The driven Texan who survived cancer and came back to win a record-shattering seven consecutive Tours from 1999 to 2005 will, barring injury or a disastrous fall, not ride into Paris with the maillot jaune on his back.
Instead, Armstong’s not having raced competitively for more than three years, a collarbone injury in an earlier race and running into Tour leader Alberto Contador in his prime have combined to make Armstrong’s presence on the podium far from a given.
Today’s tortuous climb to the Mont Ventoux will provide the answer as to whether he claims his place as one of the top three racers in biking’s premiere event.
During the race Armstrong has alternately sparked derisive commentary from Tour legend and five-time winner Bernard Hinault and praise from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. After a key stage in the Alps where Contador dropped Armstrong and made his victory highly likely, Hinault said:
“I couldn’t care less about Armstrong. If he’s at the Tour or not, it changes nothing. We have nothing in common. There’s also the language barrier, so we’ve never been able to speak man to man. He would have impressed me if at the height of his career, he raced the Giro (d’Italia), the classics. He is the champion of the Tour, nothing more.”
Sarkozy had a more generous take:
“Armstrong has won seven Tours and he is coming back at 37 with the state of mind of a young man. He is coming back to make a good result, to enjoy it—and to fight for his foundation. And God knows how much we need to fight against cancer. It’s giving hope to all the ill people.”
Whether one agrees with the French president or biking legend, those hungry to learn more about Armstrong after tomorrow’s largely ceremonial stage can read the following books:
1. It’s Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts, by Lance Armstrong. Although published separately, these two memoirs are essentially a single book-the story of Armstrong’s life. The first work covers the period from Armstrong’s birth to his discovering a passion for biking to his battle with cancer, recovery and the beginning of his string of Tour victories. Every Second Counts picks up the story where the first one ends and talks about how the accompanying attention surrounding his biking triumph strained his marriage and contributed to his divorce from Kristen, his first wife and mother of his first three children.
2. Lance Armstrong’s War: One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal , and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France, by Daniel Coyle. Coyle moved his family to Gerona, Spain during the winter before Armstrong’s ultimately successful attempt to win his sixth consecutive Tour in 2004. The book is engagingly written and chockful of entertaining details, whether it’s how the bikers pinch each other to gauge their rivals’ fitness to Armstrong’s “Dead Elvis grin” when his body is showing the effects of being supremely tested or Coyle’s comparison of the bikers to two-year-olds who eat, move and sleep. Coyle also has well developed profiles of individual riders like Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, both of whom subsequently were banned for drug use, as well as the likable George Hincapie, Armstrong’s wing man for all seven of his Tour victories who found love and built a family with a French podium guy.
Armstrong’s trainer Carmichael reveals his program with the Texan. Among the key points: athletes can operate at peak performance for four, maybe five weeks. All that Carmichael would do with Armstrong would be to have him hit that zone during the weeks of the Tour. Carmichael also talks about the importance of assessing and learning from defeat, rather than charging directly into the next race.