Leaving all obstacles in dust, Armstrong a very big wheel

July 24, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

A HALF-MILLION people standing on the side of a mountain were between Lance Armstrong and an important stage victory in the Tour de France this week.

Armstrong pedaled right through them, eyes blazing with determination and focus, legs churning impossibly hard as he roared up the course to win.

Ignoring fans' taunts and blowing away an Italian rival who had a two-minute head start, he exuded an intensity bordering on ruthlessness.

Don't get in his way.

For years now, Armstrong has pedaled right through anyone or anything standing between him and his goal of winning the world's greatest cycling event.

Testicular cancer? He pedaled through that and came back even stronger.

Doping rumors? They have followed him around for years, steadily attacking his resolve with a drumbeat of accusations. But he pedals through them and continues to win.

Personal problems? The breakup of his marriage almost got him a year ago, when he struggled to win his fifth consecutive Tour. But he did win.

He will wrap up No. 6 in a row tomorrow in Paris, dominating the field again as his home country's admiration for him soars to a new pinnacle.

America loves Lance. What a perfect match.

"We're the most competitive society since the ancient Greeks," says Michael Mandelbaum, a Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert who has written a new book about sports and fans.

The English were particularly competitive during the 18th and 19th centuries, Mandelbaum said, but we're worse.

Armstrong epitomizes a nation focused on winning.

He has identified his goal (winning the Tour and winning it again) and built his entire life around achieving it.

He doesn't even try to win any of the world's other major races such as the Giro d'Italia or the Vuelta a Espana, using them instead for conditioning.

He spends months before the Tour combing over every bump, twist and crack in the course, plotting strategy and eliminating surprises.

Even his private life seems to be part of the plan. While his divorce from the mother of his young children surely was and is painful, he seems to have recovered, dating rock star Sheryl Crow, a fellow celebrity who is unencumbered and can keep the same schedule.

The guy is so driven, he would prefer to ride a bike up mountains for three weeks rather than go on a European beach vacation with Crow.

That single-mindedness has transformed him into a dynasty, one of the last of the breed in all of sports. That's part of his appeal.

Salary-capped parity has overtaken much of team sports. Even the Yankees, with all their money and advantages, haven't won a World Series since 2000.

But Armstrong, like the old Boston Celtics, just keeps winning and winning.

The New York Times reported yesterday that he won't try to add No. 7 in a row next year. He said no decision has been made. You can guess how that story will end. He is starting a new sponsorship deal with Discovery Communications, and there is no sign of his competitiveness abating.

When he rallied wildly in the final yards to win a stage he didn't even have to win Thursday, five-time former Tour champion Bernard Hinault said to him, "Perfect. No gifts."

A falloff in his legendary intensity and commitment would more likely end his run. But those are, and remain, his defining qualities.

Getting through cancer demanded a wealth of both. So does beating the world's best cyclists every year - and not just beating them, but breaking them. He continues to do it.

When he was a young phenom being compared to Greg Le-Mond, the American who won the Tour three times, Armstrong defiantly said, "I'm not the next Greg LeMond. I'm the first Lance Armstrong."

The comment, which looks prescient now, seemingly has never sat well with LeMond, who is now practically leading the assault of doping charges against Armstrong.

While no one knows where the truth lies, as is often the case with doping (Armstrong has never failed a drug test), Le- Mond's assault has predictably boomeranged, leaving many in the cycling world wondering whether the former champion is just jealous.

Remember, don't get in Armstrong's way.

Until the day when a drug test comes back positive, if one ever does, Armstrong can easily refute any and all charges.

They're just more obstacles that he can overcome, pedaling right through them on his way to more glory.

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