This was the year Armstrong got cocky, the year he became the gentleman gunslinger. Back in the early '90s, he was a straight-talking, middling Texan toughing it out in a European sport. Then he got cancer, which changed his life and his body. The treatment oddly reshaped his muscles for climbing, the most crucial part of the Tour de France. He taught himself how to cycle, not just ride a bike. That led to last July, when he became a two-time Tour de France champion, and the kind of comeback story of which hbo movie producers dream.
So this year he dropped the modest, underdog thing. Even the victim stuff had expired: despite unveiling his wobbly French, he was booed by the French on the eve of the race for kicking a Frenchman off his team--though, really, what wouldn't the French boo if it's in their country and isn't French? Then, like a true American, he went on to posterize--just like Jordan did to Ewing--Jan Ullrich.
Ullrich is, as Armstrong has said, the world's most talented rider. As a rookie in 1996, the German came in second in the tour only because he had to let his team's leader take the championship--in cycling everyone else works for the top dog. In 1997 Ullrich was the boss rider, and he won by more than 9 min. Ullrich's legs are so powerful that while Armstrong often does 100 pedal r.p.m.s up mountains in a low gear, Ullrich rides alongside at 75 r.p.m.s at a higher one. Ullrich came to this tour in the best shape of his life. His team, Deutsche Telekom, seemed to be executing its strategy flawlessly. Until July 17.
On that day approaching the Alpe d'Huez, one of the most famous climbs in cycling, Armstrong was struggling. For six hours, Ullrich's Telekom team had set a nasty pace; riders were dropping out of the main pack by the minute, from above, looking to be almost falling down the mountain. All of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service teammates, except for his mountain concierge, Roberto Heras, had slipped into the wake, leaving him unprotected.
Armstrong, face tightened into a grimace, sweat pouring down it, struggling in the back of the group, looked like he was going down. But at the foot of Alpe d'Huez, a 3,712-ft. climb, Armstrong's face suddenly relaxed, and he flew to the front. He pedaled directly in front of Ullrich, turned his head and stared him down for three seconds. Then he blasted up the mountain, alone. In those few seconds, the 23-day Tour de France was over.
Armstrong added bluffing to his repertoire, playing pedal-a-dope and forcing Ullrich and his team to do a day's worth of windbreaking work at the front of the field. "When I saw the camera motorcycles pulling up to me, I put on a mask of pain. It was the ideal script, a chance to play a little game of poker. Every time I grimaced, I could feel the Telekom team accelerating," he said after the race. "It wasn't premeditated. It's just a trick we decided to pull during the stage."
The other trick was to break Ullrich's spirit with a blend of cockiness and cordiality. During the team time trials, a race day when you hit the road with your own guys, Ullrich's Telekom teammate Erik Zabel got a flat, and the squad abandoned him. When U.S. Postal teammates Heras and Christian Vande Velde crashed, Armstrong waited for his fallen comrades. The day after Alpe d'Huez, Ullrich slipped into a ditch. Armstrong waited for him too to come back. As soon as Ullrich caught up, Armstrong took off, leaving him far behind again and winning the day. Armstrong killed him with kindness.
"I don't know what else I have to do," Ullrich stammered after the Alpe d'Huez stage. A few days later, settling for second in the tour for the fifth time, Ullrich added, "In the future, I can only hope that Lance is a little weaker, and I am a little stronger." That, and that his shocked face isn't in too sharp focus in the background of the Armstrong poster.