The crowds were massive, the gradients obscene. From a distance this mountain might have been mistaken for one of the Pyrenees in July. To tighten one's focus was to know better. Spectators ate boiled peanuts. The noisemaker of choice was not a cowbell but a set of green plastic hand clappers more deeply annoying, if possible, than ThunderStix. An hour before the riders arrived, a silver-caped Elvis impersonator with a pompadour on EPO popped wheelies on a cyclocross bike and flirted with women wearing buttons that said show us your bobkes. (Don't ask.) In addition to the more universal exhortations chalked on the road--DANCE, LANCE, DANCE and VENGA, VENGA, VENGA--someone had written, ALLEZ, Y'ALL.
This was Brasstown Bald Mountain, also known in cycling circles as Brasstown Bald Breaker. At 4,784 feet it is the highest point in Georgia. Late last Saturday afternoon, with some 40,000 people lining its slopes, it became the high point of the Tour de Georgia, a six-day event that in just three years has established itself as the best road race on this side of the Atlantic. Of the 16 eight-man teams invited, six were from the International Cycling Union's elite ProTour, road biking's major leagues. In a measure of how far cycling has come in the U.S. in a relatively short time (a period coinciding with Lance Armstrong's six-year reign as Tour de France champion), four of those teams were led by Americans.
Three of those Yanks were among the first four riders to sample the near-vertical pitches of Brasstown Bald. They were Floyd Landis of the Phonak team, Levi Leipheimer of Gerolsteiner and Armstrong, who was clad in the teal and white of his team's new sponsor, Discovery Communications. (The Texan won all those Tours de France as a member of U.S. Postal's Blue Train; seeing him in his new kit is a bit like seeing Johnny Unitas in a Chargers jersey.) The fourth rider was Discovery's new member, Tom Danielson, a talented climber who was still having trouble grasping how his afternoon was unfolding. On the penultimate ascent, a peloton-shattering pull called Hogpen Gap, the boss had instructed Danielson to get on his wheel. Armstrong then pulled him to the front.
Having labored through a surprisingly mediocre time trial in Rome, Ga., two days earlier, Armstrong was out of podium contention, nearly two minutes off the lead. It was logical for him to work for Danielson, who sat just a minute behind race leader Landis. While the role reversal made sense, Danielson, a former mountain biker who came to road racing late in life, was slightly incredulous. Sounding like a golfer for whom Tiger Woods has decided to caddie, the 27-year-old would explain later that Armstrong had long been his idol. Now, on Hogpen Gap, the master was shielding his servant from the wind, setting the pace for him, putting him in position for the biggest stage win of his career. Thanks to Armstrong, Danielson husbanded some strength for the final climb up Brasstown and outdueled Leipheimer for the victory, in the process snatching the lead from Landis.
Danielson's success doubled as a succession. Armstrong, 33, was racing for the final time on American soil, and the team has clearly anointed Danielson as his heir. Spoke-thin though his lead was--four seconds--the team protected it throughout Sunday's 125.2-mile stage from Blairsville, in the northeast Georgia mountains, down to Alpharetta, on the outskirts of Atlanta. Thus, while Armstrong finished 22nd in the stage and fifth overall, Danielson and Discovery won the race that is rapidly earning the respect of riders on both sides of the Atlantic.
Like Peter Wrolich, an Austrian for Gerolsteiner who outsprinted Armstrong to win the second stage, many riders from the Continent arrived on these shores fatigued from racing in a series of European classics. "I came to Georgia thinking, I'll have a nice holiday on the bike," said Wrolich. "When I started the first stage, I said, 'S---, it's not a holiday, it's a real bike race.'"
The crowds also surprised the Euros. "I didn't know that cycling is so popular in the U.S.A.," said Andy Schleck, a Luxembourger who rides for CSC. He was also taken aback "by how many McDonald's you have here. And Krispy Kremes. I think maybe the food in Europe is better for a bike rider."
These are men who have spent their careers spinning through fields of sunflowers and past ch√¢teaux. If they found the fast-food joints and strip malls of NASCAR country displeasing to the eye, they were far too polite to say so. "I did not expect such beautiful country," proclaimed Andrea Tafi, the veteran Italian rider for Saunier Duval-Prodir. "This is a very good race."
Indeed, so many things went right during the T de G that it seems unfair, almost, to focus on the slick-ramp incident. Before beginning stage 3, the 18.6-mile time trial, cyclists pushed their bikes up a modest wooden ramp. A light rain began falling, and rider after cleat-shod rider pulled a Gerald Ford. They windmilled their arms, dropped to their knees, did inadvertent splits. No one got hurt; the slapstick was actually amusing. It was also the kind of thing you don't see at older, more grown-up races across the ocean.
That Armstrong made it up the ramp without pratfalling was the best that could be said of him that day. He got around the course in 41:44--a minute and 46 seconds slower than Landis, the former U.S. Postal Service domestique who left the team after last season for a larger salary with Phonak. Armstrong admitted that he was "probably behind on fitness." He was also suffering from a stomach ailment. Nor had his form been helped, he speculated, by the emotional gamut he'd run in the days leading up to The Announcement.
Armstrong had held a press conference on April 18, the day before the race began. With a slight catch in his voice, he revealed that this July's Tour de France would be the last race of his pro career. Armstrong and his ex-wife, Kristin, have three children: five-year-old Luke and two-year-old twins Grace and Isabella. Armstrong said he was unwilling to continue spending months at a time away from the kids, "missing key moments in their lives."
This decision, he assured the world, didn't mean that he was less than "totally committed" to winning Tour number 7. "The dream to go out on top," he said, is "a big deal to me." Three days later he laid that egg in Rome, and people wondered: Was he just a little less motivated to suffer? Had the years finally caught up to him?
Armstrong doesn't think so. While the time trial was a wake-up call, he says, he is not overly concerned. People wrote him off last year, too, after he got smoked in a time trial on France's Mount Ventoux in June. Back then, he points out, he had only a month to find his form. That story, you'll recall, had a happy ending: The Texan won the Tour by six-plus minutes. "Now, we've got 2 1/2 months" to prepare, he says.
Note the we. Armstrong is supported by one of the world's top teams--a squad not limited to the men who ride with him. Two hours after the time trial, while a busload of heavily supervised convicts picked up the trash left by spectators in downtown Rome, Armstrong's team met on the second floor of the Fill-Ups Cafe, at the corner of First Street and Third Avenue. Representatives from Giro, Nike, Trek and Carmichael Training Systems discussed the adjustments needed on Armstrong's bikes, jerseys, helmets, wheels and training regimen. Asked if he'd overheard the discussions, Greg Phillips, who owns Fill-Ups, allowed as how he had. "But if I told you," he said, "they'd have to kill us both."
While Armstrong has gone on plenty of five-, six- and seven-hour training rides this year, he has not put in what he calls the "super-high-intensity work" necessary for him to do well in time trials and on savage climbs. "But," he said on Saturday, "it starts here."
Armstrong has been described as a "hope machine" because of his comeback from cancer and because of his advocacy for those fighting the disease. His time-trial performance in Rome, one of his worst since his return to professional cycling eight years ago, has given hope to his rivals, some of whom were on hand and watched him struggle. Bobby Julich, who seemed to have disappeared after his third-place finish in the '98 Tour de France, has resurrected his career with CSC. In March he became the first American to win the Paris-Nice stage race. After riding what he thought was a brilliant time trial in Rome, the 34-year-old collapsed in a team van, spent but happy ... until hearing his result. "Fourth?" he shouted. "I thought I did great!" He finished fourth in Georgia.
Asked at a press conference which of the Americans he sees as his greatest threat in the Tour de France, Armstrong hemmed and hawed, then named Leipheimer, whose grit is belied by the fact that he sounds like Kip Dynamite, the chat-room-addicted older brother of Napoleon. It's possible that Armstrong chose Leipheimer, a frequent partner on training rides in Girona, Spain, to get under the skin of Landis, who seems to be the stronger rider. Armstrong had mixed feelings about the defection of Landis from the Posties after last season. Late in the 2004 Tour de France, with the rider's departure imminent, Armstrong recalled how three years earlier U.S. Postal had thrown a lifeline to Landis, whose Mercury team had gone bankrupt. "He came from a team that just abandoned him, and we picked him up. I love the guy, but he can be a pain in the ass." Yes, Phonak was offering him more money, but where was the loyalty? Where was the gratitude?
With Danielson and Leipheimer duking it out on that final climb, a minidrama played out behind them. Without teammates to help him, Landis powered up Brasstown Bald, trying desperately to limit the damage, knowing he was in danger of losing his race lead. On his wheel was Armstrong, who let his former serf do all the pulling, just like old times. With the summit in sight Armstrong scooted away to take third place. "I've been around a long time," he said afterward, sounding very much the old lion. He spoke of all the teammates who'd come and gone, of how he had "invested a lot of time and energy into each and every one of them, and they've all been much better riders when they left the team."
To see a victory by a rider who is "really happy to be here--for me that's a special thing," said Armstrong, briefly channeling Fred Rogers, "and I think we have a special athlete in Tom." Indeed, Armstrong seems to have made Danielson his heir apparent. Though Danielson will not ride in the 2005 Tour de France (Armstrong and Discovery's manager, Johan Bruyneel, feel he is not prepared for the intense three-week grind), he will ride in the 20-stage Giro d'Italia beginning May 7. Built like a jockey at 5'10", 129 pounds, Danielson fairly floats up mountains; he has already broken many of Armstrong's unofficial records on training climbs in the hills outside Girona. The Giro's climbs in the Dolomites are shorter than the uphills of the Tour de France but steeper, and thus ideally suited for the rider Armstrong has dubbed as "the Next Big Thing."
What of the Current Big Thing? With the end in sight, can Armstrong dig deeply enough for a seventh and final victory?
"If Lance truly wants--check that, needs--to win the Tour, he'll pull it out." This came from Jonathan Vaughters, another former teammate of Armstrong's, who was in Georgia as director of Team TIAA-CREF, a squad of promising young riders. "But if he's already mentally transitioned to his life after racing, he won't win, even though he's more physically gifted than anyone else out there. Because for the last six years that's what has made him different from the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers. Those guys want to win. Lance needs to win."