Saturday, July 23, 2005

COM: My Hero in Yellow

One of my favorite people . . .
Armstrong Makes a Final Statement
GEORGE VECSEY, St.-Étienne, France, July 24, 2005

THE dude from Texas had something left. In a great burst of skill and pride, Lance Armstrong won the last competitive stage of his glorious career, mostly because he could not help himself.

"To me, there was no pressure," he said after winning the time trial yesterday, the only stage he will win in this year's Tour de France, which he will officially win for the seventh consecutive time today.

"As a sportsman, I wanted to go out on top," Armstrong said afterward, mildly referring to the great burning need to dominate that he brought to this sport.

Armstrong is such a master of details, big and small, that he knows how to survive three weeks on the road in France. In this strange event, all that matters is time, cumulative time. No need taking chances on the monster slopes of the Alps or the Pyrenees. No sense overextending himself in a rainstorm or on cobblestones. No skidding to make up a microsecond in a time trial. Just ride consistently. Just win the Tour.

He had heard criticism in Europe that, because he had not won a stage, this year's Tour lacked panache, the French word used in cycling to connote style and passion.

"I came here with the intention of winning this event," he said, referring to the entire Tour.

"Seven Tours gives you panache," he added.

Yesterday's final competition was a time trial, one of his many strengths, 34.5 miles in a loop around this city. In the custom of the sport, the leader went last. And Lance Armstrong, in his final serious lap, beat them all, opening a 4-minute-40-second lead over Ivan Basso.

"If I lose the time trial by 30 seconds because I played with my kids too hard, I won't be very disappointed," Armstrong told Sirius satellite radio the other day.

He may even have meant it. But when he rolled off the runway yesterday, he summoned the disciplined rage that has made him one of the singular athletes of his homeland, or any land.

Today there will be the Champagne run into Paris, 89.8 miles, a joy ride, a romp, a ritual. People will offer him wine from the side of the road, and perhaps he will accept. It is time to break training. Lance Armstrong, who turns 34 on Sept. 18, is retiring.

He said he won this Tour so that his three children could see him in yellow, riding up the Champs-Élysées. He and his friend Sheryl Crow, the rock singer, and relatives will leave tomorrow for the south of France, where he will splash in the water with his children, drink some beer, and avoid a bicycle.

Wearing his yellow jersey in a news conference, he insisted he would never race seriously again, but he agreed he might try other forms of cycling, or go back to the triathlon, his first sport. He said he might try for a 2:15 time in the marathon, and quickly added that he was joking.
"I'm an athlete," he said. "I'm not going to sit around and be a fat slob."

He also gave thanks for what he called the blessing of his survival from testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain in 1996. There are photographs of Armstrong when he did not know if he would live or die, when his head was bald, marked by scars, and his face was haunted by fear. After his first exploratory rides, he was back in this beautiful and diverse country with which he will always be bonded.

Very often, the champion of the Tour wins only a stage or two, letting the specialists and the one-day wonders have their glory on one hill or one flat stage.

The last champion to not win a stage was Greg LeMond in 1990, when LeMond won his third Tour, his second after being hit by gunshot pellets in a hunting accident.

Recently, LeMond has been part of the chorus that questioned whether Armstrong had used illegal drugs, which Armstrong denies and which has never been substantiated despite frantic French investigations.

Many Europeans and other cycling fans praise champions of the past, who raced every day, virtually year-round, for the simple reason that they needed the money.

Armstrong notes respectfully that he will never have the complete dossier of his friend, Eddy Merckx of Belgium, who won the Tour five times and also won the Giro d'Italia five times, the Vuelta a España once and the world championships three times, or Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil of France, or Miguel Indurain, the Basque from Spain, all of whom won the Tour five times.

Because there is so much money in being the Tour de France champion, Armstrong has made it his single obsession. For years he made a point of riding every meter of the Tour months ahead, but this year, as retirement beckoned, he eased off on his compulsiveness - with near dire results.

On July 9, the entire nine-man Discovery Channel team came apart on a brutal mountain, the Col de Schlucht, in the Vosges chain. Armstrong and the team's director, Johan Bruyneel, had a series of "talks" with the riders. After that, there was a serious patina of blue-clad riders all around Armstrong.

Yesterday there was no need for a phalanx of support riders. Today, Armstrong will ride into Paris in the middle of the pack, among his colleagues. He will be wearing yellow. Yellow is his color. The Tour is his race.

He will cycle easily today. He did his hard riding yesterday. He could not help himself.


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