return of 1997 Tour champion and four-time runner-up Ullrich,
who sat out the 2002 race with a suspension for using the
recreational drug Ecstasy, Armstrong had predicted that the Tour
would be tight. But the centennial edition of the world's
greatest bike race was a classic in part because the elements
that no rider can control--illness, weather conditions, spectator
interference, crashes--shaped much of the race. (For more on
Armstrong see THE LIFE OF REILLY, page 82.)
As the Tour moved into Week 2 and Armstrong's customary
showplace, the Alps, he seemed off his game. He had been lucky to
escape relatively unscathed from the mass crash near the finish
of stage 1 that sent a few riders home and left Armstrong's
former U.S. Postal Service teammate Tyler Hamilton, the leader of
Team CSC, with a fractured right collarbone. Armstrong was also
feeling the effects of a virus he had caught from his
three-year-old son, Luke. Even in the smaller climbs the peloton
could sense something different about Armstrong. He didn't have
the same acceleration, the same quick cadence he usually does,
and the heat was bothering him. "Everyone could see he had
weaknesses," said David Millar, a Brit who rides for Cofidis. "He
was tired. He was having to push himself, which was maybe not a
new experience for Lance, but was a new experience for the rest
of us to see. It gave everyone hope."
On the ride to L'Alpe d'Huez, a beyond-category climb famous for
its 21 switchbacks and teeming crowds, Armstrong was attacked by
a string of riders, including Hamilton, who had continued in the
race despite excruciating shoulder and back pain. Conserving his
energy, Armstrong stayed behind ONCE's Joseba Beloki, who was
runner-up in last year's Tour. Armstrong came in third and took
the yellow jersey. The next day, on a brutally hot stage to Gap,
Beloki and Team Telekom's Alexandre Vinokourov came after
Armstrong again. With a little more than four kilometers to go,
Armstrong and Beloki were chasing Vinokourov down a winding
descent when Beloki lost control and crashed, fracturing his
right wrist, elbow and femur. Armstrong, who was behind him,
swerved to the left and rode down a grassy slope across a
switchback. He had to dismount and leap--bike in hand--over a
ditch before rejoining the race. Again, Armstrong was lucky.
There was no drop-off, no rocks. "That may have been the luckiest
day I ever had," he said later.
Though Beloki was out of the race, there were plenty of other
challengers, including Ullrich. In the first individual time
trial, on July 18, a day in which the temperature reached 104°,
Ullrich swallowed up the hilly 47-kilometer course in 58:32.
Racing last Armstrong arrived at the end parched. He had run out
of water and finished 1:36 behind Ullrich, who was now just 34
seconds behind. "I had an incredible crisis," Armstrong said
afterward. "At one point I felt like I was pedaling backward.
It's the most thirsty I've been in a time trial."
After losing 19 more seconds to Ullrich in the first Pyrenees
stage, on July 19, Armstrong arrived at the finish in
Loudenvielle-Le Louron the next day holding that 15-second lead
but looking confused and depressed. He even conceded that the
world might be witnessing his decline as a Tour champion. "It's
obvious I'm not riding as well as in years past, and I don't know
why," he said. "Something's not clicking."
The next day Ullrich took a gamble that may have cost him the
race. On the long climb to Luz-Ardiden, Ullrich attacked, hoping
to shock Armstrong, who refused to take the bait. Armstrong
reeled in Ullrich to within a half mile. "For me, tactically, it
was not the time to go," Armstrong said. "He was going so strong
that I thought, O.K., if you are going to ride like that all day,
you can win the Tour de France, because I can't continue. But
perhaps it was a little bit early for an effort like that."
Armstrong built on that tactical victory by being better prepared
than Ullrich for the individual time trial on the penultimate day
of the race. While Ullrich's manager went out and videotaped the
wet 49-kilometer course that morning, Armstrong drove it himself
with team director Johan Bruyneel, eyeballing every treacherous
corner and slippery roundabout. In the race Ullrich crashed on a
slick corner, losing 14 seconds and all hope of winning.
Armstrong, who was told by his team that Ullrich had fallen, rode
conservatively. When he stepped onto the podium in Nantes to don
the 14th of 15 yellow jerseys he would win, Armstrong received
congratulations from Bernard Hinault, one of the four other
cyclists to have won the Tour five times. "Welcome to the club,"
Armstrong's 61-second margin of victory over Ullrich was the
smallest--5:01--of any of his Tour wins. Armstrong says that this
was his most difficult victory. Does he have what it takes to
become the first man to win number 6? The four other five-time
winners--Jacques Anquetil (1957, '61 through '64), Eddy Merckx
('69 through '72, '74), Hinault ('78, '79, '81, '82, '85) and
Miguel Indurain ('91 through '95)--struggled in their final
victory, and all were Armstrong's age or younger.
"I'm coming back," Armstrong said after Saturday's time trial,
"but I'm not coming back to lose. I'm coming back to return to a
level I had in the first four wins, because this year's level was
unacceptable. I don't plan on being this vulnerable next year."
"Everyone could see that he had weaknesses," said one rider of
Armstrong. "HE WAS TIRED. HE WAS HAVING TO PUSH HIMSELF. It gave