In May of last year, Lance Armstrong was riding in the Pyrenees, preparing for the upcoming Tour de France. He had just completed the seven-and-a-half-mile ride up Hautacam, a treacherous mountain that rises 4,978 feet above the French countryside. It was 36 degrees and raining, and his team's director, Johan Bruyneel, was waiting with a jacket and a ride back to the training camp. But Lance wasn't ready to go. “It was one of those moments in my life I'll never forget,” he told me. “Just the two of us. I said, ‘You know what, I don't think I got it. I don't understand it.’ Johan said, ‘What do you mean? Of course you got it. Let's go.’ I said, ‘No, I'm gonna ride all the way down, and I'm gonna do it again.’ He was speechless. And I did it again.” Lance got it; he understood Hautacam—in a way that would soon become very clear. It's a story Lance likes to tell, and for good reason. If there's one thing that sets him apart from the dozens of elite cyclists he has beaten in the past two Tours de France, it's that he trains the hardest of all, especially in the spring, when he and the team he leads, US Postal Service Pro Cycling, ride up and down the Alps and the Pyrenees. He calls these rides a trade secret, something that no other team does; they're a major part of a rigorous training program. Lance quite possibly wants to win more than anyone else in the world.
Two months later, in the middle of the 2000 Tour de France, French journalists thought they had found another secret of Lance's. A camera crew for the France 3 TV network filmed two men from Lance's team leaving their hotel room with several bags of garbage and putting them into a car. The crew followed the car for the next few days and eventually filmed the occupants throwing the bags into a roadside trash bin sixty miles from the hotel. After the car left, the crew opened the bags. What they found—bloody compresses and empty medicine packaging—looked suspiciously like evidence of doping. To the French media, though, everything Lance had done in the past year had looked suspiciously like doping.
The video wasn't broadcast until November, after the French police got hold of it and a full-scale judicial investigation of Lance was under way. What got the prosecutor's attention was evidence of Actovegin, a legal substance considered by some to have the same performance-enhancing capabilities as an illegal one, erythropoietin, or EPO, the drug that has turned cycling upside down over the past decade. Some athletes use Actovegin in conjunction with EPO. A French court would eventually order urine and blood samples taken from Lance during the Tour to be analyzed. The ensuing attention would get so ugly that Lance would consider not racing in the 2001 Tour. “We are absolutely innocent,” he said not long after the story broke. “It's just weird. When you take into consideration that we're not even talking about a banned substance, and the fact that the inquiry is so late, something's not right.” It turned out that the camera crew from state-run France 3 had been shadowing the US Postal doctor for days. To the head of USA Cycling, the whole prolonged mess was clearly a witch-hunt. To French fans and sportswriters, things weren't so obvious. “Why throw your garbage away on the highway?” they asked. “What are you trying to hide?”
Lance has fought the French before, and won. Indeed, the 29-year-old just plain likes to fight—it's why he's alive today. Lance beat cancer; he beat death. Then he went out and won the Tour, the hardest race in the world, inspiring anyone who ever dreamed of transcending physical despair. He became an icon, a corporate brand, known by his first name, an American hero whose whole life has become a parable, personifying everything we like to see in ourselves—courage, perseverance, triumphing over adversity, winning through sheer grit and grace. Who isn't moved by the images of Lance riding up a mountain with a look of absolute determination on his face, standing stoically with other cancer survivors, raising his baby son aloft in exultation, or parading victoriously through the streets of Paris? Lance seems chosen.
Across the pond, people see things quite differently. It takes more than pluck and guts to win the Tour de France, they say. It takes performance-enhancing drugs, and Lance is no different from anybody else. He's a doper, a drug cheat. “If he isn't a doper,” says British writer Andrew Jennings, the author of The Great Olympic Swindle , an account of corruption and drug abuse at the Games, “he must stand almost alone in his sport.” Accusers—from an award-winning Irish journalist to a muckraking Frenchman and an American doctor—have no proof but plenty of circumstantial evidence. They say cycling has lost its soul to doping; Lance is their Antichrist, a man whose significance they resent and whose protestations of innocence they mock. The French complain the loudest (the France 3 allegations are still unresolved). Twice now the brash American has won their national prize, and in all likelihood, this month he'll do it again. “An American looks at my story,” Lance told me, “and says, ‘Hell, yeah, of course he did it. He's motivated, he's crazy, he's passionate.’ A French guy, he says, ‘C'est pas possible’—it's not possible. The stigma there around cancer is what we had probably thirty years ago.” In Lance's distinctly American way, anything is possible if you want it bad enough. That, say his accusers, is the problem.
Riding With Lance
Like most of my countrymen, I've never taken cycling seriously. The sport is so European, and damned if we're going to like it just because we're supposed to. Guys in silly outfits riding bikes in places like France—how tough could that be? I asked Lance if I could ride along with him