The immaculate teamwork, the thorough preparation, the aura of invincibility, the inner blaze: Lance has them all. But in the past few years he has also added a higher order of strategy, taking one of the world's most purely athletic endeavors and injecting a kind of psychological warfare more akin to high-stakes poker than a bike race. Only a handful of past masters, including Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault (each of whom won the Giro d'Italia and the Tour in the same year, it's worth noting), have even come close to such mastery.
On a macro level, Lance and his team take great care to keep opponents guessing about their plans. Last year's F-One project, for instance, in which all of Lance's gear sponsors secretly collaborated to improve his setup, was equally effective at scaring his opponents and getting them talking. This year's reticence to announce what races he'll run may be the same kind of move.
But it's on the micro level, in the heat of a race, where it becomes clear the man is a virtuoso. Perhaps no example shines brighter in Lance lore than one from the 2001 Tour, on the seemingly vertical slopes of L'Alpe D'Huez. Lance's chief rival, the hard-charging German Jan Ullrich, thought he had Armstrong's number when his Telekom team took control early on. Lance lagged behind, and when Ullrich's support staff checked the TV monitors, they saw signs of a struggle in Lance that they had never seen before: He grimaced, his shoulders slumped, he slipped back to 12th place. They took the opportunity and urged Ullrich to blast ahead, to go for the kill – not knowing that Lance had been playing possum all along, putting on a show and baiting the German into giving it too much gas too early. He had turned the biggest flaw of his early career on its head!
Suddenly Lance told his Spanish teammate Chechu Rubiera to accelerate. Only Ullrich and Armstrong had the juice to follow the furious move, and when Rubiera could no longer push the pace, Lance stomped on the pedals. He shot a glance back at Ullrich and bolted clear. The gap was two minutes at the top. It was an act of pure intimidation, the kind of bullying move that didn't win Lance any friends but broke Ullrich's spirit and put yet another Tour on ice – the move of a brash and sure winner.
All of which raises the question: What happened to the simple love of the game, to the fun of it all? Should winning trump that? There's a French proverb that Lance is fond of: La vie est courte – c'est mieux de gagner. Life is short – it is better to win.