Lance Armstrong has seen what W.B. Yeats called "The Cold Heaven." So even on the day when he will cross the finish line in Paris, having beaten all the Spaniards, Italians and French, and after climbing stark peaks in the face of spitting Germans, skeptics, naysayers and accusers, what Armstrong will prefer people remember him for was not his sixth Tour de France victory, but his near-death experience. It remains his most significant accomplishment: He lived.
Six Tour de France titles is an epic achievement, of course, tall as an Alp. In 100 years, no one has ever done such a thing; in fact, there's no other feat in sports to which it can be compared for sheer effort, pain, will and character. Armstrong rode more than 2,000 miles, over mountains, skirting oceans, in heat and in hail, enduring innumerable physical and mental agonies. It makes the feats of a Joe DiMaggio seem like skylarking by comparison.
But the size of the record makes it all the more important to see Armstrong in small ways. That phrase "best ever" threatens to detach him from his central humanity; the trouble with becoming a sports immortal is that it puts him at a remove. That's the last thing Armstrong wants, because to him, his most essential quality is his most ordinary one. What's permanently important about Armstrong is what binds him to the rest of us: He has suffered. He has been sick, and wounded, and tired with cancer.
"Listen, I was there," he said. "I haven't forgot it. And I still use it. It's not always easy because there are days where I encounter people who are not well. But it's my history, and I'm proud of it. I don't have any miracles to provide anybody other than giving a sliver of hope while pedaling a bike."
Armstrong has his detractors and doubters, but I'm not one of them. My view of him is colored by affection: He's my friend and he gave me a bestseller.
All I can do is tell a couple of stories about him, in hopes of explaining him. Like most of his friends, I see him less than I'd like, as he spends so much time training in Europe. Most of our conversations lately have taken place via cryptic e-mails, like the one he sent just before the Tour began. "Best legs ever," he wrote. "Gotta stay safe. We'll see."
We did see. What happened over the last three weeks was that a 32-year-old man raced like a boy, with a kind of rediscovered pleasure, as he won five stages and blew past his competition. "The only way I can describe it," he said, "is that it's like when you're 12 years old, and you and your five buddies all get new bikes and you say, 'Let's race.' And all you want to do is clobber your buddies. It was like that."
The main thing you need to understand about Armstrong is that without a bicycle, he probably would have been a barroom brawler, or maybe an arsonist.
When he was a boy in Texas, his mother, Linda, bought him a racing bike that she could hardly afford. He has often remarked that cycling probably saved him from petty crime. He was a hyperactive kid who never knew his father. He once invented a game called fireball, which involved soaking tennis balls in kerosene, lighting them on fire and playing catch with them. He set the roof of their house on fire that way. He carried around an inner emotional switchblade, the result of childhood deficits. He once finished a race swinging his fists at another rider, and he's been known to take on Texas truckers on the highways.
The other important event in Armstrong's life was the onset of cancer.
Armstrong has an extraordinary heart, lungs, arms, legs and genes. But whatever natural physical abilities he possesses were as randomly awarded as the winning numbers on a roulette wheel. Lacking an organized will and discipline, those attributes are meaningless. When he was a young racer, they were just a collection of scattered characteristics, topped off by a smart mouth. Cancer gave him his will.
"He makes competitors roll over and expose their throat," his close friend, John Korioth, says. "You kind of want to think he's a nice, happy-go-lucky guy, but that's not the case. People don't want to hear that, but that's the reality of the situation."
He's contradictory. I won't pretend he isn't. He's an agnostic who nevertheless wears a crucifix and who lovingly restored a chapel in his home in Girona, Spain. When he needs peace, he likes to stroll to the ancient cathedral and wander around in the cool stillness, looking at religious art. He's sweet and profane, methodical and hot tempered, flippant and reverent, and he has all kinds of hidden chips and sensitivities.
The Armstrong who slouches around Austin in jeans and flip-flops with a 5 o'clock shadow bears little relation to the grim, austere character who climbs the Pyrenees on his bike. Off the bike he's a hilarious, beer-drinking idiot with a swashbuckling sense of adventure. He can do killer imitations of an angry Frenchman, or a Texas redneck.
"I'm tarred!" he growls, meaning he's tired. Or, "I need to get me a bar!" Meaning beer. So that's who we're dealing with.
Time is Armstrong's obsession; he reflexively, desperately clutches at it.
It's a quality that has served him well both in cancer and in racing. The Tour de France to him is a matter of meticulously tabulating time vs. pain vs. self-denial, a kind of physical algebra. "It's a mathematical equation," he says. He rehearses each crucial climb in the Tour until he understands exactly how many seconds he can gain, what his heart rate will be, how many calories he will burn, how much he needs to weigh, how many watts he can generate and how long his body can stand it at that rate.
And yet clutching at time doesn't always serve him well in everyday matters. Last spring we met at his home in Girona to do some work. His marriage was failing, and he was frantic with worry over his children. "Cancer never kept me awake at night," he said. "This keeps me awake." He was clearly not training with the same ascetic devotion. (He ate every biscotti in the house.) One afternoon we wandered up the winding cobbled streets of Girona to an old Roman wall that circled the city, offering views of the Pyrenees. It was just a few blocks from his house -- but he had never seen it before. He was almost distraught at the discovery that something so beautiful was so close to him, and he hadn't had time to notice it.
"I can't believe this has been here," he said then. "I'm an idiot."
If there's one thing Armstrong could wish for, it's more time. Time with his kids, whom he's been away from for the better part of three months in pursuit of his sixth Tour win. "I'm not doing this again," he says. "I don't want to and I won't. Luke swam across the pool, the girls started ballet. I miss too much. I love two things, my kids and cycling. I'll find a way to make it work."
Time to compete in other prestigious races that could complete his career, such as the Giro d'Italia. Time to take some of the intense boil out of his life.
Time to think about what to do next. His plans include broadcasting, and his long-term ambition is to maintain a cycling team that can win the Tour de France without him on the bike.
But it may well be that Armstrong is constitutionally incapable of a casual, easygoing life of leisure. "I had this idea that if I could bang this one out, I'd say, 'It's been nice knowing you,' " he says. Now he's not too sure, after the young-at-heart way he's felt these last three weeks.
"The guys were joking with me, saying, 'So you want to go for the field sprint on the Champs-Elysees?' Every day we laced it up, we were like, 'We're gonna get it today.' You can't walk away when you got a boyish feeling like that."
But for the moment, it's time to rest. On the last night of the Tour, his sixth title a virtual formality, Armstrong was no longer a slave to it. He abandoned his famous self-denial and enjoyed a luxurious French meal with red wine and "several desserts." He planned to fly home and scoop up his children, and take them to an isolated beach for a summer vacation with his girlfriend, singer Sheryl Crow, whom he is patently crazy about. For now, he has a sense of completeness.
"I feel like something is finished," he said.