Along for the (Wild) Ride

July 24, 2005

The first time I met Lance Armstrong was at a Tour de France press conference in 2001. He was waiting for his answers to be translated into French. I sneaked him a note asking for a one-on-one interview. He wrote something on it and handed it back. I've kept that note to this day.

It read, Damn, you look a lot older than your picture!

That's why for five straight Tours, I've felt comfortable asking him, "When can I ride in The Car?" And every time he has felt comfortable saying, "No chance."

The Car is the Discovery Team's main chase car, the one that boss Johan Bruyneel drives right behind the peloton. If you're in it, you can hear the cool strategy Bruyneel yells into the riders' earpieces and what they say back to him.

This year, in Armstrong's last Tour, he finally gave in. I got to ride in The Car with Bruyneel and one of the team's mechanics.

Me and my big yap.

It was last Friday, during stage 13, a 108-mile, slightly flat ride from Miramas to Montpellier. "Boring stage," everybody said. "Discovery is just going to protect Lance's lead and try not to wreck." And it was boring--if you were riding a bike. But if you were with Bruyneel, who drives as if his boxers were on fire, it was about as boring as flossing a shark.

Bruyneel and his Subaru wagon from hell weave through cars, motorcycles, pedestrians and bikers while he's reading maps and stat sheets, watching the dash-mounted TV and the navigation system, peeling an orange and yapping in five different languages on his cell and into two walkie-talkies.

And all this on puny roads jammed with hundreds of thousands of people. "Ever hit anybody?" I asked, my fingernails buried a quarter-inch into the dash and my shrimp quiche coming up. "Don't think so," Bruyneel said, laughing. "Run over a few toes maybe."

Well, except for two days before, when Bruyneel was handing water bottles to his rider Yaroslav (Popo) Popovych and smashed into the CSC team car. The Discovery car then slid into Popo, knocking him on his butt.

O.K., these things happen in bike racing. I just had no idea they might happen with me in The Car. Too late now.

It was 96°, and here was Discovery rider George Hincapie taking eight water bottles from Bruyneel and stuffing them down the back of his jersey. Except when Hincapie got back to the front, he radioed, "Hey, where'd everybody go?"

Peeing. Most of the riders in the race were all peeing by the side of the road. The leader, Armstrong, had decided to pull over and pee, which meant everybody could pull over and pee, because that's tradition.

Bruyneel, however, sped on like Joey Chitwood on acid. Suddenly, as I was fearing for the lives of a happy group of French schoolchildren, there was this loud thump on my door. I gasped, sure we'd hit a cop or at least a cow. No, it was Armstrong, grinning like Bart Simpson. He'd smacked the door as he pedaled, just to scare the spleen out of me.

I rolled down the window and mentioned that we were kind of busy and could he come back later? And he said something I'll never forget: "You really look old!"

It's a very odd thing to chat for a minute with Lance Armstrong out your car window at 36 mph.

How are you? Some heat, huh?

Sure is. O.K., got to win the Tour de France now, see ya.

After four hours of seeing only cyclists' butts, I didn't notice or care who had won the stage, only that we'd mercifully stopped. Armstrong had not lost a second of his lead. At 34 he looked like a mortal lock to win a never-to-be-matched seventh straight Tour. Unlike some people, this guy apparently never gets old.

Afterward, I saw him at the hotel and asked if, by making this his last race, he was leaving one or two more Tour wins on the table.

"Probably, but it's time, man. I miss my [three] kids," said Armstrong, who was two when his birth father left home. "Today, out there, I saw the cutest little three-year-old girl with a disposable camera up to her face, waiting for the perfect picture to come along. That's how I know it's time to stop. I have a little girl who would be doing the very same thing, and I should be the dad standing next to her, rewinding the camera for her, you know?"

Sucks for us, though.

In the last 25 years there have been three great athletes who hauled their sports to places they had never been before. Gretzky took hockey to the American West and South. Tiger took golf to people of color. And Armstrong took cycling into the cancer wards, delivering hope. No U.S. athlete has ever done more good with his talent than the cocky kid from Texas.

So thanks, Lance. It was a wonderful ride.

Except, of course, in The Car.

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It's a very odd thing to chat for a minute with Lance Armstrong out your car window while he's riding in the Tour.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)