This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!
Monday, July 21, 2003
Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Luz Ardiden
159.5 km/99 mi high mountains
“I mean, listen, look. Travis Tygart and his band of haters can say what they want. Those Tours happened. . . . It was an unfortunate time, most of us if not all of us played by the same set of rules. . . . I consider myself the winner of those seven Tours.”
We had been talking about a stage that officially didn’t happen, 10 years after it didn’t happen, one year after it has been deemed not to have hap- pened. Armstrong is talking as he drives to the golf course, 40 minutes from his house in Austin, Texas. It is almost a year since he was officially stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from competitive sports for life. He gets angry when he talks about Travis Tygart, the man at the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, who led the investigation into Armstrong and his U.S. Postal team, eventually describing the setup as “the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” (To which Armstrong responds: “You can’t say that one team has the most sophisticated program in the world when you don’t look at the other 19 teams. You have to look at all 20 before you make that claim.”) But otherwise Armstrong seems remarkably relaxed. The fact that he is on his way to play golf suggests that he is holding it together, that he is not in the midst of a breakdown.
On the contrary, Armstrong says he is well. “Yeah, y’know. Just dealing with a little drama here and there, but otherwise not too bad.” The “little dramas” include an insurance claim of several million dollars, and a federal case that might cost him up to $100 million, to name just two.
Yet in one sense Armstrong is certainly right. Those Tours did happen.
It was the year Armstrong was bidding to join the Club. The Club of five- time Tour de France winners, whose members were Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and Indurain. But in the months leading up to his bid to join the Club, things and events, which had always been tightly controlled and micromanaged by Armstrong, seemed to unravel.
But Armstrong’s opponents were well known to him, and he had the measure of them. (With Ullrich, Armstrong’s strategy was to praise him, calling him the most naturally talented rider of his generation. As Armstrong’s chiro- practor, Jeff Spencer, told Coyle, “He understands that what Jan doesn’t like is pressure. If you want to get into his head, praise him to the skies.”) But in 2003 another rival emerged as if from nowhere—or the Basque Country, which amounted to much the same thing as far as Armstrong was concerned.
Iban Mayo was as proud, unpredictable, and obstinate as the region he came from. Armstrong faced this mercurial climber at the Dauphiné Libéré, just weeks before the Tour got under way; it was his last tune-up before the big one. “I always used the Tour of Switzerland or the Dau- phiné, and most of the time we used the Dauphiné, as final prep for the Tour,” Armstrong says. “For 2003 I did the Dauphiné. Before that, I was riding very good. I was in the [leader’s] jersey. One of the days, I had a re- ally bad crash. We never really figured out what happened, but my bike just basically locked up and I went sliding on a fast downhill; really messed up my arm, lost a ton of blood, had stitches and a bunch of stuff through the night. I wanted to stay in the race and everybody else told me to drop out. Ferrari said, ‘You gotta drop out. You’re riding good, just go home and rest.’
“But Iban Mayo was in second,” Armstrong continues. “He was attack- ing me all the time. And, let me tell you, I was not a fan. I was not a fan of Mayo. I thought he was a little punk. We were all sort of . . . dirty, but I viewed him as being a lot dirtier than us.”
Mayo was certainly intriguing and enigmatic. He was an archetypal climber: slightly built, quirky, erratic, and capable of devastating accelerations in the mountains. But Armstrong’s description of him as a “little punk” seems fitting for other reasons, too. He had two hoop earrings in one ear, and straggly, shoulder-length hair. Handsome, with his dark eyes and sharp nose, he seemed the heir to Marco Pantani, the little Italian climber who Armstrong might also have described in less than friendly terms as a “punk.”
And that was the point. If Mayo was the new Pantani, Armstrong had every reason to be worried (and so, perhaps, did Mayo). It was Pantani who got under Armstrong’s skin, especially in the 2000 Tour, with his erratic, unpredictable, explosive attacking. Ullrich had always been his strongest rival on paper, but Armstrong knew where he stood with Ullrich. The German was as good-natured as he was strong; too nice, too compliant, a rider lacking Armstrong’s ruthlessness or Pantani’s subversiveness. When Armstrong allowed Pantani to win the stage at Mont Ventoux in 2000, the Pirate threw the gesture back in his face. Ullrich would have been grateful for the gift. Pantani was offended by the charity.
Like Pantani, Mayo seemed uncontrollable. Thus he could unsettle Armstrong. Which is why Armstrong says of the 2003 Dauphiné, “I wasn’t going to let Mayo win.” And yet it was only the Dauphiné; only a warm-up for the Tour. When Ferrari and others advised him to forget about Mayo and the Dauphiné, Armstrong told them, “No way, because if I go home this punk wins.”
“So I stayed in,” Armstrong says, “and he kept attacking me, attacking me hard over the Galibier. And it just fucking killed me to stay with him. . . but I wasn’t going to let this little punk win.” When Armstrong caught Mayo he gave him a look—or “the look,” which he had used to intimidate Ullrich on l’Alpe d’Huez during the 2001 Tour. He also indulged in some trash talk.
Mayo remembers, “On the last day Armstrong came up to me, drew level with my handlebars, and said to me, ‘Iban, can’t you go a bit harder than that?’
“So that day I went so hard, I kept attacking and attacking, and Armstrong came up to me again and said, ‘Is that all you’ve got? Can’t you go any harder?’ And so we’d do it all over again and again, each time Armstrong asking me, ‘Can’t you go any harder?’ and me attacking again.”
Mayo wasn’t aware, at the time, how much he annoyed Armstrong. “People told me afterward. Maybe I was more unpredictable than Ullrich, I could attack on other climbs, because I could go all out in one place or another, whereas Ullrich would not surprise him; he’d be a guy who would go for him in the time trials. I could surprise him.”
Armstrong won the Dauphiné, but not without cost. “It took too much out of me. I had two weeks between the Dauphiné and the Tour. And I just didn’t recover. I came into the Tour behind, and tired and depleted.
“I mean, so much has been made about, y’know, doping and blood [transfusions] and et cetera, et cetera,” Armstrong continues. “But I’ll never forget, I started—in those years they did the pre-race screening and hematocrit test, et cetera—and I started the Tour at 39 [percent] hematocrit. And I remember thinking, oh fuck. Huh!” Armstrong laughs: 39 was low; it meant his red blood cells were depleted. Hamilton, who took a blood transfusion on the eve of the race, started with his at 48.
“And it didn’t start good,” Armstrong continues. “I had a bad prologue. I was used to winning those prologues and I barely made the top 10. It was just a rough start and a rough three weeks. I had to get lucky.”
Since his first Tour win in 1999, Armstrong had never had to “get lucky.” He never crashed. Never punctured. Never fell ill. Never had a bad day—minor dips in form, but not a really bad day. He even felt that his Tour wins were “dialed in.” There was precious little drama, excitement, or suspense, apart from when Pantani launched his (self-)destructive attacks. Otherwise, the Armstrong Tours were as predictable as the Indurain Tours.
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