The most excruciating climbs in the Tour de France--steep, twisting mountain roads that chew up car engines, let alone a cyclist's legs--defy the sport's numerical rating system. They are simply labeled hors categorie, or beyond categorization.
As Lance Armstrong readies for his campaign to win a fourth consecutive Tour, the same tag could be applied to him.
The 30-year-old Texan appears to be at the peak of his athletic ability and has no clear-cut challenger in the 2,034-mile race, which begins Saturday in Luxembourg. With success has come a certain serenity. Armstrong, who leaves little to chance, said he has never been so prepared.
"I feel better than ever," Armstrong said of himself and his U.S. Postal Service team. "I feel strong. I feel like I know what we're about to do. I feel calmer tackling a three-week race."
He is also riding high image-wise. Thanks to the public's continuing reverence for the story of his comeback from testicular cancer, Armstrong has become a cultural and marketing phenomenon even though cycling still dwells in the margins of American sport.
"You could not script that kind of greatness," said Nova Lanktree, a matchmaker for athletes and corporate advertisers who is executive vice president of Lanktree Sports in Skokie, Ill., a division of CSMG.
Armstrong has an annual income approaching $10 million, more than half of which comes from endorsements. Corporations shell out six-figure fees for the privilege of having him address their employees.
Lanktree called Armstrong's appeal to national and mainstream advertisers "singularly amazing."
"He's transcended the sport," she said. "I know it's a cliche, but that's what he's done. I don't think I would have predicted that four years ago. Everything about him invites affection and admiration."
Armstrong is in a category of his own, symbolically set off by the Tour leader's yellow jersey. Everything he has touched since his recovery has turned some shade of gold.
Although his saga may seem mythical, friends say Armstrong stands atop a pyramid constructed with consuming attention to detail. He is selective and exacting about the way he trains, the commercial opportunities he pursues, and the people he allows into his inner circle, even as he continues to live a high-profile existence because of his significance to cancer survivors.
Armstrong is most comfortable in an untucked shirt and jeans, rolling around with his kids or indulging in the occasional Mexican meal washed down with a margarita or a beer.
But he often displays a sort of flinty, game-day reserve in public, saving the best of his dry wit for his buddies, his compassion and charm for his cancer work and his slap-happy moments for his family.
He may never have the commercial clout of a Tiger Woods or a Michael Jordan, which suits him fine.
"He's at least as famous as he wants to be," said ESPN's Chris Fowler, who met the defending Tour champion when Armstrong was a 16-year-old triathlete and has remained close to him.
"There's a unique aspect to his celebrity, and it's a tough burden to carry sometimes," Fowler said. "Cancer survivors want him to hear their testimonials. They want him to look them in the eye and tell them things are going to be all right. Given that, I think he's made wise choices. The last thing he wants to be seen as is exploitative."
Armstrong's foundation devoted to research and support for cancer survivors is growing exponentially. Contributions have doubled in each of the last two years, reaching $9 million in 2001.
His family is thriving. Armstrong and his wife, Kristin, have 7-month-old twin daughters, Isabelle and Grace, and a toddler son, Luke, all conceived through in-vitro fertilization. The couple is building a ranch on land they purchased outside his home base of Austin, Texas. They have named the property Milagro, the Spanish word for miracle.
Single when he received his grim prognosis six years ago, Armstrong banked his sperm when he was advised that treatment probably would render him sterile.
The episode is one of many recounted in his autobiography, which has sold 500,000 copies and is considered doctrine by numerous cancer survivors.
"I expected to sell about 10 copies," Armstrong said. "I had a great time doing it and I put down my life story truthfully and honestly. For me that was enough.
"I never considered myself anything different or anything special. As I've said many times, I did what I had to do to come back to the job and the sport and try to be the best."
The fact that he made it--and that his showcase event, unlike the Olympics, takes place annually--has kept his marketability high.
"We try to be careful," Armstrong said. "This all gets so cheesy when you start talking about brands and strategies and tactics."