The Ride of Lance Armstrong's Life
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There is a mythic quality to winning six Tours de France. It's equivalent to Jack Nicklaus attempting to snag a seventh Masters, Martina Navratilova trying to win her 10th Wimbledon, the Red Sox breaking the curse of the Bambino – feats that have never been accomplished. The cyclist who came closest to winning a sixth Tour was Eddy Merckx, the big, ruddy Belgian who, in the '70s, won more bike races than anyone in history. He missed number six in 1975 by only two minutes and 47 seconds. Now 59, Merckx is one of Lance's best friends. He was there in the cancer years and watched the Texan struggle mightily to recover. He thinks this year's Tour will be the biggest challenge of Lance's career, but he's confident that his friend has everything it takes to win. "This is his 10th Tour," Merckx says, "and he has nothing more to learn. Everything being equal, no sickness or crashes, there's nobody who can beat Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France."

"Everything being equal," of course, is the key phrase. Nobody who watched last year's Tour can reasonably assume that this year's will go off without a hitch for Lance. Not only was he emotionally traumatized last year by the split with Kristin, he struggled through a series of physical setbacks. He went into the race recovering from gastroenteritis, contracted from his son. Then his new cleats gave him tendinitis in the hip, and a brake pad rubbing against his rear wheel gave him leg fatigue. There was a troublesome fall in a high-speed pileup on Stage 1, and a moment of panic when his rival Joseba Beloki suffered a terrifying crash right in front of him on Stage 9. During the critical Stage 12 individual time trial, chronic dehydration forced Lance to give up a minute and 36 seconds to the hard-charging German Jan Ullrich. And then, on Stage 15, just as he was making the attack he needed to win the race, Lance took a frightening spill when he snagged his handlebar on the strap of a fan's shoulder bag. "Last year was tough," he concedes to me, adding in a whisper, "very tough."

"Lance was totally vulnerable on Stage 13, the day after that time trial," says Chris Carmichael, his personal coach. "Ullrich should have won the Tour that day. I think if he had taken the yellow jersey there it would have been hard for Lance. He wouldn't have given up, but psychologically it would have been a big blow."

To fend off Ullrich, Lance had to dig deeper than he had ever done before. "He fought for the whole thing," says Carmichael. After the Stage 15 crash he tapped into an inner rage that propelled him to the finish on pure adrenaline. In the end he won, of course, but the margin of victory, 61 seconds, was by far his smallest, prompting some competitors and critics to say that his team had saved him, that his aura of invincibility was finally shattered.

For a man who is aiming to make history this year, it wasn't an ideal finish.