Though I may not be Lance Armstrong’s number one fan, I’m up there. I’ve followed his career since 1990, and I knew of him as a promising young US cyclist before he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I’m inexplicably proud to point out that Lance and I are about the same age, had our first children about the same time, and have had a few other things in common over the years. I’ll even admit that I nearly collapsed like a teenage girl suffering from Beatlemania, thrown into a hypoxic daze from cheering too vigorously for him at the 2004 Race’s Alpe d’Huez time trial. As long as he’s in the race, I’ll be rooting for Armstrong to wear the maillot jaune on the Champs Elysée. So it might come as some surprise that, as he embarks on the last few years of his remarkable career, I am beginning to look beyond Lance. I’m looking beyond him, deeper into the peloton for inspiring stories of suffering and triumph; beyond him to the Tour itself, and the renewed interest his compelling story has brought to the race; and beyond Lance at the future, wondering who will be winning when Lance has retired.
Beyond Lance: Deeper Into the Peloton
Watching the race for the first time in the mid-80’s, when Greg LeMond became the first American ever to win cycling’s most prestigious of races, I was quickly hooked – there is simply no other race, game or contest that offers the drama and beauty of the Tour. The overall winner’s yellow jersey is one of the most prestigious individual prizes in sport, and the feats performed in pursuit of it are frequently legendary – but so much of the drama of the tour happens in its shadow. Consider a few of my favorite recent Tour moments:
The amount of hard work, heartbreak, luck and sacrifice required to win any of these prizes is staggering, and in a way, understanding that informs your appreciation of how much more it must take to win the overall title. But more than this, these moments contribute to the narrative suspense of the race on their own. The riders and their stories are what make the race a little too big to comprehend – what’s responsible for the dazzle you get when you see it in person.
Beyond Lance: The Race Itself
The Race of the late 90’s was in trouble. There had been a drop in interest during Miguel Indurain’s string of predictable wins between ’91 and ’95. Then, in 1997 and ’98, drug scandals rocked the tour. Armstrong’s miraculous comeback in ’99 restored some of the excitement that the race had been missing. It might be a little much to say that he saved the race – it’s a century old, after all, and very resilient – but he certainly restored our collective faith in cycling’s grandest tour. And he’s brought new interest to the Race in the US and around the world.
As a cyclist and racing fan, I’ve seen the lonely years where there were no Americans winning the big races. I’ve also seen the good years where the roadside was lined with American fans, Postal gear and flags in hand. Lance has undoubtedly brought a new audience to the race. It’s great having the chance, in this job, to share The Race with other Americans – and sometimes to introduce them to the minor players that make the Race the spectacle and wonder that it is. The most generous parting gift Armstrong could make to The Race would be that of permanent American interest in the race, but it remains to be seen whether the average US fan is interested in cycling and The Race after Lance retires.
Beyond Lance: The Future
One neat thing about understanding The Race in all its depth is that cheering the whole peloton gives strength to the rising stars who might one day take Lance’s place in yellow. It’s this point that is the most interesting, in some ways. Lance has been winning for so long, it’s almost hard to imagine a race without him. But he’s getting "older" and can’t go on winning the Tour forever. Sooner or later, somebody new is going to step onto that podium and take the burden and honor of the yellow jersey onto his younger shoulders. Who will it be? Watching the 2004 Tour, there will be a lot of talk about Basso, Kloden and Voeckler. But it might be that the next dominant champion of The Race has yet to distinguish himself. It’s likely that there will be a string of one-time winners, as in the late 90’s, with greater parity, greater suspense and too much competition for any one rider to emerge an unquestioned champion. Or maybe, just maybe, there is another American in the wings, one who’s too young to notice right now. Maybe Lance has inspired enough of us that American cycling will remain a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
So if you’re like me, you’ll cherish every race Lance has left in his pro career. Watch them all, whether on TV or in person. Shout yourself hoarse and count yourself lucky to have been here to see him perform; like Babe Ruth or Jesse Owens, they’ll still be talking about him long after he’s gone. But don’t forget to spare an occasional glance just past Lance, around the next corner. There’s some interesting stuff happening there, and you don’t want to miss it.