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!
Friday, July 21, 1995
Montpon-Menesterol to Limoges
166.5 km/103.4 mi flat
The memory is as vivid as the stain that could be seen darkening the road. It was a damp patch, a small puddle emanating from a stricken rider’s head, expanding on the asphalt as riders sprinted past, rubbernecking at 45 mph to catch a glimpse of the figure on the road. He was lying on his side, curled up in the fetal position.
The riders streaming past included a 23-year-old American, Lance Armstrong. Looking back now, he recalls, “I had been behind—it was on the descent of the Portet d’Aspet—and we were in single file. It wasn’t as if you were bunched up and one side saw, one side didn’t. Everyone saw him. I was one of those guys. And, yeah . . . I knew it was Fabio.”
Less than three years earlier, Armstrong had ridden the Olympic road race in Barcelona. It was his final race as an amateur; he would turn professional the following week and ride the Clásica San Sebastián, finishing last. But in Barcelona he had been expected to shine; he had been expected—not least by himself—to win.
Instead, however, a 21-year-old Italian, Fabio Casartelli, rode a masterful race. Casartelli escaped with two other riders, Erik Dekker of Holland and Dainis Ozols of Latvia, as the rest of the field watched the big favorites, Armstrong and Davide Rebellin, who was Casartelli’s Italian teammate. Casartelli, in a washed-out, faded version of the Italian Olympic team’s famous Azzurri jersey, judged the uphill finish perfectly, putting his bike in a big gear and jumping hard at 200 meters. He won easily. Behind him, Dekker and Ozols were celebrating their silver and bronze medals even before they crossed the line. And 30 seconds behind them, a young German, Erik Zabel, won the bunch sprint for fourth. Armstrong was 14th.
Casartelli turned professional with the Ariostea team the next year and joined Armstrong’s American Motorola squad in 1995. He was 24. It was the year he was selected for the Tour de France. “I didn’t know Fabio that well,” says Armstrong now. “It was his first year on the team. We had raced together as amateurs. But—and I don’t want this to sound the wrong way—he didn’t act like all the other Italians. He was less serious; he whined a lot less; he was more fun-loving. A lot of the other Italian guys, I always considered them to be whiners. Fabio was more jovial. He had a free spirit; he laughed at a bunch of shit that those guys wouldn’t have laughed at.”
It was stage 15 of the Tour de France, the toughest day, the “Queen stage.” They were 34 km in; 172 km remained, including much tougher climbs: the Col de Menté, the Col de Peyresourde, the Col d’Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet, with a summit finish at Cauterets. It was sunny and hot in the Pyrenees. It was 11:48 a.m.
Until July 18, 1995, the Col de Portet d’Aspet, in the central Pyrenees, would have been regarded as relatively innocuous.
What happened on the descent changed that.
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