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Chain Reaction

Armstrong's conquest of cancer, success in Tour de France make him a fan favorite in U.S., but the French haven't taken to him

September 20, 2002|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — You have come to see the world's best cyclist and are taking the elevator to the 39th floor of a posh hotel to meet him. You wonder what awaits you. You have considered with wonder and awe his four consecutive Tour de France victories. You hope he's not as ruthless with you as he is with his competitors.

You knock.

The door opens.

There stands perhaps the best athlete in the world today.

"Hi, I'm Lance," he says, offering a warm smile and a firm handshake.

The view from Lance Armstrong's suite is priceless. There's Coit Tower in the foreground. Beyond lie San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. Marin County is visible in the distance.

"Yeah, it stinks to be me," he jokes when you're finished admiring the view.

Armstrong arrived in San Francisco to work, though, not moon over the city's spectacular scenery. He rode Sunday in the 109-mile San Francisco Grand Prix, finishing sixth, despite having trained little since his fourth Tour de France victory in July.

The biggest cheers from the thousands of fans lining the hilly course were not for Charles Dionne, a 23-year-old Canadian who outlasted Armstrong and five others at the finish line. Fans of all ages held "Go, Lance" signs and cheered his every move around the city.

Without the requisite training to win, Armstrong nevertheless stayed close until the end--buoyed he would later say--by the adoring crowds along the course. A year ago, in the inaugural race here, he dropped out after 80 miles, disappointing the throngs.

Why try it again? Why bother making eight gut-wrenching climbs up Fillmore Street and its 18% grade, and 13 more up Taylor Street and its 16% grade? Why risk losing to an unknown like Dionne?

"Primarily because it's an American race," Armstrong said on the eve of one of his rare U.S. appearances. "That's probably the most important aspect of it. There are other issues. San Francisco is a great city. The crowds are big and enthusiastic.... "

Winning is not one of them, however.

If Armstrong, who turned 31 Wednesday, has proved nothing else during his four-year reign atop the cycling world, it's that only one race--the Tour de France--truly matters. The rest are tuneups. Or, as in the case of the San Francisco race, an opportunity to give the home fans an up-close view of him in action.

"The Tour de France is the biggest race there is," Armstrong says. "It would be mindless to say that I'm going to win the Tour of Spain or the Tour of Flanders."

Or to put it a way every red-blooded American can understand, he adds: "Once you've won the Super Bowl, you don't shoot for a wild-card spot the next year."

*

You're probably familiar with Armstrong's story, how he battled testicular cancer that spread to other parts of his body and nearly killed him in 1996, how he regained his strength, slowly but certainly, and became the world's dominant cyclist. His four consecutive Tour victories are one shy of the record held by Miguel Indurain of Spain.

You also might have read recently that, upon testing, it was determined that Armstrong's heart is a third larger than the average person's and that his resting pulse rate is often 32 beats a minute. At times of extreme exertion, his pulse rate can soar to 200 beats a minute.

Of course, you know all about the drug accusations.

"I bet I have been drug-tested more than any other athlete in sports history," said Armstrong, who guessed he'd been tested after races and randomly 30 to 50 times in the last 12 months. He has never had a positive test.

In August, a 21-month investigation into allegations that Armstrong's United States Postal Service team used banned substances during the 2000 Tour de France was closed by French authorities because of a lack of evidence.

"I struggle with it," Armstrong said of the suspicion that hovers over him. "One day, I'll probably just stop thinking about it. Drugs are a problem in every sport. In cycling, the spotlight was on it in 1998. It was probably the biggest drug story in the history of sport."

Before the 1998 Tour de France began, an assistant manager for a European cycling team was caught with hundreds of vials of the banned hormone known as EPO (erythropoietin), which increases the oxygen supply to the blood stream and can greatly enhance performance in endurance sports.

The 1998 Tour was nearly canceled.

"I only have a couple of more years left, but the chances are that I'll have to live with it for the rest of my career," Armstrong said of the questions of doping. "I'll continue to do right by my family, my team, my sponsors.... I'll be accountable."

Armstrong has his detractors, among them many French fans who refuse to let the drug accusations fade. He also has staunch defenders, among them comedian-actor Robin Williams.

"It's about friendship, man," said Williams, an avid cyclist who competed in a short race for charity Sunday in San Francisco. "He needs friends over there, riding through all those French."

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