Behold the naked man facedown on the massage table. Note the advanced farmer's tan. Consider, then discard, a conversational icebreaker along the lines of, "Hey, Lance, nice ass." ¬∂ As long as they're on display, however, we might as well check out those glutes, those legs, the engines of the man determined to turn this same back on the sport he has owned for seven years. Take in the ledges of muscle in his quadriceps and calves. And what's with all these veins? Even his right rhomboid--the hump of muscle inside his shoulder blade--is popping veins. He's got veins on his abdomen, "veins on his veins," says his buddy Bart Knaggs. That's not normal, people. Nor is his face, hollowed out and hawklike. It is what Lance Armstrong calls his "Tour face," and we are seeing it for the last time. ¬∂ He weighs 165 pounds--"As light as I'll ever be for the rest of my life," says the 33-year-old Armstrong, lifting his head from the table like a turtle. "Isn't that wild?" He is smiling and so relaxed, after 45 minutes of kneading and pummeling at the hands of Ryszard Kielpinski, a Discovery Channel team masseur, that his speech is mildly slurred.
This is not a soul in conflict, a man racked by doubt. As he closed in on his seventh straight Tour de France victory, to be followed by The Rest Of His Life, Armstrong exhibited zero misgivings about his decision to retire the moment he stepped down from the podium on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday. Considering his performance in the race, which he won by a comfortable 4:40 over Ivan Basso of Italy and CSC, he could have been forgiven a few second thoughts.
If the 92nd Tour de France had been a football game, Armstrong would have won it, say, 9-3. He attacked his rivals exactly once, the day the race entered the mountains. The time he gained that day, and in the individual time trials that bookended this Tour, was enough to seal his status as bike racing's Jim Brown, ensuring that he would go out on top. He spent much of this farewell Tour in a prevent defense. Though he smiled and joked on the bike more than he ever had--"Lance got a little more relaxed, a little nicer, every year," said Spanish rider Carlos Sastre--he was tired and ready to stop suffering for a living.
"It's stressful trying to win the Tour de France," Armstrong said. "Stressful trying to get ready, stressful trying to stay safe. Remember, this isn't cricket. Guys get killed."
While seldom exhibiting the dominance that marked his victory in last year's Tour, during which he won six stages, Armstrong enjoyed his share of alpha moments over the last three weeks, foremost among them The Catch. His victim, as usual, was Jan Ullrich, who won the '97 Tour at age 23 but whose career since then has been defined by his losses to the Texan and by his self-destructive behavior--the off-season weight gains, the arrest for drunken driving and suspension for recreational drug use. Ullrich, once Armstrong's chief rival, had devolved into something less formidable: a foil.
Now, halfway through the Tour's first stage, a 19-kilometer time trial on the Atlantic coast, bad news came through the German racer's earpiece: Armstrong, who'd rolled down the ramp a minute after him, was closing. Ullrich, one of the strongest riders in the world, had never been overtaken in a time trial. Here he was, on a flat, straight course that favored him--and losing ground to a man two years older who'd gotten a late start on his Tour preparation. A mile or so later Armstrong blew Ullrich's doors off, passing him on the right without so much as a glance, a figurative neutering from which Ullrich never recovered.
The Catch has already taken its place on the highlight reel of Armstrong gooseflesh moments, alongside The Detonations (his demolition of the peloton on the slopes of Sestri√®re in '99 and on the switchbacks of Mont Hautacam a year later), The Bluff (after feigning distress during the Alpe d'Huez stage in '01, a suddenly chipper Armstrong rocketed away from everyone on the final climb) and The Detour (across a grassy slope to avoid a fallen rider in '03). What we witnessed in this Tour were the final innings of one of the greatest careers in the history of sports. Armstrong didn't just win; he won in a certain way, with the same commodity that John Updike attributed to Ted Williams: an "intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy."
He knows that by walking away now, he is leaving a Tour victory or two unclaimed. He's cool with that. "Why race again?" he asks. "There's no history in it." No one else has won this race more than five times. To go for eight, Armstrong feels, would be piling on. It would be greedy. "Money doesn't matter," he continues. (Armstrong, who made at least $17 million last year, has 10 or so speeches lined up over the next few months at $50,000 a pop.) Nor, he adds, does he need more "fame or attention." What he does crave, like a drug, is time with his three children: five-year-old Luke and three-year-old old twins Grace and Isabelle, who joined him on the podium in Paris.
A favorite parlor game at this year's Tour was guessing what Armstrong will do when his life truly is no longer about the bike. "The problem with politics," he says, addressing the rumor that he will someday run for office in the Lone Star State, "is that it's not so far from what I do now. You get put up there, and people throw stuff at you. I don't like that. And you can't throw back."
"His mission for the next six months or year," says his girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, using a metaphor befitting a songwriter, "will be to spend as much time as possible drinking up his children's love."
Is it really over? "I am ninety-nine point nine nine nine nine percent sure," he says from the massage table. It is pointed out that the first time Michael Jordan retired, he said he was 99.9% sure. "Well," says Armstrong, "he left off all those other nines."
I met the man a decade ago. He was sitting in the Motorola team car in the city of Revel, dropping f-bombs. An hour earlier, he'd escaped from a group of breakaway riders with a wily Ukrainian sprinter named Sergei Outschakov. With the finish of stage 14 of the 1995 Tour in sight, the Russian had worked him over, winning easily. "I can't believe I lost," Armstrong kept repeating.
At this point in his career, tactics were not his strong suit. Armstrong came to bike racing from triathlon, where drafting was not allowed. In his new sport, of course, drafting was everything. He failed to grasp this immediately. One day during Utah's Moab Stage Races in 1989, Jonathan Vaughters recalls, some newbie simply rode away from everyone in the pack. Everyone, that is, but Vaughters and Bobby Julich, who let the new guy do all the hard work, then passed him just before the finish line. "That kid is strong," Vaughters exclaimed afterward, "but boy, is he dumb." It was Vaughters's misfortune to be overheard by the dumb kid. "Next thing I know," he recalls, "I'm being chased around the parking lot by a guy who wants to tear my heart out. And that's how I met Lance Armstrong."
Armstrong's disappointment at losing the '95 stage into Revel faded into insignificance three days later. Whistling down the Col de Portet d'Aspet in the Pyrenees, Motorola's Fabio Casartelli crashed, fractured his skull and died. The following day the peloton rode in his honor, with no one contesting the stage. Two days after that, Armstrong found himself in a breakaway with a dozen riders. Having learned from his mistake in Revel, he launched a solo attack 30 kilometers from the finish and stayed clear. Rolling toward the line he pointed heavenward, dedicating the stage win to his fallen teammate.
The Tour was won that year, for the fifth time in a row, by Miguel Induràin, a passive-aggressive Spaniard content to keep the leaders in sight in the mountains and destroy them in the time trials. When Big Mig had attacked on the road to Li√®ge earlier in the race, Armstrong had tried to go with him, "but he just rode me off his wheel," the Texan marveled. "Nobody's going to touch him. He's superhuman. Five? He could win seven or eight of these things."
Armstrong in the early years stood out not only because he was prone to impetuous stunts--mouthing off to his elders in the peloton; bolting on doomed solo breakaways--but also for how he looked. Unlike his peers, with their Muppet chests and pipe-cleaner arms, he was buff. His muscular pecs and biceps were vestiges of his short, happy life as a pro triathlete.
In 1986, at age 15, Armstrong turned heads at a Dallas-area triathlon by clocking the fastest swim time--getting out of the water ahead of stars like Mark Allen and Scott Molina--before fading to 90th in a field of nearly 500 competitors. As his reputation grew in the tri community, he made friends with Bob Babbitt, publisher of Competitor magazine, who hosts a radio show on endurance sports. One night in 1996 Babbitt kept Armstrong on hold while he finished an interview with Steve Scott, the record-setting U.S. miler, who was talking about his battle with testicular cancer.
A month later Babbitt got a call from a tense, distracted Armstrong, who asked him for Scott's number. Next Babbit got a call from Scott, who said, "Do you know why Lance wanted to talk to me?" The kid, it turned out, was full of cancer: It had started in one of his testicles, then spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain. "Compared to Lance," Scott said, "what I have is like a pimple. I'm afraid he's not going to live."
"Lance never thought he was smart," Bart Knaggs says. "He would kind of slink out the side door of his high school. But things clicked for him when he got sick." Knaggs, now the president of the Discovery Channel team, is one of Armstrong's oldest friends. He helped research the treatments that kept his buddy alive. As Armstrong immersed himself in the fight of his life, a transformation took place. "He had to understand what he was taking, how many milligrams, where his [blood] markers needed to be," Knaggs says. "He became very focused on details. When he got sick, it turned his brain on."
If cancer focused Armstrong and instilled urgency in him, it also made him a bit of a geek. The same discernment he used to choose ifosfamide over bleomycin for his chemotherapy he later applied to his diet (the guy would weigh his food), his training programs, his bike's components, his jersey's fibers. He slept in an altitude tent, studied his wattage and heart rate and mercilessly pestered members of the advanced concepts group at his bicycle company, Trek. "I could lift a carbon-fiber [bike] frame with one finger," he writes in his second memoir, Every Second Counts, "but I asked, 'Can't you make it even lighter?'"
The answer was yes. Standing near the Discovery bus on the morning of July 15 in Miramas, on the Mediterranean coast, Trek's Discovery team liaison, Scott Daubert, tells me about Lance's new time-trial bike. After Armstrong finished ninth in the time trial at April's Tour de Georgia, the Trek boys got busy. "We executed a five-month project in five weeks," Daubert says. Thus was born the postmodern TTX, whose design was conceived by CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics)--aerospace-pioneered software that predicts how air will pass over the bike most efficiently. Says Daubert, "It's wonderfully complicated, terribly expensive, and it produces very good results." Armstrong got on the bike in June, two days before the start of the Dauphiné-Liberé, his last tuneup race before the Tour. How'd he like it? Daubert allows himself a brief smile. "He said, 'It rolls like a Rolls.'"
Daubert and his Trek crew were but one entity, along with Giro, Hed, Nike and Carmichael Training Systems, in the recently disbanded F1 Consortium. That was the vaguely self-important handle of the group that pooled its resources and intelligence to help Discovery, and its leader, go faster. Creating such a group was just one way that Armstrong exerted his singularly American influence on this very European sport. Cycling "is becoming more specialized," says Jorg Jaksche, a German who rides for Liberty Seguros. "There is a case to be made that Lance is the [trend's] originator." By specialization Jaksche means the ironclad role each Discovery rider is assigned before anyone has ridden so much as a kilometer in the Tour. Everyone knows who will be doing what to help Lance perform at his best.
Compare Discovery's discipline to the often mystifying tactics of T-Mobile, a team that looked very good on paper, with three potential Tour winners in Ullrich, Andreas Kl√∂den (second in last year's Tour) and Alexandre Vinokourov (third in '03), but not so good on the road. While Vinokourov and Kl√∂den said all the right things--Jan is our captain, we work for him--they rode a disjointed race. Vinokourov never concealed his ambition to supplant his German captain, who, for the first half of the Tour, seemed the least fit of the three. So frequent were the Kazakh's attacks that it became clear he was riding for himself. With a week to go in the Tour, Vino announced that he would not be with T-Mobile next year.
More and more, teams are emulating Discovery. "The problem," says Jaksche, "is that if your team's only goal is to ride for one leader, and he has some bad days"--as his team leader, Roberto Heras, did--"then everybody is a little bit lost."
Jaksche spoke while leaning against the team bus on the main drag of Issoire, a charming town in the Auvergne region of France. Across the boulevard was the Bar de l'Europe, where cycling fans were eagerly, fervently anticipating the day when Armstrong would be out of the peloton.
Christian Prudhomme, the Tour's new director, has too much tact to come right out and say that Armstrong's retirement will benefit his event. "I don't know if it's a good thing," says Prudhomme, who then proceeds to explain why it will be a good thing. "Next year more riders will have a chance to win. When he's in the peloton, he's the only rider who can win."
Indeed, Armstrong wore the leader's yellow jersey for the last 12 stages of this Tour, and he locked up his victory with a win in last Saturday's time trial in Saint-Etienne. While it is always inspiring to watch him ride against the clock, devouring the course with his metronomic cadence, it was hard not to feel a bit blasé about Saturday's victory. Yes, it was his first stage win of his final Tour. But it was to be expected. He won, just as he has won the Tour's final time trial in six of the last seven years.
While Armstrong's departure stands to breathe life and hope into the European cycling scene, what will be the effect on this side of the pond? "We're losing one of the greatest cyclists in U.S. history," says Gerolsteiner team leader Levi Leipheimer, a Montana native, "but we still have the best-ever group of riders left over" (box, page 47). So for the next few years American viewers will have reason to keep tabs on the Tour. But other than Dave Zabriskie, who is 26 and wore the yellow jersey for three days this year, none of the top Americans are much younger than Armstrong. What happens when they retire?
"There was a five-or-so-year period where USA Cycling dropped the ball," says Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong's who now covers the sport for the Outdoor Life Network. "There were financial problems, and the development of young riders kind of quit out." Once this crop of Yanks checks out, says Andreu, "we're going to have about four years where the U.S. may have one or no guys in the Tour."
Gulp. Does that mean the bottom falls out of cycling in the U.S.? "All the people who have become cycling fans over the last seven years," says Vaughters, who is now the director of the TIAA-CREF team, which boasts the top young U.S. riders, "are they going to decide, Oh, this sucks now?" He answers his own question. "Some of them will. Some are just Lance freaks. All these tour groups, they know there's going to be a drop, but they're pretty confident that business won't fall off the face of the earth."
Ah yes. The tour groups. How many are there? A hundred? Two hundred? A thousand? At this year's Tour de France, a profusion of yellow-braceleted amateurs wove their way up the Alps and the Pyrenees, so absorbed in their Tour experience that it seldom occurred to them to get the hell out of the middle of the road. "More than any athlete, possibly ever, Lance transcends sport," says former Tour de France stage winner Davis Phinney of his friend. It's tough to argue with him, just as it's difficult to say which is the more impressive, or important: the seven Tours de France won by Lance Armstrong or the $85 million raised by the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
I talked to Phinney in Pau, at the start of stage 17. He was having a good day; his hands were trembling only a little. Phinney suffers from Parkinson's. Like Armstrong, he has formed an organization--the Davis Phinney Foundation--to take the fight to his affliction. "If I can do a hundredth of what Lance has done, I'll be happy," he says. "I just want to hold his wheel for 100 meters."
He sees Armstrong's retirement as a beginning, not an end. "He already has the platform with the cancer community," Phinney says. "Now he's ready to get busy." While not in its infancy, Lance's foundation "is just a teenager," Phinney continues. "With his energy and intellect and passion, he's going to go a long way."
How far? In what direction? A lot of people think that despite Armstrong's demurrals, he'd be a natural politician. I broached the subject over a glass of wine with a reporter from a cable network. He shook his head. "The guy didn't go to college," he said. "There's no way he's going into politics."
There's no way. That will sound familiar to Armstrong. First, he wasn't supposed to live. Then he wasn't supposed to ride again in the pro peloton. Then he wasn't supposed to win the Tour, or win it twice, or win it five times. Now he shouldn't run for office because he didn't spend four years boning up on Romance languages and serving as social chairman of Beta Theta Pi.
Could Armstrong find a home in politics? Let's ask that gaunt-looking fellow who was posing for pictures last Saturday in Saint-Etienne. "Undoubtedly," replies John Kerry, whose pastimes are not limited to windsurfing. The senator, who rode shotgun in a car behind Armstrong during the final time trial, is an ardent cyclist and Tour fan. Armstrong would need to get "up to speed" on policy issues, Kerry says, "but he's a natural leader, someone who's overcome a great deal. He has vision and compassion. He's shown he can handle the politics of the peloton, and he can handle this," his gesture taking in the madhouse crowd surrounding the Discovery bus. "I think he could do very well."
"Don't underestimate the guy," says Knaggs, whose optimism extends to the futures of both America's greatest cyclist and American cycling. On that last subject, he says, "There's a kid out there who's 15 years old. He's already putting in five-hour days, and he's going to be a great champion."
So he's out there--the next Lance?
"No," he says, "not the next Lance. There's only one."
THE NEXT U.S. HERO?
Now, for the cycling equivalent of filling Michael Jordan's shoes. These are the American riders most likely to succeed in future Tours.
LEVI LEIPHEIMER, 31
He finished an impressive sixth in this year's Tour, the third top 10 of his career. With a little more help from his teammates in the mountains, the Gerolsteiner captain should crack the top three next year.
FLOYD LANDIS, 29
Kind of a quiet Tour for a guy who spoke of his high hopes in the weeks leading up to the race. Ninth place isn't bad, but the scrappy former teammate of Armstrong's can--and should--place higher in 2006.
DAVE ZABRISKIE, 26
The rider who spent three days in the yellow jersey before crashing out of the 2005 Tour is a bit of a mystery. Already one of the top time trialers in the world, he needs to work on climbing--and staying on his bike.
TOM DANIELSON, 27
Called Armstrong's heir after winning the Tour de Georgia in April, the former mountain biker injured a knee and had an uneventful summer. A sensational climber, he's a year or two from contending in France.
DANNY PATE, 26
Keep an eye on the guy who beat Discovery's Yaroslav Popovych to win the 2001 World Espoirs (under-23) time trial. With some racing experience in Europe, he will definitely be a force in the Tour de France.
CRAIG LEWIS, 20
He has a scary power-to-weight ratio and trains with Discovery's George Hincapie. "I don't know whether he'll be a Tour rider or a one-day classics type," says his coach, Jonathan Vaughters, "but he's going to do big things."