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If you need to ask who Lance Armstrong is, try the next three-year-old who pedals by on a tricycle. If you want to know who Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Roberto Heras are, ask the people chowing down on VeloNews veggie cakes and LeMond lemonade at the HandleBar & Grill.
The Tour de France, reputed to be the world's most grueling sporting event, will get very serious this week as what's left of the 21-team, 189-rider field begins a series of leg- and heart-testing climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenees. The place from which many serious Tour fans from the Rocky Mountains will watch the great race on cable TV (OLN, Channel 73) is Mike Miller's bicycle-themed restaurant at the corner of Alameda and Downing. There, ten TVs blaze away, day and night, with replays from La Belle France.
"This is the most excited I've been about the Tour in seven years," Miller says. "Of course, we don't want to talk about next year. Can't we please relish the moment?"
As every headline writer in America can attest, this is Armstrong's valedictory. After beating testicular cancer eight years ago and winning an unprecedented six straight Tours de France from 1999 through 2004, the fiercely committed, 33-year-old Texan will finally park his bike in the shed after going all out to secure win number seven July 24 on the Champs Elysees. And even those who love Ullrich, Basso or Heras -- three of Armstrong's most formidable rivals this year -- know their sport will not be the same once Lance Mania has vanished, along with its companions -- what the superstitious (and the envious) call Lance Luck, and what the rider's many detractors see as the Armstrong Arrogance.
For now, the most prestigious cycling event in the world can still be called the Tour de Lance. On Tuesday morning, the six-time winner retook the race leader's yellow jersey with a powerful second-place finish in the first serious alpine stage of the event. His legendary climbing power should serve him well in the demanding late stages, despite what some see as a less-than-subtle attempt to rig the 3,604-kilometer, 24-segment route to favor other riders. Just as Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson has come under fire for apparently trying to "Tiger-proof" the Masters, Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc has taken more heat than a crock of onion soup for limiting the number of Lance-friendly mountaintop finishes.
Still, surrounded by his strongest teammates ever (the powerful Discovery Channel Team), Armstrong remains the race favorite. Even if he does say so himself: "The faster I pedal," he announced last week, "the faster I can retire."
With that moment in mind, saloonkeeper Miller is staging Tour-happy tent parties in his parking lot, and the interior of the place is suddenly heavy on commemoration. Along with the usual array of framed team jerseys and sleek racing bikes, the HandleBar is decked out with black and yellow Tour de France road signs and yellow T-shirts proclaiming "Last Chance to See Lance." The mood is bittersweet. "In this country, cycling is like soccer," says Miller, a 49-year-old University of Denver graduate who used to compete in amateur road races and triathlons. "Is [cycling] ever going to catch on at the level it exists in Europe? In my guesstimation, it won't happen."
Not without more Lance Armstrongs. Not without the infusion of passion the "King of Pain" has brought to the Tour of France every July. Absent the Lance Factor, Miller believes, "it will take more and better marketing and maybe another exciting up-and-coming American [racer]."
Meanwhile, hard-core cycling fans and casual observers alike are trying to sort out Armstrong's legacy. To the thousands of fellow cancer survivors with whom he's bonded -- and millions more who don't know a derailleur from a duckpin -- he has been canonized as Saint Lance, the hard-nosed, fatherless striver who beat long odds and prevailed. He's a hero, pure and simple. But to his antagonists, he's an opportunist who trains for just one race a year -- the Tour de France -- while ignoring the traditions and the day-to-day obligations of his sport. To many Europeans, who dominated cycling for four generations, Armstrong will never be the equal of legends such as Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain or Bernard Hinault.
Even some Americans charge that Armstrong's a ruthless control freak, icy to former teammates who've set out on their own, and obsessed with every detail of life -- from his team's practice regimen to the brand of coffee served on the team bus. One Armstrong biographer, Daniel Coyle, says his subject doesn't just want to win the race, "he wants to win the handshake," and his best friend, John Korioth, calls him "a competitive beast" and "the ultimate alpha wolf." Maybe reporters can ask Lance's girlfriend, Sheryl Crow, about that, too.
Of course, single-minded ferocity may be what it takes to prevail in the Tour, which doctors judge more demanding than climbing Mount Everest. "It's like running twenty marathons in a month," Coyle says. To fuel themselves, most Tour riders ingest the caloric equivalent of 28 cheeseburgers every day. Tell that to the guy who ate 49 hotdogs in twelve minutes at Coney Island.