ON JULY 17, 2004, one hour before the Tour's toughest stage, Lucky 13, the thousands of people swarming the sunny Pyrenean town of Lannemezan were burning with the same desire: to see Lance Armstrong's face. The fervent throng of fans gathered outside the U.S. Postal team bus were motivated by the usual goalsa photo, a word, a touch. But Armstrong's rivals had their own goals, summed up by a single image that glowed in their minds: the Dead Elvis Grin.
The Dead Elvis Grin refers to Armstrong's facial expression when he's pushed to the edge, on the verge of cracking, that tactically useful moment poker players call the tell. Armstrong's tell began with the American changing positions on his bikestanding, sitting, standing again, rooting around for more power. Then he leaned forward on the handlebars, throwing his body weight into the pedals. His face went red, then ashen. The furrows in his forehead deepened, his eyes fixed, and his upper lip slowly rose over his front teeth, unveiling the signature half snarl, half smile.
Dead Elvis had made an appearance only the day before, during Stage 12, on an eight-mile climb to La Mongie. The ascent saw Armstrong put some distance on his rivals, but he was unable to shake 26-year-old Italian rider Ivan Basso, who won the stage over a visibly exhausted champion. There was also French upstart Thomas Voeckler, of the Brioches la Boulangère team, a previously unknown 25-year-old who'd tenaciously held the yellow jersey for the past eight days and now led Armstrong by 5:24 overall. Alongside Voeckler rode German powerhouse Jan Ullrich, of T-Mobile, gritty American Tyler Hamilton, of Phonak, and the slashing Iban Mayo, a Basque rider from Euskaltel-Euskadi. Ahead of them stood that day's test, 127 miles, seven major ascents, and one question: Which face would Armstrong show?
In the exclusive area outside the team bus, the place known as the Dude and Bro Clubhouse, the mood seemed oddly peaceful, an atmosphere that was helped by the presence of children. These were not ordinary children, of course. They were Dude-Kids and Bro-Kids, the progeny of clubhouse regulars, including the heads of multi-million-dollar corporations. The area in front of the bus had been transformed into a playground presided over by den mother Juanita Cuervo, the name Armstrong had given to girlfriend Sheryl Crow (cuervo is Spanish for "crow").
"And what's your name?" Crow asked one shy Dude-Kid of about 11 wearing a Postal hat and a yellow jersey that fit him like a kimono.
Crow leaned over, friendly-aunt style. Davey looked up. She was dressed in a sleeveless baby-blue tank top and flared jeans with buckskin laces up the sides of the legs. The Dude-Kid stared down her shirt. Crow didn't seem to notice.
"Whaddya think of all this?" she asked.
"It's really cool," he said.
Crow gave a beneficent smile and tousled Davey's hair. They were here on a perfect Tour de France day, sunny and hot, in yet another picturesque gingerbread French townor at least they could imagine it was picturesque somewhere beyond this parking lot jammed with sweating French people and packs of sticky-fingered trollsArmstrong's term for the sneaky lowlifes who try to pull him down into the muck of scandal and disrepute. But that was OK, because the clubhouse was about imagination.
All around, invisible and marvelous things were happening, signs were appearing. Will Smith was due at some point, along with Perry Farrell, the rock singer, and rap impresario Dr. Dre. Clubhouse regular Robin Williams would parachute in any second now, along with Julian Serrano, the chef from Bellagio in Vegas, and Frank Marshall, who was producing the Armstrong biopic, the same guy who did Seabiscuit. More Americans were showing up every minute, bearing flags and ball caps and yellow bracelets, ready to howl and shout and taste history. It was flowing, all the fame and heroism and subterranean rivers of money, and, as Davey said, it felt really cool.
It felt even cooler when Armstrong strode down the steps of the bus. He went right to the kids, did some handshaking, did a quick interview with the media horde, and then set about eyeing his seat, adjusting it by a micrometer as Crow and Davey looked on. A kiss for luck and he took off on his bike, pulling what his support staff liked to call "the Batman Move," rolling silkily through the crowds, escorted by his bodyguards Serge and Erwin. There was a lightness to Armstrong's manner, a casualness that the pantomiming soigneurs, who do massage, fill water bottles, and take care of Tour logistics, knew meant one thing: This was the day of the knife.
Physically, Stage 13 would be the Tour's nastiest day; Armstrong's goal was to make it the nastiest psychologically as well. To do so, Postal decided they would ride in front the entire race, sheltering Armstrong until his signature attack on the final climb. During Stage 12, he had begun to defeat their bodies. Today, Armstrong would try to take their minds.
THIS WAS POSTAL'S game plan: The eight support riders would take turns leading according to their strengths. Flats specialists Pavel Padrnos and Viatcheslav "Eki" Ekimov, the Eastern Bloc goombahs, would take the valleys. Spaniards Manuel "Triki" Beltran and Benjamin Noval, banged up from early race crashes but recovering, would take the first climbs. Versatile Americans George Hincapie and Floyd Landis would lead up the latter climbs, leaving specialist climbersSpaniard José Luis Rubiera and Portugal's José "Ace" Azevedofor the ten-mile, 8 percent haul up to the mountaintop finish at Plateau de Beille.
"Keep things normal," instructed team director Johan Bruyneel, the dark-eyed Belgian who had overseen Armstrong's five previous Tour wins. Bruyneel did not seem to notice how abnormal, even outrageous, it would be for one team to control the race, start to finish, riding out in front and taking all the wind, on the Tour's toughest stage.
From the start, Postal rode in tight formation, no other teams contesting the space on the road. They set the pace high, not looking back. Three riders managed to escape early on. Voeckler's La Boulangère teammate Sylvain Chavanel took off with Mickael Rasmussen, of Rabobank, and Basso's CSC teammate Jens Voigt. But their escape gained them a mere six minutes, while Postal ground away according to the game plan. On the radio, Bruyneel described the damage Postal was causing. Euskaltel-Euskadi's Haimar Zubeldia, who'd finished fifth the year before, abandoned after 10.5 miles. Eleven minutes later, it was Denis Menchov (11th in 2003), then Gerrit Glomserworld-class riders, breaking apart like Chinese motorcycles.
Phonak's Tyler Hamilton, who was suffering from a severe back injury from a crash a week earlier in Stage 6, drifted to the back of the peloton. The night before, Phonak's director, Alvaro Pino, had suggested to Hamilton that it might be time to consider quitting. Hamilton, who had finished fourth in the 2003 Tour despite riding with a fractured collarbone, had said nohe'd gut it out, he'd finish, he'd never quit. Then, late that night, Hamilton sought out Kristopher, his physiotherapist.
"Be honest with me," Hamilton said. "Is my back fucked?"
"Your back is fucked," Kristopher said.
As the peloton approached a feed zone, Hamilton stopped pedaling and coasted to a halt. He stood by the side of the road and saluted his team as it went past, then stepped into the team car without a word.
Two hours later, it was Iban Mayo's turn. The Postals were blasting up the Col d'Agnes, and the Basque rider, a 26-year-old welder's son considered to be the best pure climber in the world, had been dropped with the rest of Euskaltel-Euskadi. As they rode together, trying to catch up, Mayo suddenly stepped off the bike and stalked disgustedly to the side of the road. His director ran to him and persuaded him to keep going, but the truth was clear: Mayo was broken, cracked, finished. A hundred thousand Basques stood up the road, wondering what had happened to their hero, the man who had defeated Armstrong during a time trial on Mont Ventoux at the Dauphiné Libéré race just five weeks earlier.
Postal rode on, trading the lead according to plan. In best Armstrong form, they kept it casual. They may have been hurting, but they made sure their rivals saw only an easy manner, an occasional joke, the easy flip of a water bottle. On one steep section, riders stared as Hincapie casually rode no-handed while he fiddled with his sunglasses.
"I tried to escape, but Postal was like a giant train that you couldn't escape," rider Francisco Mancebo said.
"On the climb of the Agnes, it was unbelievable," said Levi Leipheimer, an American riding for the Dutch Rabobank squad. "I counted 22 riders in the group, with seven U.S. Postal guys in front. I've never seen anything like that."
"Christ, the Postals were strong," Australian Michael Rogers said.
But Postal only dug the knife deeper.
ON THE FINAL CLIMB of Plateau de Beille, Postal displayed a clinical application of brute force. First, Hincapie and Landis drove the peloton a half-mile or so, then pulled off. Then the ever gentlemanly Rubiera, jersey unzipped to reveal a pale chest, applied more impolite pressure, reducing the group to 11 riders.
With seven miles left, Rubiera finished his turn at the front and Azevedo took over. After a hard acceleration, 11 riders had been reduced to four. Then Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, the rider whose talent Armstrong feared most, slid slowly off the back. Azevedo kept going, his face delirious, until the race had been distilled to Basso and Armstrong, tunneling through the orange throng of Basque spectators. It soon became evident that the previous day's crowd antics had been merely a warm-up for Mayo's Basque fans, who still blamed Armstrong for leaving their hero behind after a crash on the cobbles 11 days before. The Basques had already been busy keying the Postal bus and emblazoning a truck belonging to the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), the American cable company broadcasting the Tour live, with the name of the Basque separatist organization, ETA. Now was their chance for more personal revenge, and they took it eagerly, screaming, gesturing, splashing beer and water on the American. Armstrong rode, grim-faced, his tires rolling over the words LANCE PIG, LANCE-EPO. Armstrong let Basso lead through the chaos, Bruyneel's voice sounding in his ear, keeping him posted on Ullrich's slideone minute, two minutesand keeping up a stream of talk.
"Lance, drink water....Lance, let Basso pull....Lance, talk to him....Lance, push it....Lance, regulate."
The two rose into the last mile, the previous day's faces having switched. Armstrong looked comfortable, even serene. Basso, however, looked strained.
"Lance, you must win this stage," Bruyneel said.
With a third of a mile left, Armstrong zipped up his jersey and moved his hands lower on the handlebars. He sprinted for the line, crossing just feet in front of Basso, teeth gritted, into a wave of cheers and more than a few boos. He punched the air.
An hour later, after the solemnity and gloire of the podium, Armstrong and Crow walked across an open pasture toward a waiting helicopter, encircled by 20 or so arm-linked Clouseaus. A crowd followed, teenagers mostly, shouting what sounded like taunts. Among them was a Basque boy, a skinny, shirtless kid, maybe 16 years old. The boy hopped alongside the gendarmes, waiting for the right moment. When the gendarmes turned, he leaped over their linked arms and made a grab for Armstrong's black baseball cap. The boy started to lift it off, but it was tight, and as he lifted, Armstrong made a grab for the boy's arm, but the boy was too fast. He pulled again and the cap came off. The boy ducked, then danced off in triumph, waving his trophy, and the crowd shouted.
THREE DAYS LATER, in the first stage in the Alps, Armstrong was preparing to take his next step toward the yellow jersey. Voeckler's lead was down to a mere 22 seconds, and Armstrong's other rivals were steadily falling back. Stage 15's 112 miles and seven climbs to Villard-de-Lans looked to be a more unpredictable, attack-filled race, a chance for the rivals to take big risks and, for Armstrong, a chance to demonstrate not only his strength but also his famously meticulous planning. Or so it would seem.
Three hours into the stage, Armstrong's longtime coach Chris Carmichael was standing in OLN's mobile studio, atop a trailer at Villard-de-Lans. Carmichael, who was working as a Tour commentator, was feeling reflective.
"You know what's funny?" Carmichael was saying. "Lance hardly talks at all about six Tours. Getting six isn't at the motivational core of the guy. It's more like, I'm just going to go to the Tour and kick the shit out of everybody."
Carmichael was preparing for his analyst role when a piece of surprising news came in: Ullrich had broken away from Armstrong. "Ullrich?" Carmichael turned. "How much time does he have?"
Thirty seconds, the answer came.
Carmichael located a monitor. He crossed his arms and bit his lip.
"Nervous, kid?" OLN commentator Bob Roll asked with a grin. Roll, an author and former pro cyclist, is a friend of Armstrong's and one of the sport's more subversive and entertaining characters.
"No," Carmichael said, leaning in to see the monitor. "It's under control."
On the little screen, a five-inch-high Ullrich surged away from Postal, opening up a minute-long gap with about 30 miles to go. He blazed past other riders, his face alight. Behind him, Armstrong was down to only two teammates, Landis and Azevedo. Around the trailer, the crowd buzzed.
"Nervous, kid?" Roll asked again.
"Lance has got, like, seven minutes on Ullrich," Carmichael said. "No way Ullrich can get even. No way."
Carmichael leaned in until his nose was inches from the screen. To this point the day had gone well for Armstrong. Mayo, who'd stayed in the Tour after Stage 13 but couldn't keep up with a team practice ride on an intervening rest day, had quit the race that morning. ("Iban's problem is mental, not physical," said his manager, Miguel Madariaga.) The stubborn Voeckler had been dropped by Ullrich's acceleration, which meant Armstrong would likely end the day in yellow. Now Carmichael watched Ullrich pull away, blowing past the day's early breakaway riders as if he were on a motorbike. It was a spectacular display of raw power, precisely the kind of surprise attack Ullrich's fans had been hoping for. The German had quietly endured a case of the flu in the early stages of the race and had been forced to take antibiotics. Now he looked to be healthy and back in fearsome form.
"Too far out," Carmichael said. "Too far to go."
Landis led a furious chase, assisted by Basso's teammate Jens Voigt, who dropped back from the breakaway to help. The sight of CSC helping Armstrong infuriated many of Ullrich's fans, who saw it as proof of their suspicion that CSC had given up Basso's chance of winning, and were now content to scrap with Ullrich over second place.
By the time the race entered its last climb to Villard-de-Lans, Carmichael had calmed considerably. Ullrich was caught with less than 20 miles to go. The culling began. With two and a half miles to go, Azevedo rode at the front of a group of ten. With about a mile to go, the group went to five, including Ullrich, then to four: Armstrong and Basso, Ullrich and his T-Mobile teammate Andreas Klöden. Klöden led for much of the final stretch, trying to set up Ullrich for the win.
"C'mon, Lance," Carmichael said quietly. Behind him, on camera, Al Trautwig and Roll commentated the finish.
Basso attacked. Armstrong reacted instantly, moving up on Basso. The final stretch was tricky, with a tight left corner just before the line. Armstrong picked his moment and dove. He accelerated into the corner, cut it sharply, and flew to the line for the victory. Another sprint, another fist in the air, another yellow jersey.
"Lance Armstrong!" Trautwig boomed. "Laaaaance Armstrong!"
They tallied Armstrong's gains: With five stages left, he was now in the lead. Basso was second, at 1:25, and Ullrich was down 6:54. The stage had been a perfect demonstration of team and individual strength. And something else, too.
"Did you see that?" Carmichael said to Trautwig during the commercial break.
"See what?" Trautwig didn't look up.
"Lance knew that turn," Carmichael said. "He knew that left-hand turn, and that let him cut inside Basso."
Trautwig looked up blankly. Carmichael tried again.
"He knew the turn," Carmichael repeated slowly. "He was here this spring. He reconned it."
The word reconned did it. Trautwig snapped to full alert. That Armstrong won was not news, not anymore. Exactly how he won, however, remained as mysterious to Trautwig as it did to anybody elseafter all, the sport was basically a bunch of guys pedaling along. But reconning? That was right up Lance's alley. It was perfect!
"Get me a telestrator!" Trautwig boomed to his producers. "We're going to show that on the replay. He knew the turn! He reconned it!"
The studio buzzed with activity as the replay was being prepared. Trautwig scrawled some notes; producers scurried. Over in the corner, a Cheshire-cat grin was spreading slowly across Roll's blunt features.
"So let me get this straight." Roll's smile grew wider. "You are telling me that Lance Armstrong came here back in May, in the snow."
Carmichael nodded, his face blank.
"Before any of the trailers or barricades or anything was here," Roll continued, "and he found out exactly where the finish line was going to be, and he remembered that."
"Uh-huh." Carmichael's face stayed deadpan.
Roll smiled and shrugged.
Then Trautwig was bellowing to the producer, getting the telestrator online, preparing to deliver the story. It would not matter that later Armstrong would say that the corner's sharpness caught him by surprise. It would not matter that 12 and a half miles from the finish line, Armstrong had said to Bruyneel over the radio, "Just have Ace [Azevedo] keep it together. I'm going to win this stage." It would not matter that the real reason Armstrong won was closer to what Carmichael had said earlierthat Armstrong just plain liked to kick the shit out of everybody at the Tour. For now, the camera's red light blinked on, and millions of viewers were treated to a vivid, in-depth illustration of how Armstrong had won the stage, way back in May, when he had the icy-cool foresight to recon the finish.
LIKE A BROADWAY MUSICAL or Catholic mass, every Tour features its preordained dramatic climaxes, moments scripted months before by the unseen hand of the Tour's course designers. The 2004 Tour's moment came at Stage 16, the 9.6-mile uphill time trial at l'Alpe d'Huez. Armstrong had long targeted the stage, a target that took on added value now that the stakes were clear: It would be his third mountain-stage win in a row, and his chance to distance himself from Basso, the only man who still had a reasonable chance of beating him. But as Armstrong gazed up from the bottom of the mountain, it became clear that Basso wouldn't be today's only opponent.
A mountain of peoplethat's what it looked like along the Alpe d'Huez route. As if the rock and turf had been scooped out and replaced, starting from the bottom, by geologic layers of humanity. The stout-calved Germans, the lanky Dutch, the gimlet-eyed French, the big-bellied Luxembourgers, the tight-shorts-wearing Danes, all combined to form a hot, heaving pile of sun-broiled, stippled flesh, the citizenry of Europe having set aside their cultural and geopolitical differences to commune in the service of a shared belief, the core of which was painted on the black pavement in large, carefully edged white letters: FUCK LANCE.
Also, LANCE SUCKS, EPO LANCE, GO HOME LANCE, and ARMSTRONG PIG, along with a few less gentle sentiments that sought to express the feelings of the million people who had come here to see the stage.
At this moment, Armstrong had larger concerns, namely the death threat he'd received the night before. Armstrong had learned of it from Bill Stapleton, his agent and lawyer at Capital Sports & Entertainment, who'd been told by Tour organizers, who'd notified French authorities. Death threats were nothing newArmstrong had received one last year, too, in Toulouse. The team had dealt with it the usual way, a slight variation on the Batman method: his bodyguards, linked-arm rings of gendarmes, a speedy helicopter evacuation from the finish. But today was different. This was a time trial, each rider alone against the clock. Everyone on the mountain knew to the minute when Armstrong would depart. Every troll, if they so desired, could get close enough to touch.
So far this year, Armstrong had been lucky. Even so, teammates reminded him to stay in a group. "Never, ever be alone," they told him. "If anybody's going to do anything, it will be then."
Naturally, the death threat was kept secret, or as secret as possible, which wasn't very. Truth was, this was completely expected. "Lance spends a lot of time thinking about security, but the bottom line is that there isn't much that he can do when he's on the bike," said Chris Brewer. Brewer, a testicular-cancer survivor who runs Armstrong's Web site, worked 18 years in the Air Force's Opposition Forces division. His specialty was infiltration, finding holes in secure zones. "If someone wants to get him bad enough, there are many ways they could get him. And Lance knows that."
At the start, in the village of Bourg d'Oisans, Armstrong warmed up on the stationary rollers, looking relaxed, chatting with the gendarmes. His mood tightened when he learned Sheryl Crow might have to give up her seat in the follow car for a security agent. But then, another plan: There would be two extra motorcycles, with more security agents aboard, and another next to Bruyneel in the car. "They were sharpshooters," Armstrong said later. "Badasses."
"We were terrified," Bruyneel said.
On the mountain ahead, the mass of humanity shifted restlessly. Many had been waiting for days, wedging campers and tents along the steep roadside; others opted for the less elegant, sleeping-bag-on-the-pavement approach. All of them had spent a long, hot morning defending their space from the arriving hordes as the mountain swelled and grew. The sun slammed down, alcohol flowed, cigarettes flared. When the race began, the crowd contented itself by lazily torturing Armstrong's teammates, and, by early appearances, they were in rare form. Rubiera reached the top looking as if he might break into tears. CSC's Voigt received special treatment for his role in helping Armstrong chase down Ullrich the previous day (JUDAS, many of the signs read). His later pleas that he was helping his team captain, Basso, were dismissed as immaterial: Whatever his motive, he was helping Armstrong, and so he was guilty.
They didn't all hate Armstrong, of course. In fact, many European fans admired the American; they commonly greeted his passing with polite, if unenthusiastic, applause. Armstrong had made efforts to improve his image, speaking more French and expressing respect for the tradition of the race. But no amount of diplomacy could change the brute fact that he, an outsider, had come to dominate Europe's biggest race at a time when American influence was seen as something less than a good thing. It would be easy to chalk this up to an extension of anti-Bush, anti-American sentiment, but, in fact, the war in Iraq was almost never mentioned. Nor did the relationship seem affected by the latest doping allegations in the pages of L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong, a 375-page book cowritten by Irish reporter and longtime Armstrong nemesis David Walsh and French cycling journalist Pierre Ballester.
No, the truth was that Armstrong offended because he would not give European fans what they desired from their sports heroes: pain, vulnerability, suffering, humanity. His recovery from cancer, the inspirational touchstone for many Americans, was regarded by Europeans with mild interest: a feat of medicine and discipline, certainly, but that was, what, eight years ago? Wasn't the treatment fairly brief, a matter of months? It was impressive, yes, but hadn't plenty of other cyclists overcome extraordinarily difficult circumstances? What they wanted was a man wrestling fate, not obliterating it.
FIRST ULLRICH RODE OFF, then Klöden, then Basso, all of them helmetless in the heat. At the last minute, Armstrong considered donning his helmet to fend off any bottles or rocks. He decided not to, figuring it might, in fact, encourage contact. He mounted the start ramp wearing a blue Postal hat turned backwards. In the car, Crow bit her nails.
He had good legs, he'd told her that morning. He could feel it when they hit the floor, the familiar strength and springiness that foretold a good day. But first he would need to get to the top in one piece. The bottom two-thirds of the climb were unbarriered. For five and a half miles, nothing would stand between him and the peopleabout 24 minutes of what the military-minded Brewer termed "major exposure."
The first two minutes were flat, a gentle rise from town, a quick zip through the crowds. Then a hard left, the road tilted upward, and he was inside them.
Troll mouths screaming, blasting him with sour breath. Flags snapping like whips. A shaking forest of fists inches in front of his wheel. It seemed as if he was riding down some endless collective throat, a peristaltic dive into some unseen belly. Armstrong stared at the motorcycle's wheel, felt something warm on his leg. Troll spit.
"It made me sick," Crow said later.
He rode, his legs firing out the familiar high cadence. All strategy was reduced to one reflex: If I go faster, they can't get me. The crowd reacted, red-faced men stepping into the road for a crouched, clenched scream, then falling out of the way at the last second. On their motorcycles, the security agents swatted and pushed, trying to clear a path. A roadside gendarme tackled two threatening-looking men, only to have them replaced by more. They threw beer and water; they spat. They were aiming for his face, but most hit his jersey, providing Armstrong a desultory jolt of satisfaction: He was going faster than they'd anticipated.
Bruyneel drove close behind, snowplowing sluggish trolls out of the way. He would draw an official sanction from Tour officials for blocking television-camera motorcycles, but Bruyneel didn't care: The car's presence shortened the trolls' window of opportunity. Bruyneel read the splits, kept up the encouraging talk, as if his voice might block those other voices out.
"Very good, Lance, very good."
Armstrong marked his progress by the numbers of the turns (signposted in reverse order, from 21 to 1) and the church steeples of the two small hamlets along the road. He moved past the smiling Dutchmen from Maastricht at turn 18, past the Belgian guy at turn 8, who'd parked his camper three weeks ago, and the sad Basques who'd hiked up with their bedsheet signs. Past the German technopop groovers and the other Dutch guy with the microphone, shouting, "Show me your titties!" He rolled over the GO ULLRICH and GO BASSO messages, over the elaborately detailed penises, and over a sign that read, RIP THEIR BALLS OFF, LANCE!
Yes, Americans were here, too, in huge numbers. In their yellow baseball caps and Uncle Sam hats and Postal jerseys, their arms swathed in yellow bracelets, waving Texan and American flags and sending out the whooping, ringing call of the American sports fan. There weren't just a few, either. There were dozens, hundreds, thousands of bright-eyed, ecstatic Yanks on that mountain (25,000 of them, it was estimated), people who didn't give a damn about Eurofate or history, people who had come across an ocean and who were now receiving the birthright that every American desires and demands: a miracle.
"Whoooooooooooooooo, Lance!" they shouted as Armstrong rode past. "Whoooooooooooooo!"
He rode furiously. Up ahead, Ullrich had set the day's top mark at the intermediate time check, besting the previous leading time by a whopping 32 seconds. Armstrong came through, wanting to hear his number, wanting the proof. He listened as Bruyneel read it: He'd beaten Ullrich by 40 seconds.
Forty seconds! Atop the mountain, a group of German fans blinked at the number on the screen, open-mouthed. One turned away in disgust.
Armstrong rode through the last of the crowd and on to the relative safety of the barriered road. Up ahead, at turn 3, he could see Basso, who was having a bad day. He'd trained here in May, but now his legs would not turn the same gear. Basso was straining, his grace evaporating, his face etched in pain. Armstrong surged past without a look.
He sprinted for the line, fists clenched, teeth bared, an image of freshly peeled ferocity. Some of the crowd shouted, but many more stared. After 155 riders, 155 different exhausted faces, they were seeing something different, a face that did not ask for applause or love or understanding or anything except the animal respect due a superior force.
Armstrong crossed the line, winning by 1:01 and extending his lead over his closest rival, Basso, by 2:23. He Batmanned to the safety of the trailer, accompanied by Serge and Erwin.
"Got 'em," he said.
"Very good, very good, very good.
Come on Lance, come on, very good, come on, come on, come on.
Come on Lance, kill those fucking motherfuckers!
Very good Lance, very good.
Stay in the middle of the road. Stay in the middle of the road.
Very good Lance, very good. Come on come on come on.
Come on Lance, come on come on COME ON!
Very good, very good, very good!
Come on come on come on come on come on.
Fifty seconds faster than Ullrich. Fifty seconds faster than Ullrich.
Find our rhythm find our rhythm find our rhythm.
Very good, very good, very good come on come on come on.
Come on Lance, come on come on come on!
Come on Lance, come on COME ON COME ON COME ON.
Come on Lance, come on come on COME ON!
Come on Lance come on come on COME ON!
Very good Lance come on GO GO GO GO GO!
Here we turn to the right on the big road.
Come on come on COME ON!
Come on Lance come on come on.
Three hundred meters uphill and then it's downhill. Come on!
Yes yes yes yes yes!
Come on Lance, come on, we can take Basso, we can catch Basso.
Basso is there, Basso is there in front of you.
Not too close to the people, not too close to the people.
Come on Lance, come on come on come on come on!
Still 50 seconds for Ullrich, 50 seconds for Ullrich.
Come on Lance! Come on come on come on COME ON!
Come on Lance! Come on! Come on! COME ON!
Come on Lance! Come on! Come on! 5k! 5k!
Come on Lance! Come on come on COME ON!
Come on Lance! Come on! Come on! Come on!
Come on Lance! Come on! Come on! 5k! 5k!
Come on come on come on!
Come on Lance! Come on! Come on! Come on! GO GO GO!
There's Basso in front of you, there's Basso!
Here we go left... that's it... come on come on.
No turns anymore, all straight. Come on! Come on! COME ON!
Come on Lance, two kilometers.
Come on man come on! Let's go for Basso! Come on come on COME ON!
Come on Lance very good very good very good come on push it! Push it! PUSH IT!
Come on Lance come on come on come on.
The last kilometer's easier Lance, the last kilometer's easier.
Come on Lance, come on! Come on! Come on!
Come on Lance! Come on! Come on! A minute on Ullrich, a minute!
Come on come on!
Great job! Great job!
GREAT! GREAT! GREAT! GREAT! GREAT!"