SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN AUSTIN, TEXAS, the warm air pungent with pollen, the sky sharp blue, the grass plain brown. Good day for a bike race. You're standing in Walnut Creek Park, a terraced ramble of tennis courts, picnic cabanas, and cedar thickets, talking tire treads with one of the bike hounds who've gathered for a cyclocross event sponsored by the local REI, when a black Suburban rolls up and makes its own VIP spot along the curb. The vanity plate reads oct 2, and you don't have to think twice about who's inside. You remember the press conference—what was it, six years ago?—when he announced his diagnosis to a roomful of reporters who had grown accustomed to calling him brash and cocky and typically Texan, but who now had to figure out how to address an ashen-faced 25-year-old champion who'd just had a swollen, cancerous testicle cut away from his body and was talking about modest things like wanting to live.
That was the day everything changed for Lance Armstrong: October 2, 1996. Year Zero.
The Suburban's doors open all at once and five man-boys clad in various hues of polyester pile out. Lance steps down from the driver's seat—he can't stand being a passenger, rarely lets anyone else take the wheel—and boosts himself into the back to change. Two product developers from Nike lean in when he gets to his bike shoes, recording the moment on digital cameras. The footwear is based on a prototype that Lance eviscerated to his liking with a pair of scissors, and they're hoping he'll wear the new design in July, when he goes for Tour de France victory number five.
"They feel good," Lance says, standing and shifting from one foot to the other. He clomps over to his full-time mechanic, Mike Anderson, who is assembling his bike, and squeezes the rear tire.
"Flat," Lance says. "What's up with that?"
"I'll fix it," says Mike. "Maybe I'll put in a puncture-resistant tube. Looks like there might be thorns out here."
"Dude, I'm losing my warm-up time," he says, sounding a little antsy. "I need to do some squats or something."
You think about going over and saying something, because it all seems pretty mellow. But you don't, and neither does anybody else. Probably best not to bother him before the race, even though it's just a dinky cyclocross—cycling's version of the steeplechase—and you'd love to ask him what the hell he's doing here. It's a training run, sure, but Lance showing up to hammer two dozen locals is like Tiger going to a mini-mall amusement park and wasting everyone at putt-putt. This guy needs to prove something?