Got a nice email from Lance Armstrong a week or so ago. The winner
of the last four Tours de France is now ensconced in his condo in
Girona, Spain, gearing up for the spring racing season. So far,
so good. "I just got over here," he writes, "and so far there are
no mass protests outside my door."
The job of stretching the Streak to five is complicated not only
by the return this year of Jan Ullrich, the talented but troubled
German who missed last year's Tour altogether because of a knee
injury, but also by intrusions from the real world. One of them,
sadly, is personal: Armstrong and his wife, Kristin, who married
in 1998 and have three children, have separated.
Whatever emotional pain he may be feeling, Armstrong isn't
bringing it to the office. A battery of tests taken after his
arrival in Spain revealed that in terms of his fitness, he is a
month ahead of where he was a year ago.
A more daunting challenge for Armstrong may be the distracting
influence of his country's involvement in a war that is intensely
unpopular in Europe in general and in France in particular. In
addition to answering questions about whom he considers his top
rivals in 2003 (Ullrich and brash Italian rider Gilberto Simoni,
he says), Armstrong is being asked for his opinions on Iraq and a
certain fellow Texan. So far he's handled those queries as nimbly
as he handles his bike on a 60-mph Alpine descent. Witness this
artful answer to a question posed by La Gazzetta dello Sport, an
Italian paper: "I support President Bush," said Armstrong, who
proceeded, in the same breath, to drastically qualify that
support. "The only thing I would say is, let the [weapons]
inspectors do their work."
"I'm not a fan of war yet," Armstrong writes. Whatever his
geopolitical outlook, he also has some practical concerns. Come
July, when U.S. armed forces may be mopping up an operation that
could tick off Muslims all over the world, Armstrong will be
riding in a three-week, 2,080-mile grand tour that is a security
specialist's nightmare. The Tour isn't the Super Bowl, at which
you can march every spectator through a metal detector, then wand
them silly while X-raying their shoes. For the majority of the
race there are literally no barriers between athletes and fans.
As Armstrong himself has said, "The Tour has no true security."
It's not lost upon the cyclist that a list of American symbols
that might make tempting terrorist targets--Disneyland, the
Golden Gate Bridge--could easily be expanded to include an iconic
hero named Armstrong. If the country is at war in July, or the
climate seems too ugly, might he bag the Tour?
"I seriously doubt it," Armstrong writes. "It would take a lot
for me not to race. I'm not sure what that is, but it would have
to be a lot. I do worry that the organization of the Tour does
not take these concerns that seriously. The Salt Lake [Winter
Olympic] Games was the biggest security deployment of all
time"--for a sporting event, he means--"yet the Tour organizers
seemed not to worry about anything" in '02.
Tour officials declined numerous invitations to respond to
Armstrong's assessment of their event. I don't know that I blame
them. They could add La Femme Nikita and the French Foreign
Legion to their existing security forces and still not be able to
guarantee the safety of the riders. Fans along the mountain
stages in particular--drunken velophiles, many of them, pressing
in on riders, shouting, backslapping, dousing them with
water--make the Dawg Pound look like the House of Lords.
"In recent years," Armstrong writes, "some of the spectators have
become quite hostile. I try to keep my eyes a little on the road
and a lot on them. There are some freaks out there. Good freaks
and bad freaks." Unnerving as it may sometimes be, this is, as
Armstrong points out, his job. "The Tour is an open road," he
notes. "Has been for a hundred years and always will be."
That's right--the Tour celebrates its centennial this year. And
yeah, in some ways the race was tougher back in the day, when
riders had clunkier bikes and the roads (and the pay) often
stank. But at least they didn't have to worry so much about the
The next SI ADVENTURE will appear in the April 14 issue.
COLOR PHOTO: LAURENT REBOURS/AP FREAK SHOW A more skittish Armstrong says he now keeps a closereye on the crowd than he would like.