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Armstrong’s tour more than just a bike race

Tahoe Daily Tribune Staff Reports
Jim Scripps
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Without knowing it many of you readers may be missing out on the greatest sports achievement in modern history.

That’s no exaggeration: The greatest.

Lance Armstrong, the man we see on TV commercials and briefly during updates on Sportscenter, is in prime position in the early part of the Tour de France (at least as of press time), and ready to tire out his competitors as the first real mountain stages start (Lance is one of the world’s best mountain riders). If he wins this year it will be his sixth, a feat never accomplished in the tour’s 101-year history.

Because cycling is a European sport, Lance’s progress is barely mentioned beyond the sports pages in mainstream U.S. media. In Europe, as the tour progresses and Lance’s U.S. Postal team members keep their general in the lead, it is a guaranteed front-pager, every day. It’s on TV and on the radio. Over there Lance is a cultural phenomenon, as he has been since winning his first – even though he’s an American, even though it’s in France. People wait hours to see the 10-second blue blur of him whizzing by at 40 mph (a yellow blur when he’s in the lead). He’s that important.

Besides the fact that he’s American, why should Americans care about Lance’s potential sixth win in the tour? Because of what he represents both as an athlete, and as an ambassador for the United States. Whether we like it or not, pop culture icons are the new Kissingers of world politics, and right now Lance is a positive image in Europe of the United States (even though the European press is hard on him). And for years – even while France and most of Europe has had bad feelings toward the United States – he has humbly remained apolitical, ignored the controversy and shrugged off his rock star status. He has learned the languages of the countries in which he competes, downplays accusations that he’s on performance enhancing drugs (it’s hard for some fans to accept that he’s superhuman), and impresses even his competitors with his drive to greatness.

As many of you know, Lance is achieving all of this as a cancer survivor. In 1996, as a rising star in the cycling world, Armstrong was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer. The cancer had spread to his lungs and brain, and his prognosis was grim. While his athletic career was almost certainly done, his survival was also questionable. He underwent several surgeries to remove a cancerous testicle and lesions in the brain, as well as chemotherapy, which emaciated his body and dashed his hopes of continuing to ride competitively.

After a remarkable full recovery, somehow Lance tapped into an inner strength that continues to captivate his fans. He got back on the bike, rebuilt his body, and suddenly became a contender again. As a cyclist, he was better after cancer than he had been in his younger years. He proved it with his first tour win, then again and again. As the tour has become more challenging with better trained athletes and improved bicycle technologies, he has remained on top, possibly the best rider to ever take up the sport. Through it all he has brought awareness to the cancer fight, using his fame the way he uses his body: As a tool to achieve the end goal.

Although cycling is often seen as an individual sport to the outsider, on the tour circuit it is a team sport. The riders on U.S. Postal, handpicked by Lance, each have a job with the ultimate goal of keeping him in the lead. There are climbers and sprinters, known as “domestiques,” who work to create drafting opportunities for Lance to conserve his energy for important moments during the 22-day ride. They are also tasked with colluding with or disrupting other teams and riders in a complex strategy coordinated by team managers and Lance as the captain. At several intervals during the race, the team will participate in time trials, and the team’s united strength will be tested. Of the 21 teams (189 riders) in the race, U.S. Postal is regarded this year as the strongest, and so far it has lived up to the billing. During Wednesday’s time trial (the fourth tour stage), the team propelled Lance into first place overall, wearer of the coveted yellow jersey.

In less than four weeks, tour finishers will cover approximately 2,119 miles, some of it over rough cobblestone roads and multi-thousand foot elevation climbs. Lance will burn about 7,000 calories a day and struggle to stay hydrated (a problem that almost took him out of the race last year). All of this after he stared death in the eye.

These days, sports heroes are hard to come by, but Lance is more than that. He is an example of what can be achieved when a person’s potential, mentally and physically, is realized. And he represents the best of what America has to offer.

– Jim Scripps, managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be reached at jscripps@tahoedailytribune.com


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