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Friday, July 25, 2003
That W stands for Work

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

His own coach says his age is beginning to show on him. He no longer bounces buoyantly back from a grueling ride through the mountains like a college freshman who barely realizes Sunday morning that he drank a river's worth Saturday night.

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong, foreground, has been closely followed by Jan Ullrich -- and that makes this a great race.

He was distracted in his training as he dealt with problems in his marriage. He bonked in the heat during the first time trial. He hit the deck during one of the most crucial stages of the race after making the seemingly incomprehensible mistake, for a veteran, of riding too close to the spectators.

A cancer survivor now 31 years old, he appears absolutely, positively human, and therefore vulnerable.

What can you say? It looks like Lance Armstrong's got the Tour de France right where he wants it.

This is the good stuff, for those keeping score. This is it. It says here that, win or not, this summer's Tour marks the finest work of Armstrong's career, if for no other reason than that, from the get-go, it has been work and nothing but.

The Lance Armstrong who is taking Saturday's time trial to Nantes is a rider about whom, for the first time in what seems years, others on the Tour could regard as beatable. As it has developed, only Jan Ullrich came down to the final stages with a realistic shot at dethroning Armstrong and preventing the Texan's fifth consecutive Tour victory -- but what a shot it was.

And that's part of what makes it great. The competition makes it great. The push from Ullrich makes it great. That slightly open window of opportunity to knock off Armstrong makes it great. The long odds against a five-peat make it great.

Not to go spouting the wit and wisdom of Jimmy Dugan in the middle of a cycling piece, but just in general, the hard is what makes it great.

And you've come to the right place. You hear people say that if (fill in the blank) were that easy, everybody'd be doing it. Lance Armstrong takes this principle and sprints with it to, oh, Everest Base Camp or so. He puts it up there. And that makes it great, too.

If you go looking for the easy way out, don't invite Armstrong on the search. The man could turn a trip to the 7-Eleven into an epic journey. Easy isn't in the lexicon of a man whose coach, Chris Carmichael, never wants Armstrong more than about 10 percent removed from peak physical condition -- ever. There is no off-season, not for a rider of Armstrong's vintage, with Armstrong's goals, facing the kind of competition Armstrong is facing.

I'd always assumed that after Armstrong dealt with cancer, there would never be another event in his life that any of us could reasonably describe as a huge challenge. This Tour modified that thought. From the winter news that Armstrong and his wife were separating (they since have tried to reconcile) at least through to the shocking time trial earlier in which Armstrong became dehydrated in the heat and got his doors blown off by Ullrich, this has been a nonstop grind. It might ultimately prove Armstrong's most satisfying Tour victory, but damned if it'll be his favorite.

As Armstrong himself noted a few days ago, "This has been a crisis-filled Tour. There have been a lot of strange things happening, things I haven't talked about."

Shoot, the stuff that's on the record hasn't precisely redefined normalcy out there. It has been a Tour seemingly laced with close calls and near-misses, and that's to say nothing of (to select one example) former teammate Tyler Hamilton's broken collarbone.

For Armstrong, it has been a Tour in which his recent ability to break away from his closest pursuers, to break their spirits, never materialized -- a Tour in which he led without ever dominating. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the Armstrong of years past rode with a killer instinct that, for whole chunks of time, no one else even approached.

Armstrong as a vulnerable leader has been the thing to see. His recovery race the other day, the day he crashed after grazing the spectator but came back to gain nearly a minute on Ullrich by winning the sixth stage through the Pyrenees, was easily one of his finest stages in years -- again, if for no other reason than the stakes involved and the work it took for Armstrong to fight his way back.

(Side note to me-firsting jocks everywhere on the planet: As per cycling's unwritten rules of conduct, the main group that day, including Ullrich, slowed down to allow Armstrong to rejoin them, on the theory that riders should not take advantage of the leader when he has crashed. Guess they don't do sack dances around here all that much.)

As this was being written, there was no way of knowing whether that mountain blast had been enough to put Armstrong over the top. No matter. From here, the man already has done his best work. Capital "W" on that one.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.