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With the Lance Armstrong era of the Tour de France crashing to a painful close along a road to the Alps on Sunday, this is the legacy he will be leaving. Armstrong has not only carried American cycling on his narrow shoulders, but more important, he has also spurred countless new cyclists onto the narrow shoulders of America's roadways.
We are there racing our Saturday morning group to the next road sign and pretending we are Armstrong in the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees. We are there climbing a Category 12 hill to the local brewpub, gasping for air and imagining we are Armstrong powering past Jan Ullrich on Alpe d'Huez. We are there sweating and cramping under a blazing sun on the 76th mile of a charity ride thinking, If we are this sore, how must Armstrong feel after three weeks in the Tour?
|Lance Armstrong fell from 14th to 39th overall after Sunday's Stage 8 of the Tour de France.|
And everyone else is thinking of Armstrong as well, because when we are there, nearly shaken from the road by a passing SUV, we can hear the angry drivers' shouts of "Get the @#%$ off the road, Lance!"
Many of us were also there in spirit for Stage 8 on Sunday, watching as Armstrong crashed repeatedly and fell farther and farther behind. His famous Look was replaced by a face of sheer misery as he slowly, painfully struggled to the top of the last climb roughly 12 minutes behind the leaders.
Armstrong didn't have much chance of winning the Tour before Sunday. After Sunday, he can't win even if he puts E.T. in his basket.
"I felt strong before and proved before today that my condition is good. I just couldn't recover from the fall," Armstrong told reporters after Sunday's stage. "I'll maybe spend a few days healing up. This is a long race. Obviously, [winning] the Tour is over for me, but I can stay in the race and maybe win some stages and hope I can help the team. I'll just appreciate my time here and appreciate the fact that I'm not coming back.
"No tears for me. I had a lot of years where it's been very different. I'm not going to dwell on today."
He shouldn't. He has much more to look back on proudly. He said earlier this week that the two stages he thinks best represents his career were the ride up Alpe d'Huez in 2001 and the recovery after the musette crash during Stage 15 in 2003. Perhaps he'll add another stage in the next two weeks.
Armstrong said he came back last year to further raise awareness for cancer research, but I think hubris played a part, as well. He thought he could still win, which is not unusual for an aging athlete. But he did not win. He's still very good, just not good enough. He is 38, but he jokes that he doesn't look a day over 50. It isn't entirely a joke, though. He does look old. And whether it's bad luck or karma catching up or instincts slowing ever so slightly, a man who rarely crashed before has hit the pavement a lot during his comeback. He broke his collarbone in a ride last spring, crashed out of the Tour of California this May (one day after another crash) and crashed three times Sunday.
And worse, he also faces perhaps the most serious accusations yet about doping, accusations Floyd Landis may not have made had Armstrong remained in retirement.
Because I was busy covering All-Star Game festivities in Anaheim on Sunday, I was unable to watch the race coverage during the day. So I balanced my laptop on the stationary bike in the hotel fitness room late at night, logged online and cranked the pedals while watching a bruised and bloodied Armstrong grimace and pump and gasp up the final three climbs of Stage 8.
Would I have been on the bike at midnight had it not been for Armstrong? Would I have been training for a double-century ride this Saturday? Would I have paid $30 so I could watch the Tour on the Internet while doing so? I doubt it.
And the thing is, I'm not even much of an Armstrong fan. Something about his personality -- his in-your-face, beyond-category competitive streak -- has never appealed to me as much as riders such as Levi Leipheimer, Andy Schleck, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie. When he feuded with Astana teammate Alberto Contador last year, I sympathized with the Spaniard, viewing Armstrong as a bit of bully.
But would I have gotten into cycling enough even to know the names of these other riders had it not been for Armstrong? Probably not.
At times, it almost seems a requirement that successful American cyclists have foreign-sounding names. Greg LeMond. Leipheimer. Vande Velde. George Hincapie. But not Lance Armstrong; you don't get any more American than that. He couldn't be any more American if he rode with a baseball card in his spokes. Because of Armstrong, cycling analyst Phil Liggett says, "The first language of the Tour de France is English now," and American cycling will continue to grow by leaps and bounds because of him.
"I think a lot of us should give thanks to him for bringing American cycling to where it is," said Garmin-Transitions' Tyler Farrar, who grew up in Washington state. "He has brought so much attention to the sport. I remember 12 years ago when I was a junior, the Tour was an hour highlight total. Then, it got to be they were showing it at night, then live coverage during the day, plus replays and now prime time, too. There's a lot more focus on it than years ago, and a big part of that has been because of his story.
"I think American cycling is the healthiest it's ever been, with as many people riding overall and at the top rider levels. And the exciting thing about that is it just builds on itself. The more we're successful racing in Euorpe, the more likely we are to be more successful."
While there are other cyclists for whom some of us root, while there are many recreational cyclists who rode well before Armstrong became a national name, we've all had an easier ride in the past decade because of his broad, powerful slipstream.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.