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Lance, a Lot

By Gabriel Wardell | Posted 7/20/2005

For the last six years, the Tour de France has followed pretty much the same playbook. For the first third of the race or so, American cyclist extraordinaire Lance Armstrong hovers somewhere near the front of the pack, maybe winning a stage or two, but mostly keeping within striking distance of the time leader. When the race heads to the mountain stages—the Alps and the Pyrenees—Armstrong utilizes an unparalleled climbing ability and some sort of freakish lung capacity to break away from the pack, build a time lead at high altitudes, grab the yellow jersey, and protect his insurmountable advantage playing things relatively safe before wrapping up at the Champs Elysées.

Americans take a tremendous sense of pride in this accomplishment, tracking Lance’s progress with casual glee. For many, this pride comes from knowing the French are aggravated that an American so dominates their race. These are the same freedom-fry-eating folks you might see rolling into Wal-Mart in their magnet-ribbon-clad SUV wearing a yellow Livestrong bracelet on their right wrist alongside their desert-camo-colored Support Our Troops and red Freedom Isn’t Free bracelets.

To attempt to understand the sport beyond simply knowing that “Lance is winning” is another matter entirely. Sports fans appropriately awestruck by Armstrong’s physical dominance are also impressed by the intricate strategy and teamwork necessary to engineer his annual deed. Like a running back leveling a defensive end with a solid block or a batter laying down a sacrifice bunt to advance a runner, each member of Lance’s Discovery Team must play a part in support of a single goal—from chasing down sprinters to outpacing rivals and keeping any serious competition from endangering Armstrong.

Despite tremendous supporting work, it is Armstrong’s show—the annual running of the “Tour de Lance.” As such, it is Lance Armstrong’s presence alone that makes the race—an event with no impact otherwise on the American psyche—worth watching.

Even if he hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer, beaten steep odds to trump the metastasizing disease, recovered, come back, and won, Armstrong would still be a hero. His could have been one of those feel-good stories, like how former Oriole Eric Davis rejoined the team after colon cancer, or how the Miami Heat’s Alonso Mourning returned to the court after a kidney transplant. The difference here is that Armstrong has become a dominant presence in cycling, on pace to win his record-shattering seventh consecutive Tour. And that he’s used his celebrity status to support cancer research and to raise awareness is remarkable, as is the fashion trend he started—the aforementioned ubiquitous bracelets.

When Armstrong retires at the end of the race, as pledged, it is likely that Americans will lose interest in the Tour. Discovery Channel, first-time sponsor of Lance’s team—which had been the province of the U.S. Postal Service—is getting its money’s worth this year. In coming years, sans Lance, will the Tour make a sound on this side of the Atlantic? We Americans tend to have fleeting interest in sports without a dominant American presence involved. The most popular Olympic sports here are those in which the U.S. dominates; while Americans continue to follow international sports such as golf and tennis enthusiastically, there is little interest stateside for internationally popular sports like Formula One racing or soccer.

The opportunity to witness so dominant a presence in any sport is rare—Annika Sorenstam in the WPGA and Michael Jordan in the NBA come to mind as recent examples. To see an athlete retire with class and grace at the pinnacle of his or her career is double super-secret rare. Unlike, say, John Elway, who concluded his Hall-of-Fame career with two consecutive Super Bowls (the second as an MVP), Jordan couldn’t leave well enough alone. After ending his career with a game-winning, championship-clinching, buzzer-beating jumper, to win his sixth ring and sixth Finals MVP honor, MJ returned to the Washington Wizards for an anti-climactic two-season coda.

Even the enduring image this past week of Jack Nicklaus bidding his fans farewell from Swilcan Bridge after sinking a birdie putt on the 18th hole at St. Andrew’s belies the fact that, at age 65, he missed the cut for the British Open. Should Armstrong fulfill his destiny by winning Tour number seven, he will have the opportunity to join those few who have ended their careers on top, on their own terms, at the height of their prowess.

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