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Headstrong Armstrong? : America's Best Cyclist Since LeMond Will Succeed or Fail on Own Terms

August 26, 1994|ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"All you hear from these guys, 'Oh, the curse. The rainbow jersey weighs 20 pounds,' " Armstrong said. "I got really scared and worried about that. I was not going to let anything interfere with my training."

So, on "Lance Armstrong Day" in Austin last winter, Armstrong could not be found during the ceremony. He was cycling.

Episodes such as that gave Armstrong a bad reputation when all he was trying to do was protect himself.

"A lot of people forget that I'm just 22," he said. "They are expecting you to be a 40-year-old politician."

That has never been his style. He's always had the tact of a bowling shirt.

Armstrong went to Europe with Texas bravado, telling the cycling press how he would overwhelm the Euro competition. Those who had ridden for years on the circuit were a bit insulted. They wanted more humility from an American.

Armstrong might never replace LeMond as a cycling icon, but he will compete on his terms.

What is best for the sport?

"Is it a guy who wears his helmet every day?" Armstrong asked. "Is it a guy who never says a bad word? Is it a guy who has no character? Or is it a guy who wins races?

"I'm not going to be everybody's dream boy. I'm going to win bike races and if that's your dream, then I'm your dream."

Just when it seems he is finished, he isn't.

"Cyclists as a whole are just not exactly cutting-edge-type people. I don't want to say they're nerds, but they don't understand personalities very well.

"I certainly don't want to be Charles Barkley. Deion Sanders is not the answer either. You have to have a personality, but you also have to have some (decorum)."

LeMond, who handled outside pressures as well as any world-famous athlete, sees a younger version of himself in Armstrong. LeMond said that before a hunting accident in 1986 altered his career, he wanted to win every race he entered.

"Just like Lance," he said.

His advice to Armstrong: Start picking objectives because it is impossible to succeed in all facets of cycling. For LeMond, that meant foregoing the spring classics to win the Tour de France, which led to greater spoils and plenty of criticism that he was not a complete racer.

Armstrong may do the opposite. So far, he has shown more potential in the one-day races than in the major tours.

Time will tell.

Armstrong still is serving an apprenticeship. But he is trying.

Since breaking up with a Texas girlfriend, Armstrong has spent the season with a Dutch rider, Danielle Overgaag. That has helped. So has the familiarity with the cultural milieu.

"It's becoming less foreign to me," he said, his twang sounding softer around the edges.

It might never replace Texas, but for now, it is home.

So, he keeps pedaling.

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