Somehow, somebody got the idea that Lance Armstrong could be beaten in the Tour de France this year. The talk started weeks before the event, indications that Spanish teams, which were riding well, were seeing chinks in his armor. Armstrong had won the Dauphiné-Libéré and the Midi Libre, two tough multiday stage races before the Tour, but he didn't win their individual time trials, events that used to be his strength. And didn't he finish second in the Criterium International last March? Didn't that show his vulnerability?
Then the Tour de France began, and there came the clearest sign of his decline: on July 15, in the ninth stage, Armstrong, who in winning the last three Tours had never lost an extended time trial, finished second. Said Team once's Igor González de Galdeano, who was wearing the leader's yellow jersey at the time, "The Tour has changed."
Thirteen days later Armstrong took his accustomed place on the winner's podium on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. He had become the first American to win the Tour four times and the fourth rider to win four in a row. By dominating the mountain stages, he proved that the Tour hasn't changed, that he is still the master of this race. "After the first two mountain stages people realized Lance was as good as ever," said Team Rabobank's Levi Leipheimer, an American who finished eighth in his first Tour.
Despite the Tour's unusual layout this year, which stacked the five mountain stages at the end, it was perhaps Armstrong's easiest Tour win, if easy can be applied to a grueling three-week event that took riders over 3,270 km of rolling valleys and vertiginous mountain peaks. With one-time winner and three-time runner-up Jan Ullrich of Germany sidelined with a knee injury and legendary Italian climber Marco Pantani under drug suspension, Armstrong had only one real challenger Spanish climber Joseba Beloki of once, who finished 7:17 behind him.
"Every year the media come up with something to describe my race," said Armstrong, 30, a native of Plano, Texas. "The first year it was 'the comeback.' Then it was the 'the confirmation.' I don't know what it was last year. This year, for me, it's 'the year of the team.' This team is much stronger than it has ever been. It has made it easier for me." Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team surrounded him in the peloton and provided protection so perfect it came to be known as the Blue Guard and the Lancemobile. "We put this team together specifically for this course, and it's the best team I've ever seen," said Belgian team director Johan Bruyneel, a former cyclist who rode in seven Tours.
There was little that didn't go Postal's way. Even González de Galdeano's getting the yellow jersey early "worked out perfectly for us," said Postal's assistant team director, Dirk Demol. "We were hoping that a French rider would get it it's such a big deal in France that his team would have to defend it or a rider from once would get it."
With someone else bearing the burden of the golden fleece as the Tour sped through northern France, Armstrong settled in near the front of the peloton, where accidents are less likely to occur. (A near crash on July 13 cost him 27 seconds.) As expected, the Postal Service team didn't begin its express delivery until the first mountain stage, in the Pyrenees on July 18, when Armstrong was 26 seconds behind González de Galdeano. One by one the Posties burned themselves out and fell away like booster stages on a rocket launch as they led Armstrong on a chase of 33-year-old Laurent Jalabert of France on the final climb to La Mongie. The soon-to-be-retired JaJa had been on a solo break for about 40 km in pursuit of a stage win when he turned to see Armstrong, fellow Postie Roberto Heras and once's Beloki charge past with about 3 km remaining. With 200 meters to go, Armstrong pulled away to win the stage and the yellow jersey, which he never relinquished. The next day Armstrong again bolted past Jalabert, giving him what the Frenchman would recall as a "sad look." Passing the popular Jalabert was "a shame," Armstrong said later. "He deserves to win."
Not as long as Armstrong is riding. Asked at the end of the second week whether he thought he was "too much of a force for the Tour's own good," Armstrong replied, "I don't know. But I know that I love the race. It is what they pay me to do. This is my job. They say, 'Lance, we want you to win the Tour de France.' That's what the team wants, what the sponsors want ... what cancer survivors around the world want."
Armstrong's dominance in the world's toughest cycling event after nearly succumbing to testicular cancer six years ago has made him a celebrity. In the U.S., where most of the public cares little about his sport, he's undeniably famous, though if the U.S. Postal Service's huge, climate-controlled team bus rolled down the street in Seattle or New Orleans, most citizens would assume it was carrying mail. In France, however, the bus is a gray-and-blue magnet to autograph seekers and media hordes from around the world. Other teams have similar buses, but no other team has bouncers.
Few people outside his entourage are allowed on the bus. Friends like American comedian Robin Williams, who pulled up to the bus on a bike in the southwestern town of Lavelanet, or cancer patients who want a word of encouragement and a photo from their hero are the main exceptions. "Those are motivating moments for me," says Armstrong of his visits with cancer patients. "That's the way I can give back to someone who is in the same position I was."
While French journalist François Thomazeau estimates that "80% of the French public respects and loves Lance," it was the other 20% that made its presence felt on the grueling climb to Mont Ventoux in Provence on July 21. Armstrong, who is randomly tested for drugs throughout the year and has always been clean, has nevertheless faced suspicion that given his domination of a drug-tainted sport, he must be illegally boosting his performance. And so he was heckled with cries of "Dopé!" as he chased France's Richard Virenque, a rider who confessed to using performance-
enhancing drugs with the Festina team that was ousted from the Tour in 1998 and served a nine-month suspension. (The wife of third-place finisher Raimondas Rumsas was arrested last week after French customs officials found banned substances in her car. Rumsas, who rode for Italy's Lampre team, has denied taking any illegal drugs.) While Virenque would credit his win in that stage to the cheering of the crowds, Armstrong heard little support for himself. "A boo is a lot louder than a cheer," said Armstrong. "If you have 10 people cheering and one person booing, all you hear is the booing."
For all his amazing performances, Armstrong still doesn't receive the deferential treatment from the peloton that past greats like Eddy Merckx (five Tour victories) did. "Every day we come to the start with the same desire: to ride the race the way we want," said Postie Viatcheslav Ekimov, a 36-year-old Russian who was riding in his 12th Tour and helping Armstrong to victory for the third time. "But that's become more difficult. It used to be that the yellow jersey was respected. In the '90s, for example, if there was any word from the yellow jersey that we should take it easy today, everyone just agreed. But now there are a lot of young riders with ambition. So everybody tries to take his chance. Now, all the last stages just scare me. We know it's going to be so hard, so tough, so speedy. Sometimes you know there is going to be a break that you are going to have to chase all day." Imagine the plight of those other riders in the peloton: they know there's going to be one guy they'll need to chase year after year.