If Lance Armstrong wins the 2005 Tour de
France it will be his seventh consecutive victory. He
holds the current record at six consecutive victories.
It is unlikely any cyclist will repeat that record during
The last six Tours de France have been historically
significant for a number of reasons. More has happened
in the evolution of the event during the last two decades
than in the previous seven decades, and the last six years
in particular. Some of that is because of Lance Armstrong,
some of it isn’t.
First, Armstrong himself- the character:
Armstrong represents aspects of our sport
and culture both good and bad. He is the product of a
broken marriage. Quite predictably as statistics suggest,
he himself is now a single father. Athletic ability, work
ethic and economic privilege are not adequate credentials
for maintaining a family the “old fashioned”
way. This is not a criticism, it’s an observation,
and it says more about us as a culture than it says about
Armstrong as a cyclist. He is a slice of American pie.
It may be the deviation from an increasingly fictional
societal “norm” (married families with 2.5
children) that makes him a bit more of an accessible “everyman”
character to all of us that come from a broken family.
The adverse beginnings Armstrong overcame were like a
black smith’s hammer on a steel blade. The harder
the blows, the sharper and tougher he became. Another
reason this may be the secret to his consecutive victories
is that during the late seventies, sixties and fifties
Tour de France heroes were mostly from rural, blue collar
backgrounds raised in traditional family settings and
with families themselves. One has to only compare the
pastoral disposition of a Miguel Indurain to the incendiary
temperament of Armstrong to see the stark contrast. Only
Bernard Hinault shared the same rough-edged intensity
A core value in today’s American culture
is the “Win at almost all costs, easier to ask for
forgiveness than permission” ethos. That’s
Armstrong. In an age that salutes single-minded devotion
and relentless pursuit of success Armstrong is an icon.
That thesis has a negative tinge to it, but it is not
so much a commentary on Armstrong as it is our culture.
He only typifies that, he is a product of it- and that
is a big part of his notoriety. He is the poster child
for kicking ass against the odds and never settling for
second. And like our society and culture, the character
of Lance Armstrong is also fraught with contradictions.
And then there is the cancer.
It’s very possible you and I will
die of cancer. We both know people who have. Armstrong
slayed the invisible dragon and gave a generation hope
for doing it themselves. More than mountain passes and
time trials, that is his legacy. He took the image of
the cancer patient from the pallor of the balding chemo
victim bent over in a pastel hospital smock to that of
a man battling back to a level far beyond mere survival.
Armstrong isn’t a cancer survivor, he is a cancer
conqueror. The grim reaper called Armstrong on his cell
phone and Armstrong sent him to voice mail. If there is
a single thing that defines Armstrong, that is it.
Imagine yourself as another bicycle racer
looking down the start ramp at the beginning of a time
trial in the Tour de France. Armstrong is going off one
minute behind you. In the back of your mind you know that
if cancer couldn’t kick his ass, then you have no
chance of doing so. The determination hard-wired into
Armstrong far exceeds what is necessary to win the Tour
de France, and that is the cornerstone of his success.
That represents the greatest of human traits: Perseverance.
Armstrong is all about perseverance, perhaps at the cost
of other things.
Armstrong’s legacy is also a resurgence
of road cycling and a corresponding increase in awareness
of the Tour de France. It is only partially Armstrong’s
because the coinciding emergence of Internet media and
cable television helped make Armstrong the visible character
he is. This new media, emerging at the same time as Armstrong’s
rise, increased awareness of the Tour de France and rekindled
interest in road cycling. In and of himself, Armstrong
is certainly a sensational character. But a sensational
new media was needed to put a bike racer in the headlines.
Had it not been for cable TV coverage of the Tour de France
and real-time Internet media that tracks the race from
every desk top, the race would have remained a fringe
sport in the U.S. consciousness. Internet and cable TV
happened the same time Armstrong was happening, and it
brought his victories and tribulations to our living rooms
and desktops in real time. The big three U.S. television
networks spent decades ignoring it, the emergence of Internet
and cable TV made Armstrong and the Tour mainstream in
the U.S. as they themselves grew to mainstream media.
The awareness bracelet is another part of
Armstrong’s legacy as he begins his one month victory
lap of France. There are bracelets for Leukemia and Lymphoma
(purple), Breast Cancer (pink), bringing home the troops
(green) and nearly every other worthy cause. Fund raising
and charity is nothing new, but Armstrong made it fashion,
and fashion made it bigger. In contradiction to his single
minded, win at nearly all cost approach, the bracelet
and cancer philanthropy establish Armstrong as a humble
but powerful character. Both political candidates sported
the yellow “Livestrong” bracelets during the
campaign. Both made a point of being seen on their bikes.
That’s no coincidence. Lance Armstrong’s rise
from death and resurrection as Tour de France legend produced
a modern day crown of thorns in the form of a yellow rubber
bracelet, worn by almost everyone crucified by the horrible
suffering of cancer. While the rubber cause bracelet may
have lapsed into trendy-ism, the message of what it stands
for will never be trivial. Those of us who have not had
“The Talk” with their physician can never
fully understand the importance of those little rubber
A dark part of Armstrong’s legacy
is the looming specter of implied performance enhancing
drug use. Like artillery rounds in a barrage the positive
tests have fallen on cyclists all around him: Richard
Virenque, the Festina Affair, Marco Pantani, Tyler Hamilton
and others have tested positive for banned substances.
The sport has got a bad rap. But Armstrong has never taken
a direct hit, only accusation shrapnel from the media.
He reportedly never has tested positive for a banned substance.
No evidence published in the U.S. documents any impropriety
with regard to performance enhancing drugs. The fact of
the matter is: no one can prove Armstrong has ever used
performance enhancing drugs. Still the whispers and not-so-whispers
continue. A book published in French that is an alleged
expose’ on Armstrong has not been published here
in English. Controversy surrounds the so-called “evidence”
in the book. But Armstrong has never tested positive.
That is a fact. We are Americans, and so is Armstrong.
America is the land of the former President who had no
sexual relations with the intern, the former President
who isn’t a crook, and the new-age Betty Crocker
who did hard time on the inside for insider stock trades.
Is he guilty by association? No. He is innocent by the
preponderance of evidence. We are Americans, and that
is how it works in America.
One feature of a race that is 21 days long
is the tightly sprung steel jaw trap of rotten luck. Armstrong
has had it, sometimes in droves, and he has always chewed
his own leg off and crawled away to fight again. He’s
crashed, had bikes break, team mates jump ship and the
media harangue him. He’s had personal struggles,
teams and sponsors bail on him and he always finds a way
to minimize the damage, or in fact, use it to his advantage.
A 1960’s horror film called “Kronos”
featured an enormous alien robot that absorbed the energy
from atom bombs earthlings dropped on it and only became
stronger. Armstrong is like that: The more he suffers,
the stronger he becomes. Suffering is the plutonium of
his reactor core, and in The Tour de France, there is
plenty to go around.
The Tour de France before Lance Armstrong
was steeped in mysticism and lore. Armstrong brought it
into the modern world. Greg LeMond hinted at technological
changes to come in the Tour, but Armstrong facilitated
the use of technology to a greater degree than any previous
Tour de France champion. In the old Tour de France tactics
were decided by cyclists over mineral water and between
Director Sportifs during late night meetings in team hotel
hallways. Armstrong employed a cartel that communicated
via cell phone, high frequency secure scrambler radios
and up linked physiological data via satellite. The tactical
communication methods employed by Armstrong’s Motorola,
U.S. Postal Service and the current Discovery Channel
Teams are more similar to the ones used by a Navy SEAL
team than by a bike racing team in the mid 1980’s.
Armstrong brought to the Tour de France a level of sophistication,
preparation and organization never seen in previous years.
Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett once commented
that he preferred the Tour before the era of televisions
in the Director’s car, radios in the rider’s
ears and squadrons of aircraft orbiting above the peloton
along with satellites in orbit to facilitate race tactical
communications. But Armstrong did not come to the Tour
to honor quaint tradition, he came to kick ass.
In anticipation of this seventh and final
chapter in a revolutionary decade in bicycle racing history
one thing we know for sure is to never underestimate Lance
Armstrong. Never count him out. He tells the media he
goes there to win, and likely that is because he means
to. I doubt Armstrong will be happy to pass the torch
gracefully. It doesn’t seem a feature of his complex
and sometimes contradictory character. I wager we will
see a repeat of previous years. He will race with reserve
and cunning, strike when necessary and display his uncanny
penchant for side-stepping bad luck. And on the last day
of the Tour, for the seventh time, he will likely take
the Yellow Jersey to Paris.