Blood, Sweat And Gears
In its best moments, the Tour highlights honor as much as it does brute strength. A worthy contender pauses for the opponent who crashes, so as not to gain advantage purely because of luck, an icy patch, melting tar, etc. This happened a few years ago when German rider Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's greatest rival, ran off the road and flipped over his handlebars. Armstrong, already wearing the leader's yellow jersey, waited for him to catch up. Last year, Ullrich returned the favor after Armstrong was downed by the errant feed bag.
And if the Yellow Jersey needs to pull over to answer nature's call? You do not choose this moment to attack. It simply isn't done -- you risk being pelted with water bottles and dragged back to the peloton (as the mass of riders is called) for verbal flogging in half a dozen languages. One needs friends in the peloton. Best not to tick them off by flouting decorum.
Besides, it's just not sporting.
Lance Armstrong, as anyone glancing at a magazine rack lately knows, is hoping to achieve what no man ever has: a sixth Tour victory. That sixth heavy chalice -- the trophy given to winners, along with about $400,000 -- is the Holy Grail of cycling.
Who better than Armstrong to attain it?
"He's a Grail knight," said University of Maryland English professor Verlyn Flieger, who specializes in myth. Like Galahad, the Round Table knight who finally succeeded in his quest for the Holy Grail, Armstrong grew up without his natural father, who left his mother when he was a baby. Like many an ancient hero, Armstrong's will to succeed has been forged in fire: testicular cancer, which invaded his lungs and brain and nearly killed him in 1996, when his pro cycling career was starting to flower.
Starting today, the 32-year-old Armstrong is engaging in the ur-contest: against himself. "That is the more interesting and psychologically difficult battle," said Flieger. "He's battling against his own record. And he's battling against his own body as he approaches the point where his strength is not up to the task."
What if he loses? Judging by precedent, Armstrong can still win in the public eye. Loss humanizes a hero. We like flawed heroes, as long as they're more hero than flaw. (Mike Tyson, for example, has the proportions all wrong. Babe Ruth got them right.) Losing, in fact, would put Armstrong in company with the legendary knight with whom he shares most of a name: Lancelot. It was gifted, charismatic Lancelot who first got close to the Grail. Faulted by God for his moral shortcomings -- messing around with the king's wife -- Lancelot was granted only a vision of the Grail, and not the prize itself.
Yet Lancelot's story is an enduring favorite. Torn between his passion for God and for Guinevere and his desire to excel, Lancelot became a knight for the ages. "We like him because of the failing," Flieger said, "because the failing is married to his heroic effort and to the conflict within him."
Divorced in December, Armstrong has been inseparable from rocker Sheryl Crow for much of the past year. Has she been too distracting? The love affair will undoubtedly be factored into any failure. Armstrong may have more in common with Lancelot than he'd like.
Yet as his perseverance in the Tour de France has shown us, he is perfectly suited to attempting what no one else has ever done.
This is exactly what we look to heroes to do.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company