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.
Biographer Sally Jenkins characterizes Armstrong as an outsider whose bicycle was a means of escape from poverty and loneliness, and Mike Miller says that profile fits his European rivals, too: "Americans see Italian and German riders on $25,000 bikes and assume they're all rich guys, but it isn't so. In Europe, cycling is like boxing. It's either the salt mine or the bike, the coal mine or the bike. These are tough, poor kids looking for a way out."
As for the doping allegations that have dogged Armstrong for years, there's no answer in sight. The French claim he's taken more drugs than Barry Bonds and Courtney Love put together, and he's the most frequently tested athlete on the planet. But so far, no evidence of performance enhancement has emerged. So he rides on, for nine or ten more days anyway.
Where will the next Lance Armstrong come from? For the moment, three U.S. riders remain in the top ten at the Tour de France, but the experts expect only Armstrong to finish high come July 24. When young David Zabriskie, a former Armstrong teammate, crashed in stage four while wearing the coveted maillot jaune, some ascribed the mishap to the famous Lance Luck. But Zabriskie would likely have yielded the yellow jersey to Armstrong or Ullrich anyway.
The real future of American racing may lie right here in Colorado. The umbrella organization USA Cycling trains a team of promising young riders in Belgium, but that program may be no stronger than the one at Fort Lewis College in Durango, and two developmental teams coached by former Tour cyclist Jonathan Vaughters in Denver may yield the fastest riders of all. Vaughters's team of eighteen-to-23-year-olds, underwritten by the New York-based financial services company TIAA-CREF, already boasts the current U.S. road racing champion, a 21-year-old Golden rider named Ian MacGregor, and there are more to come.
"The chances of producing another Lance are kind of slim," Vaughters says. "But we may well develop the next American Tour de France winner, or the next Olympic gold medalist."
Certainly, the TIAA-CREF riders are in good hands. Now 32 and retired from competition, Vaughters was a U.S. Postal teammate of Armstrong when he won his first Tour in 1999 and says he's a much better coach than he was a rider. "We're the premier program in the country," he says, "and I really believe we have a great future."
For another few days, though, Lance Armstrong is still the man, and whatever the rest of the world thinks, however cycling history judges him, he's been one of the most fascinating U.S. athletes of all time. No question. His drive, will and courage have taken on mythological proportions -- he's the man who rode circles around Death and beat the Europeans at their own game. For Ben Fairfield, an ardent, 24-year-old cyclist from Chicago who stopped by the HandleBar last week en route to a biking vacation in the Rockies, Armstrong is the epitome of the sport. "The doctors may have cut off one of his testicles back in '96," Fairfield said. "But he's still got the biggest balls on two wheels."
And he'll always have Paris.