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Five moments which define the Lance Armstrong legend

This time it really is the end of the road for the seven-time Tour de France winner

Having retired from international competition at last month’s Tour Down Under, Lance Armstrong – seven-time winner of the Tour de France – announced his retirement from all professional cycling yesterday.

In truth, it was probably time. After achieving a podium finish in his return to the Tour in 2009, it had become increasingly apparent that the ravages of time were taking their toll on his now 39-year old body. His 2010 performance in France, albeit beset by bad luck more than bad form, was clearly a notch down on the previous year.

In Adelaide last month he barely featured at all – other than a momentary showing in an all-too-brief breakaway attempt – seemingly content to treat the week as an extended farewell tour. Maybe it was just a combination of the ageing process and the inevitable dimming of the competitive fires, or perhaps the burden of a federal doping investigation was also weighing heavily on his mind. But this was not the Lance Armstrong of old – it was merely an old Lance Armstrong.

Time for the sign to come down at last ...

Some swashbuckling cameos at the 2009 Tour and the 2010 Tour de Suisse aside, I prefer to remember the Texan for the memories he leaves behind from his earlier career. There are certainly plenty of them – 22 individual stage wins for starters – as the statistical summary of his seven Tour wins below shows:

Armstrong’s seven Tour wins were largely based on the same basic formula: a blistering attack on the first mountain-top finish each year, backed up by dominant time-trialling. Excluding prologues, Armstrong won nine out of the 14 individual time trials during his seven winning Tours, and only once (2003) failed to win at least one. And 2003 was also the only year in which he did not put significant time into most of his rivals on the first mountain stage – instead he won the last one at Luz-Ardiden (more on that in a minute).

Anyway, by way of tribute, here are five moments from Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France career which not only define his own legend but also form an integral part of the rich tapestry of cycling’s biggest race.

1. Remembering Fabio, 1995

Of all the Tour de France records and historical footnotes that Armstrong holds, being a teammate of the last rider to be killed during the race is probably one he will remember the least fondly. But on July 18th 1995 Fabio Casartelli crashed and died on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the Pyrenees.

Lance Armstrong dedicates his victory to Fabio Casartelli as he wins stage 18 of the 1995 Tour de France (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

An Olympic gold medallist in the 1992 road race in Barcelona, Casartelli fell and hit his head against concrete blocks by the road-side. At that time, helmets were not mandatory. He suffered severe head injuries and was immediately airlifted to hospital, but stopped breathing en route and was declared dead. He was 24.

The following day, his Motorola team crossed the finish line side-by-side at the front of the peloton in tribute. Three days after the accident an emotional Armstrong added a breakaway win which he dedicated to Casartelli by pointing skywards as he finished. It was the second Tour stage win of his career, having won at Châlons-sur-Marne-Verdun in 1993.

Less than 15 months later, he was diagnosed with life-threatening testicular cancer.

A tribute to Fabio Casartelli

2. ‘The Look’, 2001

It is one of the greatest urban myths in the history of sport. On stage ten of the 2001 Tour, the first major mountain stage, TV cameras captured clear images of an ashen-looking Armstrong in apparent physical discomfort – an elaborately staged bluff. The Deutsche Telekom team of his main rival Jan Ullrich promptly upped the pace at the front of the field in an attempt to burn off the American and his team on the slopes of the final climb of Alpe d’Huez.

But Armstrong could not be dislodged, moved to the front of the leading group and then glanced back down the road – what has since passed into cycling folk-lore as ‘The Look’ – before launching a savage acceleration which no one could match. It was thought at the time that this was a direct challenge to Ullrich, as captured by Phil Liggett‘s TV commentary:

He took a look straight into the eyes there of Jan Ullrich and said “Well, here I go. Are you coming or not?” And the answer is not!

It was the decisive moment of the 2001 race as he beat Ullrich by 1:59 and ended up in Paris with a final advantage of 6:44.

However, in a televised interview, Ride of a Lifetime, Armstrong subsequently explained to Liggett and co-commentator Paul Sherwen that ‘The Look’ was nothing more than a check to see where all his teammates and rivals were positioned:

They [the Telekom team] started riding fairly fast, fairly aggressively. And when a team rolls with that much confidence about the stage which would then mean that they’re confident for the overall. My idea at the time was let them be confident. Let them believe that this is their day and this is their Tour.

The absolute truth is that I was not looking at Jan Ullrich. I was looking back down the road first and foremost for my teammates. If I was going to attack – which I wanted to do – but I got into trouble, how close were they going to be to come and help or come and settle things down again from a team perspective. But also not just “where’s Jan?” “Where’s Beloki? Where’s Kivilev? Where’s everybody else?” It wasn’t a look at Jan. It wasn’t a taunt. It wasn’t a finger in the face, or a look.

3. Ploughing a lone furrow, 2003

The 2003 Tour was unquestionably the toughest of Armstrong’s seven wins. Normally so dominant on the early mountain stages, he had looked vulnerable on Alpe d’Huez, losing time to both Iban Mayo and Alexandre Vinokourov.

The following day, Armstrong and Joseba Beloki were attempting to chase down an attacking Vinokourov on a hot, sticky descent into Gap with road temperatures of 50°C. But the Spaniard’s wheel got caught in a patch of tarmac softened by the sun, and he crashed heavily, breaking his femur, elbow and wrist. Armstrong, immediately behind him, swerved to take evasive action and ended up ploughing across a field, cyclo-cross style, before dismounting, hopping over a ditch and rejoining the road as the peloton streamed past him.

Later, he said:

The first thing I thought when Beloki crashed was “I can’t lose any time here – just stay with the group.” At first, I thought I would have to turn around and come back out of the field, but then when I looked up, I realised maybe I can go through the field, it’ll come back around.

I was lucky that the field was there like that. Normally it could be full of crops, and I was lucky that there was even a little road there. I ended up in the field and said “Shit, I’m committed halfway, I’ve got to keep going.'”

It was a moment which demonstrated how narrow the margin between victory and defeat can be. If Armstrong had been in front of Beloki, it could have been him who crashed. Had the field been bumpier or steeper, it could have been impassable. And the ditch he hopped over at the far side of the field was only just traversable. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable display of composure and bike-handling – the kind of defining moment of which great champions are made.

4. The last stand at Luz-Ardiden, 2003

After Pau, the 2003 Tour got worse before it got better for Armstrong. Suffering from dehydration, he lost 1:36 to Ullrich in the first individual time trial, whittling his lead down to just 15 seconds. Stage 15, finishing on the summit of Luz-Ardiden, was the last mountain-top finish, meaning it was the last realistic chance to re-establish a cushion ahead of the potentially decisive second time trial.

Early on the final climb, Armstrong was thrown to the ground as his handlebars became snagged in the straps of a spectator’s bag. As Ullrich and most of the other leading riders cycled past, Armstrong, clearly dazed and shaken, refitted his chain, remounted and set off in pursuit. But as he charged uphill – out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, maximum effort – his right foot slipped out of the pedal and he almost crashed again, but he was able to catch himself and recover.

At this point, any ordinary human would probably have been content to thank their lucky stars and follow the pack to the finish. But Lance Armstrong is no ordinary human. He regained his position in the lead group, chased down an attack by Iban Mayo, and then immediately launched one of his own. Literally and figuratively, he never looked back again. He finished 40 seconds ahead of the rest of the field that day, but it might as well have been 40 minutes.

The war was not yet won, but the key battle had been. Armstrong would go on to win the fifth of his seven Tours; Ullrich would never get as close again.

Armstrong’s last stand

5. Pas de cadeaux, 2004

If 2003 was the least convincing of Armstrong’s seven Tour victories, 2004 was in many ways his most dominant. Here he was at his most ruthless and merciless best, crushing his opponents physically and mentally at every given opportunity.

The 2004 edition featured a flat first two weeks, with the first mountain stage not coming until stage 12. While France celebrated the presence of Thomas Voeckler in the yellow jersey – which he would defend for ten days – Armstrong merely waited for his moment to strike.

He and Ivan Basso broke away from the pack on the stage 12 finish at La Mongie – the Italian won, but the pair gained at least 20 seconds on everyone else. The following day, the same pair broke away again at Plateau de Beille, with Armstrong winning this time, with the rest of the field over a minute behind.

After a transition stage to Nîmes, three consecutive mountain stages followed – and Armstrong won all three, becoming the first man to achieve this feat since Gino Bartali in 1948. He won a tight finish – again edging Basso into second – at Villard-de-Lans. The following day he destroyed the field on the individual time trial on Alpe d’Huez, beating second-placed Jan Ullrich by 61 seconds. Finally, at Le-Grand-Bornand, he chased down Andreas Klöden in the final kilometre to win, for no other reason than to compensate for teammate Floyd Landis having been caught after he had tried to set him up for the win.

On the podium at the end of that stage, Armstrong was greeted by five-time winner Bernard Hinault, who said to him:

Parfait. Pas de cadeaux. (Perfect. No gifts.)

It summed up Armstrong’s 2004 Tour perfectly. And, of course, he finished off with victory in the second individual time trial on the penultimate day. Again, it was Ullrich who was beaten into second. And again the gap was 61 seconds – the third time in two years that number had been significant between the two great rivals, having been Armstrong’s exact winning margin in the 2003 Tour.

———-

Of course, there are many other great moments from Armstrong’s career – his first ever stage win in 1993, his first mountain victory in Sestrières in 1999, his battle with Marco Pantani on the Ventoux in 2000, to name but three – but these are my favourite five.

Farewell, Lance, and chapeau.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

One Response to Five moments which define the Lance Armstrong legend

  1. Happyfrenchman says:

    I will likewise remember his thuggish and goonish behavior, chasing down Simeoni as retribution for Simeonis speaking the truth in a trial in Italy .

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