At first blush Lance Armstrong scorns like a young man who belonged on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. A cyclist who has drawn early notices as "the next Greg LeMond," he carries himself with an endearing, just-this-side-of-arrogance confidence, and his name echoes that of Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy of lore. Indeed, a scene from last week's Tour DuPont, the cycling stage race in which the 21-year-old Armstrong placed second overall, cried out for rendering by some latter-day Norman Rockwell. Armstrong, who had just sprinted to win the Tour's fifth stage, a climb into the Massanutten Resort overlooking Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, should have been delirious at what he called "my greatest victory ever." Instead, he was phoning his mom, Linda, back in Piano, Texas, and expressing disappointment that she hadn't yet received his Mother's Day card. "Believe me," says Linda, "Lance is no goody-goody."
Indeed, his upbringing was far less Ozzie and Harriet than This Boy's Life. Linda is a 5'3", 100-pound steel magnolia who at age 17 gave birth to her son, and scrimped and scraped to raise him alone after two disastrous teenage marriages. Lance and his mom grew up together, sharing confidences and shoulders to lean on. "She instilled all her drive, motivation and toughness in me," says Lance, who moved to Austin three years ago to be near the music scene he so fancies.
Armstrong's background is unlikely in American bike racers, most of whom are raised in relative comfort and don't come naturally by the hard-bitten attitude one needs astride a bike. He first channeled his grit into age-group swimming, switched to cross-country and then took up the triathlon, at which he won two national sprint titles. Frustrated by the triathlete's never-ending hunt for sponsorship, he switched to cycling full-time in 1990 and last year won the First Union Grand Prix in Atlanta and Pittsburgh's Thrift Drug Classic—races usually won by pros.
Following the Barcelona Olympics, in which he placed 14th in the road race, he stayed in Spain and entered his first event as a pro, the San Sebastian Classic, a daylong race that began in sunshine and 75° warmth and ended under 50° monsoonlike conditions. He finished last—111th of the 111 riders who completed the course—but he finished. Two weeks later, at a World Cup race in Zurich, he came in second, a result that astonished the European cycling cognoscenti. Second places are all well and good, but Armstrong has pronounced that he'll leave cycling if he doesn't win. "I define success as winning races," he says. "Otherwise, this sport is too hard."
Thus, Armstrong made no secret of his goal to win the Tour DuPont, in which he had floundered the two previous years, finishing 73rd and 12th, respectively. Last Friday he stood just behind Raul Alcala of Mexico in the overall standings as the race entered the most hellish climb in its five-year history, up Beech Mountain in northwestern North Carolina—the final, unforgiving stretch of a 151-mile, seven-hour stage that Alcala would describe as "criminal." Three times on the last ascent Armstrong tried to break away. Each time Alcala, a 29-year-old veteran, answered with a burst of his own.
That left Armstrong with the daunting task of having to make up at least 19 seconds during the Tour's final stage, Sunday's 36.5-mile time trial over the Piedmont near Greensboro, N.C. Armstrong rides a good time trial, but the length of this stage was perfectly tailored to the talents of Alcala, who wound up beating him by more than two minutes.
Afterward, Armstrong suppressed his usual disdain for playing the bridesmaid. "This was more than just finishing second," said Armstrong, who played the Motorola team's big wheel because teammate Andy Hampsten was riding in Switzerland's Tour of Romandie. "I led a team, and that's something 21-year-old neo-pros aren't supposed to do."
There will soon be great temptation to call Armstrong up to the big leagues, which in cycling means July's 21-day Tour de France. But Motorola management knows that a Double A phenom with good hop on his fastball can be ruined if pushed too hard too soon. Armstrong will nonetheless most likely race at least a portion of the mère of all bike races, provided he's in good form. "If I go to the Tour, I go to the Super Bowl," he says. "If I don't, I go to Austin, Texas. It's a win-win situation." That's an agreeable set of alternatives for a guy who isn't much for losing.
MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT USA
A former triathlete showed in the Tour DuPont why he has been called the "next Greg LeMond."