Tour de France: Vive Le Lance!

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FRANCK FIFE/AFP

Barring some unforeseen disaster, Lance Armstrong will win his third Tour de France Sunday. The 29-year-old Texan will once again be photographed riding down the Champs Elysees, fingers pointed skyward, something between relief and joy playing across his gaunt features. As of Friday, Armstrong held a virtually insurmountable 5-minute lead over his closest rival.

For many Americans, Armstrong’s third victory — much like his first in 1999 and his second in 2000 — will pass more or less unnoticed. The Lance-mania that has gripped the Tour has yet to make its way across the Atlantic. If America’s best cyclist does win Sunday, there will be none of the hysterical and over-the-top celebrations that coincide with NBA or NFL championships. Little press will be dedicated to what is generally considered the world’s most grueling and spectacular cycling event, which stretches over 21 days and 2,159 miles. In Europe, Armstrong cannot walk down a street without someone recognizing him, while in the U.S., outside his hometown of Austin, he can stroll unrecognized down the busiest street. On Sunday or Monday, most of his countrymen will glance at the paper and think, "Oh, that’s nice. That guy who had cancer won a bike race."

Taking the stage(s)

By most reports, that’s just fine with Armstrong, who will mark the five-year anniversary of his diagnosis this fall. He has said repeatedly he’d rather have the press talking about his triumph over advanced testicular cancer than about his cycling victories, adding that he considers himself a cancer survivor first, and a Tour champion second. That hasn’t kept sportswriters and die-hard cycling fans from bemoaning the American public’s blasé take on Armstrong’s accomplishments. Even this summer, after Lance stunned his competition by shredding the Tour’s two toughest climbing stages, L’Alpe D’Huez and Chamrousse, steaming past Jan Ullrich, his closest rival, the U.S. media managed little more than a two-minute mention. "Americans don’t understand," an Armstrong teammate told Sports Illustrated. "What he did here these last two days was like John Elway winning those two Super Bowls."

And Elway never had to suffer the allegations of performance-enhancing drug use that turned Armstrong’s urine into the most analyzed liquid in France since the ’98 Beaujolais. Cycling has always been plagued by rumors of drug use; strong climbers are often singled out for steroid tests. In recent years the speculation has mounted, particularly among the French press, who seem to feel some nationalistic horror that an American could conquer their most feared racecourse. For his part, Armstrong has been tested and tested again, and he has never tested positive. Each time the question comes up, the cancer survivor responds coolly, saving his incredulity for after the press conference. I have been to the cusp of life and death, he has said. Why would I threaten my health just to win a bike race?

A legend in waiting?

These days, Armstrong's fiercest rivals practically genuflect at the mention of his name, and the international press is already looking ahead to 2002, making the inevitable comparisons between Armstrong and the Tour's legendary riders, Belgian Eddie Merckx and Spaniard Miguel Indurain. But Armstrong shakes off the adulation and speculation with a will that is familiar to anyone who knows him. "My career is going to be played out year by year," he told reporters this month. "The record won’t keep me here. Happiness will."

And while it may be hard for most of us to believe that happiness springs from a leg-searing, mind-scrambling, hours-long ascent into the heart of the Alps, a quick glance at Armstrong’s face on July 17th during his first break for the lead was pretty compelling evidence. Sidling up beside Ullrich, Armstrong grimaced as if in pain, then moved just a bit past his adversary, turned and fixed his gaze on the German’s reflective sunglasses. For a full beat, the two men stared at one another.

With that, Armstrong turned. And he was out of his seat, climbing up the mountain.