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Soup of This Day #10: Part 1, Armstrong…

June 4, 2011

Lance Armstrong at the 2010 Tour
In Lance we trust. We hope – Photo: Haggisnl, 2010. Haggisnl is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

I’m not what you’d call a religious man. I wasn’t brought up with any particular faith and any curiosity I might have had was quashed when I lost my Mum and both Grandads over the space of 2 and ½ years. Grandad Brian passed away just shy of Christmas 1989 from, what was initially, lung cancer. Mum lost her battle with breast cancer in April of 1992, a few days short of the 3rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster that claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans. Grandad John lasted barely a handful of weeks longer, again, a victim of cancer. Since then I’ve tried to live my life to the good – I don’t set out to hurt people or deceive them. I have no problem with people who have faith, it’s just that I’m not your religious type. My faith is in my family, my friends and my heroes.

On the slopes of L’Alpe d’Huez during stage 10 of the 2001 Tour De France, Lance Armstrong gave me the faith, made himself my hero. You’d think it would have been earlier – Armstrong had come back from a cancer that should have, statistically at least, taken his life. Instead, the cancer broke him down and allowed the man to rebuild himself into a cyclist with a very particular specialty: Le Tour. Prior to his battle he had won a couple of stages, mostly using raw strength and anger in sprint finishes. After his return he became a time-trialling strongman of, on his day, peerless form. He also learned how to match it in the mountains with the climbers, somehow besting them on their ground, despite being bigger, heavier and riding on a higher cog. These attributes led him to win the General Classification (GC) in 1999 and 2000. The 2000 win in particular was set up by a brutal demolition of the field up the Hautacam in a wet and miserable Stage 10. For a definition of ‘tough’ see Armstrong’s ride that day.

A year later, again in Stage 10 and Armstrong sought to break the field up the daunting and legendary L’Alpe d’Huez. He had begun each of the climbs that day, seemingly out of breath and clinging on to his main rivals. His radio appeared to be malfunctioning, meaning that he couldn’t communicate with his team director and strategist, Johan Bruyneel. His vest was open, sweat pouring down his chest and pain writ large on his face. It was about as un-Lance-like as you could get and his biggest threat for the GC, Jan Ullrich fell for it. Ullrich’s Team Telekom drove a train to the front and tried to hammer the final nail into Armstrong. They churned up the slopes, believing they were seconds from breaking him. They must have been surprised when he hung on, must have thought that he was just setting himself up to be completely tapped out. By the final ascent, the mad inclining zigzag that is L’Alpe d’Huez, they had ridded themselves to the ground and Armstrong was suddenly looking fresher. At the foot of the climb, Lance moved to the front and looked back over his shoulder, seemingly straight at Ullrich. Commentator, Phil Liggett, described the look as a question:

“Are you coming or not?”

The answer as Liggett called it was “Not.”

Armstrong accelerated away leaving a broken and baffled Ullrich behind to limit the damage. He couldn’t, Armstrong’s climb up L’Alpe d’Huez was only 26sec short of the record, and the winning margin of 1:59 over Ullrich was enough to see the Texan take a 2:35 lead over Ullrich, albeit 20:07 behind the Maillot Jaune. Sometime later Armstrong gave an interview to Liggett and was told that that moment, dubbed ‘The Look’, had been voted as one of the best in Tour history. Lance broke Phil’s heart by pointing out that he hadn’t been looking at Ullrich, he had in fact been looking down the road for his teammates and to get a sense of where his other contenders, principally for the stage win, were. No matter, Armstrong psychologically and physiologically broke the race open that day.

In Stage 11, a 32km, mountain time trial, the battle was again between Armstrong and Ullrich. Again Armstrong was the victor in ‘the race of truth’. And the truth was that Lance had the belief and the strength.

In Stage 13 Armstrong consolidated his lead over Ullrich and took over the Maillot Jaune. Prior to the final climb of the day, on a tricky descent down the Col de Peyresourde Ullrich went off the road. Armstrong eased off and waited for him, sportingly asking if Ullrich was ok at the base of the final climb. He was but he was no match for Armstrong. As in Stage 10, Jan was asked if he would go with Armstrong and again he could not. Lance accelerated away on the climb to Pla d’Adet, finding a gear that his German rival just didn’t have. He gained 1:00 and as he donned the yellow led Ullrich by over 5 minutes. The race was effectively over. In hindsight it is easy to believe that it had been on the steep incline of L’Alpe d’Huez.

A footnote to this story occurred in the 2003 Tour. On the 15th Stage Armstrong was vulnerable, arguably more so than in any other Tour. On the ascent to the finish at Luz Ardiden Lance got his musette (feed) bag tangled with a spectator and ended up off his bike and on the tarmac. Ullrich and former US Postal teammate, Tyler Hamilton, waited for him, refusing to attack. Perhaps out of respect for the Maillot Jaune and perhaps as repayment for Armstrong’s generosity 2 years previously it was, either way, a remarkable show of sportsmanship. Ullrich could have won the Tour that day, instead he waited, allowed his great rival to get back and effectively conceded the race when Armstrong attacked and won the stage.

Now, the memory of those days is at risk of being tainted. Does it matter? Yep. Regardless of what comes out following Tyler Hamilton’s accusation that he saw Armstrong doping I’ll still consider those rides impressive and I’ll console myself with the facts that no amount of doping can overcome cancer, that almost certainly most of his rivals were also juiced. Unfortunately though there will be an asterisk next to Armstrong’s wins and therefore an asterisk next to my faith. And I’m pretty sure that most people who have religion will tell you that faith with an asterisk is not really faith at all.

I hope you’re innocent Lance. If I was a religious man, I’d pray for it.

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