Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Driven cyclist

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the miraculous life of Lance Armstrong, who has just embarked on his last Tour de France

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Pau, France

Until 1981 no American even so much as rode in the Tour de France. Since then an invading fleet has crossed the Atlantic to dominate what was once a European sport, and a race whose very name is its country’s proud standard. First of the Yanks was Greg LeMond, who won the Tour in 1986, then Bobby Julich, and more recently Tyler Hamilton. After his Olympic triumph last year he is now in disgrace, charged with the faintly ghoulish offence of ‘blood-doping’, transfusing someone else’s blood, although nothing can erase his heroism in the great centennial Tour of two years ago, riding for three weeks in agony from a cracked collarbone.

But Lance Armstrong is in special case — among cyclists, or sportsmen, or heroes. If asked to name the greatest sporting achievement of his lifetime, Richard Williams of the Guardian has said that he would have no hestitation in choosing Armstrong’s consecutive victories in the last six Tours, which surpassed any previous feats. In this year’s race — which began in the Vendée two weeks ago, has been traversing the great Alpine passes this past week, is now in the Pyrenees and finishes in the Champs Elysées on Sunday 24 July — he has no one’s record to beat but his own. For any man to have done this would be almost incredible. For a man who, before winning his first Tour, had fought back from advanced cancer, undergoing everything from chemotherapy to brain surgery, it is some way beyond belief. Who is this extraordinary creature?

His origins are anything but extraordinary. He was born when his mother was 17, never knew his father, and grew up not quite dirt-poor in Austin, the pleasant state capital of Texas. Lance was a precociously gifted athlete, a champion swimmer at 12, then a triathlete, before deciding that, in the title of his later memoir, ‘It’s all about the bike’. In 1993 he became road World Champion at the age of 20, the second American after LeMond, and in his first Tour that year he announced his arrival with éclat by winning a stage, from Ch