It was midnight in France on the night before Lance Armstrong entered Paris, about to become the six-time champion of the Tour de France, and he was content, full from a 10-course French meal, a variety of red wines, and several desserts. Armstrong had thrown a celebration for his U.S. Postal team and staff, feting them in the ancient wine cellar of a gorgeous medieval chateau in Besancon, and as he presided over a victory dinner that was almost tearful with euphoria, a thought occurred to him. "I had arranged to have this big night," he said, "and I realized that if you get second place, or third, or eighth, you don't get to do that. You know what? I got to have it this way."
As we talked by phone, Armstrong struggled to absorb his record: He is the all-time titleholder of what he calls "the toughest damn sports event in the world." But records are cold abstractions that hardly tell the whole story. The main thing he felt, other than a kind of awestruck detachment, was a sense of wholeness, completion. It was done. History was made. "Are you no longer a slave of the Tour?" a French reporter had asked him. As he paused to think about the answer to the question, Armstrong realized that indeed he had been freed. "You know, it's the perfect way to put it," he said. "I'm not a slave to this anymore. I do feel like something is finished."
Armstrong, 32, will probably never better this performance. "It was my finest three weeks in a Tour de France," he said. But the victory was significant for more than just historical or sporting reasons. It was significant because as a cancer survivor Armstrong has proven that someone can not only survive, but thrive. Armstrong has established that someone can be better for having been sick. In this Tour, he won five solo stage wins and a team time trial. He decimated his rivals in the mountains, with three straight victories in the Alps, including a time trial on the legendary climb to L'Alpe d'Huez, and another in the Pyrenees.
He also took the final time trial Saturday in Besancon, despite the fact that he only needed to ride safely to clinch his record title. One of the reasons he streaked across the course so aggressively was that he received a meaningful e-mail reminding him yet again of how much he meant to other cancer patients.
Ten minutes before Armstrong went out to warm up for the final time trial of the Tour in Besancon, he checked his Blackberry, and read a message from a friend at Nike, Scott McEachern. That day, a man had gone into a Niketown store and purchased 500 yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets, which are being sold as a fundraiser by Armstrong's cancer foundation. The goal was to sell them for a dollar apiece and raise $5 million, but 8 million have been sold. The gentlemen who bought a case of 500 had bought them for this reason: His father had just died of cancer. While he was alive, the father had watched every minute of the Tour. His son wanted to give the bracelets out at the funeral.
"I read that literally 10 minutes before I got on the bike to warm up," Armstrong said. "Do you think I was a little motivated?"
It will be interesting now to see whether Armstrong remains motivated. He's spent so much of his life in embattled striving, whether in fighting illness, or competing in the grueling Tour. For years, Armstrong has carefully weighed every morsel of pasta he put in his mouth, and denied himself basic comforts in pursuit of Tour titles.
He has spent months away from his family, lived an almost monkish life. He has elevated the race with cutting-edge training methods and technology, turning it into an almost scientific undertaking. He has probably made the race look too easy. Few people, perhaps no one, can understand the toll the race has taken on him. The thinness of his face and the jutting of his cheekbones only suggest it.
"People don't understand that when he attacks the race the way he does, he's exposed," says John Korioth, his close friend. "He could crack, and if he cracks, a competitor can blow right by. When he attacks he's showing all his cards."
Armstrong may be tired of the price the Tour exacts. There are some things he'd like to do. He'd like be able to eat a dish of ice cream without thinking about the cost to his training. He'd like to spend time with his girlfriend, singer Sheryl Crow, who put her career on hold to accompany him in his campaign. "She makes me look like a slacker," he says. "She has dove into this life. Everybody is crazy about her. She's brilliant, humble and beautiful." He'd like to train in the States more, to be closer to his children. He has bought a house near his ex-wife, Kristin (from whom he received a warm e-mail before the Tour began), in order to spend more time with them. He'd like to compete in the Giro d'Italia and Tour of Spain and other classic races, without which his reputation as a cyclist won't be complete.
And there is something Armstrong doesn't want: he doesn't want to return to the Tour and lose. "I don't want to be the guy left on the mountainside, who gets passed," he says.
Armstrong must weigh that fear of failure against the knowledge that he's in the best form of his life at 32, and may have more cycling in him.
My own suspicion is that Armstrong will ride again next year. Armstrong is not a creature who enjoys being at rest. The qualities that allow him to climb an Alp or bomb down a descent at 70 mph on a wheel an inch thick are not his most easygoing, companionable ones. In fact, last time Armstrong was in Austin, "He still had to flip a trucker off," Korioth says. They were out riding together, with a follow car driving slowly behind them for safety reasons. Here came a trucker, blowing his horn and swerving. Armstrong set his jaw and told his follow driver, "Do not move this car." They crawled along, forcing the trucker to slow down. Finally, the truck passed them, honking and spewing dust. Armstrong gave him a raised fist.
"I don't think that part of him is ever going away," Korioth says.
On the other end of the phone in Besancon, Armstrong was growing sleepy. The open question of his future could wait for the time being. There was one last task, one last leg: the final one of the Tour into Paris.
"I guess I better go to sleep now," he said, cheerfully. "I kind of have to ride 100 miles tomorrow."
With that he said good night.
Sally Jenkins has written two books with Lance Armstrong.