Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Ending of an Era

The photo below is of Lance Armstrong about 25 meters past the finish of today's final individual TT in St. Ettienne. Armstrong is captured in the photo coasting after the last pedal strokes he will ever turn in anger. (OLN posts video of the final minute here). Sure, there's a final stage into Paris tomorrow, but the stage is a processional, not a contested race (well, at least as far as riders other than McEwen, Hushovd, and O'Grady, who will battle over the last handful of Green Jersey Points, are concerned). And if the peloton is in the mood to make tomorrow even more memorable, the line will be ceded to Armstrong (provided the intermediate sprints settle the Green, which is likely) in respect of the greatest Patron the Tour has ever known (do note I say the Tour -- Merckx is far and away the greatest champion the sport has ever known), and may well ever know.

I've been a rabid fan of the Tour for as long as I can remember. My first recollection is of watching, as a 6-year-old, tape-delayed footage of the Cannibal Eddy Merckx winning his last of 5 Tours in 1974. Since then, I've seen Hinault and the Big Mig each win 5 Tours. I watched as LeMond won 3 Tours, including perhaps the greatest Tour ever in 1989, defeating Laurent Fignon by all of 8 seconds. I also saw Fignon win 2 Tours in his own right, as did Bernard Thevenet. And I've seen Joop Zoetemelk, Lucian van Impe, the Irishman Steven Roche, Pedro Delgado, the Great Dane Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, and the Pirate Marco Pantani, each win a single meeting of the most grueling sporting event in which humans dare compete.

Tomorrow, Armstrong will run off his seventh straight Tour victory. And during the 146 days in the saddle so far -- spanning 141 Stages & 5 Prologues -- I never saw him bonk, not even when he dehydrated so badly during an individual TT virtually any other competitor would have died . . . quite literally. A very far cry from his abandon on a miserable wet day in July 1996, mere months before he would be diagnosed with testicular cancer that had metastasized into his gut, lungs and brain.

I cannot begin to express the strange mix of emotions that I will experience tomorrow, and that I experienced throughout today's TT, especially as Lance charged to the line marking (perhaps . . . ) the final victory of his career. How many times has Lance done things on his bike that have made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight? I can't begin to count. I can't even list them. Simply stated, it is impossible to put into words the shape of the thrill his determination over the past seven years has given to me. I will miss him next year. But the Tour goes on. For there is always room for another champion. Viva le Tour.

Thanks, Lance!