"Welcome to the NFL," Americans like to say to someone who's just entered a world where the conditions are brutal and the competition unforgiving. But after three weeks of watching Lance Armstrong on the roads of Europe, outracing the world's best cyclists over a 2,000-mile-plus course for the sixth straight time, we may have a new standard: "Welcome to the TDF" -- the Tour de France. Welcome to cycling a hundred and more miles a day at a pace that would leave most of us gasping after five minutes. Welcome to climbing nearly vertical mountain roads with your lungs burning and just about every male inebriate on the European continent getting in your face. Welcome to time-trial torture, and the prospect of hurtling off a mountainside at 50 mph.
In 1999, after he came back from a harrowing bout with cancer to win his first Tour, Lance Armstrong was an inspiration to his fellow Americans, even if they didn't know much about bicycle racing. Five Tours later he's recognized in his own country as something more -- as perhaps its finest athlete. He's also making a welcome contribution to the national well-being by inspiring large numbers of people, newly enthused about his sport, to set off on their own tours de subdivision. If you're one of them, a word of advice: Don't forget the helmet. And never mind if that yellow jersey fails to conceal a few un-Lancelike bulges.