It was pudding, this sixth Tour de France win for Lance
Armstrong. Easy as a Sunday ride with your arthritic aunt. He
could've won it while doing his taxes.
Except when spectators were spitting on him.
Except when they were flipping him off with both hands, cussing
him, mooning him, throwing their beer and water at him,
slandering his girlfriend, screaming at him, "Dope!" (Doper) and
In stage 16, over the most famous mountain in cycling, Alpe
d'Huez, the French, Germans and Basques did all that and more,
flapping flags in his face, donning grotesque animal masks and
daring him to run them over, scrawling four-foot-high insults in
chalk on the pavement he had to cover.
"It made me sick," said Armstrong's girl, rocker Sheryl Crow, who
rode in the chase car directly behind him that day. "I wanted to
jump out and spank some of these people. It was just hateful.
Here is the greatest athlete of our generation competing in the
hardest sporting event in the world, and they act like that?"
They do--more than ever.
In the second-to-last stage, in Besancon last Saturday, somebody
threw a handful of god-knows-what that struck Armstrong square in
the face. "It tasted like grass," he said, "only grittier. I was
spitting it out for miles." And it's almost funny until it hits
you that the next handful could be laced with a drug that would
show up nicely in a test.
Hell, yeah, this history-shredding sixth straight win was as
one-sided as a speeding ticket, nothing more than a coronation in
funny hats, an 18-speed SmileFest.
Except for the book that came out two weeks before the race
began, L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong, which
included new allegations that he was juiced in previous
Tours--but no proof. Except for Greg LeMond, the only other
American to win the Tour, insinuating as he has for years that
Armstrong was using EPO--without proof. Except for French TV
reporters allegedly trying to sneak into and search his hotel
room for drugs twice while he was out there burning up their
Armstrong hasn't said whether he will try for seven, but you want
to tell him, Quit now. Why keep grinding through the lies and
drunks and Briebrains who can't appreciate the greatest champion
their sport has ever known?
And he should quit--except his three kids, back in Austin with
his former wife, Kristin, are now all old enough to realize that
the man on TV in the pretty yellow shirt is Daddy. Except Crow is
now so hooked on his sport that she moaned when it was over, "I
can't believe I have to go back to boring old rock 'n' roll now."
Except he gets e-mails like the one that was forwarded to him
minutes before he rode Besancon.
It was from a sporting-goods clerk in the States who had just
sold all of the store's 500 yellow livestrong bracelets to one
young man--500 of the eight million that Nike paid for and that
are being sold for $1 each, with all proceeds going to Lance
Armstrong Foundation programs that benefit cancer research and
provide medical supplies.
"Why do you need so many?" the clerk asked the man.
He said his father had just died of cancer, and the thing that
had kept him alive in his hospital bed the last three weeks was
Armstrong. "Every single minute of the Tour, my dad's inspiration
was Lance," the son said. "And he gave a bracelet to everybody
who visited." So, at the funeral, the young man said, he was
going to give everybody who came a bracelet, as a gift.
Armstrong read that on his BlackBerry and nearly cried. Less than
45 minutes before the last stage that meant anything, trying to
keep his focus on this 19th grueling day of racing, trying to
hold on for the last of these 2,109 miles, and he felt like a
puddle. "Finally," Armstrong remembers, "I stood up and said to
myself, I think I'm going to go fast today."
He did. He thumped second-place finisher Jan Ullrich of Germany
by 61 seconds, which was funny because he had thumped
second-place finisher Jan Ullrich by 61 seconds up Alpe d'Huez
three days earlier, which was interesting because he had thumped
second-place finisher Jan Ullrich by 61 seconds total in winning
the race last year.
Poor Ullrich. He was going for a historic sixth--six second-place
finishes in the Tour--but failed. He finished fourth on Sunday.
But swallowing the Tour de France whole is not why Armstrong will
be back for seven, if not eight. He will be back because he beat
14 tumors and 4-in-10 odds of surviving, and now he flies up Alps
and gives people hope. He'll be back because he's the poster boy
for living. He'll be back because the gift is not his bracelets,
the gift is him.
So if you think it's a damn shame that one of the five greatest
athletes in American history performs eye-bulging feats in front
of almost none of his countrymen, then go to Alpe d'Huez next
summer. Go and line that mountain with 10 times the countrymen
Armstrong has ever seen there.
Then we'll see how much spitting goes on.
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly,
send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER
Lance will be back because he beat 14 tumors and the odds, and
now he flies up Alps and gives people hope.