17 July 2005

Last Tuesday Lance Armstrong was much more than sport. That’s both the fascination and the trouble about him. The 10th stage of this, his last Tour de France ran from the scorching streets of Grenoble to the cool mountain heights of Courcheval. In each of his six previous Tour victories, the 33-year-old has crushed his rivals on the opening mountain stage. It happened again this time. It was almost too good to be true.

As a watcher, the first thought was merely to be thankful. Win or lose, next Sunday in the Champs Elysees will be the last time we see Lance Armstrong on a Tour bike. Eight days ago he had talked of “crisis” when he and his Discovery Channel Team looked vulnerable in the Vosges, on Monday Alexandre Vinokorouv – arch rival Jan Ullrich’s Kazakhstan team-mate – had openly talked of testing the master. The next day’s hundred miles and almost five hours up the valley to Albertville and then east into the high Alpine peaks of the Savoy had to be definitive.

What’s more Lance Armstrong is showbiz with sweat and risks for real. For better, and in some unhappy senses still for worse, everyone knows the Lance Armstrong story. The anger-fuelled kid from Texas whose promising early career was cut short by cancer from which he recovered and then not only attained cycling greatness but also set up a charity foundation that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars. The extraordinary force that likes to dominate his team, his rivals, the whole environment of ‘Le Tour’ and, most of all, those unspeakable ‘trolls’ [journalists] who give any credence to the long-standing doping stories that still swirl around him despite all his denials and unblemished drug record.

It was hot in Grenoble. The sun scorched down on the Avenue Clemenceau. The Discovery Channel’s black-windowed bus was parked behind the start with Armstrong’s rock star girlfriend Sheryl Crow adding her own touch of Hollywood in front of it. She’s small, blonde and looks like an athletic version of Hilary Clinton. On cue, Armstrong gives something of a presidential wave when he finally clumps down the steps in his cycle shoes.

He has a smile as lean, honed and hard as the rest of his 5ft 11in, 166lb body. A whistle blows, Lance and the other blue-vested Discovery riders gather up. A hundred yards across the park, a larger man with a shaven head holds a bike.

It is Jan Ullrich’s brother Stefan. The pink vests of the T Mobile team are already going towards the start. More whistles and suddenly Ullrich is among us. German TV mikes jostle forward but tall Jan is miles away behind his stubble and dark glasses. He had a heavy collision with a van the week before and took another double somersault last Sunday. The Tour de France may be a circus but it’s also the Grand National meets marathon running 21 days on the trot.

That’s when your heart goes out to the riders as they chew and josh in the saddle while the announcer hypes away and the police bikes rev. Ahead of some of them will be glory; ahead for all of them is pain. It’s a feeling that stays in the comfort of the hire car with the “Ici Le Tour” radio telling you of early sprints and rising temperatures. When you start the 28km climb up from Moutiers, it becomes nothing short of wonder.

The crowd is en fete, picnics laid, wine already open, would-be maillot jaunes pedalling fat-bottomed up the actual slopes their heroes will fly. In the main part of Courcheval 1850, a huge throng are already watching on the giant screen. But for the riders there are another five kilometres to climb. We take the cable car. The whole finish carnival is set up by the Altiport.

It is at 7,000 feet, clouded and cool. The journey has taken two hours, somewhere down in the plain Armstrong and the other 172 starters are not half way through. If he had weakened, it would have been here. But he didn’t. Without so much as touching any of his rivals, he set about a destruction of them as complete and savage as if he had set a pack of wolves on them. Which in a way he had. His team are his savagers. All along the flat stretches they protected him in arrowhead formation, and by the time the peloton reached Moutiers there were still five of them to help him push upwards, a blue and grey spearhead into the pain.

The tempo these Discovery riders set was amazing to behold. By turns Savoldelli, Rubiera, Azevedo, Hinchcapie and finally Popovych drove forward before dropping away. The group which had been 50 strong at the bottom began to disintegrate. The commentators begin to go into meltdown as the famous names buckle under the strain. With 12km to go, Alexandre Vinokourov slips away but at the front Armstrong goes alongside Popovych and asks for more. The little Ukrainian sprints forward. Ullrich wilts, then Andreas Kloden, then Floyd Landis.

Armstrong is still hungry for more. At 11km he takes over himself. The Italian pretender Ivan Basso drops back. Now there are only three others left – the Spaniards Francesco Mancebo and Alejandro Valverde and the Dane Michael Rasmussen – but none of the three are seen as Tour winners. Up the hairpins they come, Armstrong forcing, the others not willing to commit. The finish will be a sprint where Valverde will best it but Armstrong will retake the yellow jersey. He is confirmed as the toughest and most ruthless human dynamo the world has ever seen. There is a shaking of heads at the apparent inevitability of Tour victory No 7. Next day France’s famed Laurent Jalabert will write, “Il est vraiement tres fort.”

Close up you reel at the control of the man. While Ullrich and the others struggle in exhausted, Armstrong is already conducting a string of interviews as composed and personable as if he were a politician running for office. You get a sense of awe but not of affection. “Lance is animalistic,” says his best friend John Korioth, “the ultimate alpha-wolf. On the bike and often off the bike, he’s a competitive beast. It’s what makes him a fearsome competitor – it also makes him a complicated human being to deal with.”

Back home he may be something of a secular saint and a shoo-in for Governor of Texas; for the next week this is still cycling and the spectre of drugs is still hanging around. Marco Pantani and Jose-Maria Jimenez, first and second the last time the Tour came here in 2000, are already dead from doping-related problems. On Tuesday morning, the Russian Evgeni Petrov was thrown out for drugs as the riders set off across the mountains; the Italian Dario Frigo was with the police after incriminating kit was found in his wife’s car.

On Wednesday evening, Sheryl Crow was back at the finish and Armstrong was still wearing the yellow jersey after he and the blue Discovery train had held control in the peloton while an astonishingly revived Vinoukorov cut loose in the lead. Armstrong did the interviews, the tilt of the head, the skin very tight at the cheekbones, the face calm but the blue eyes pale and cold behind the smile. He is trying to be Superman and so far has made a better shot than anybody.

That’s more than sport. But don’t bank on happy ever after.

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