Looking for Mr. Armstrong

FRANCE I am cycling up the 13 kilometers of LAlpe de Huez with Greg Lemond. He still enjoys rock-star status in Europe, nearly a decade after winning the last of his three Tour de France races. Thousands line the roadside, tailgating in anticipation of the coming peloton, behaving more like a raucous drunken assemblage than the reverential cycling purists so common in the United States. He waves, makes jokes, stops frequently to honor autograph requests.

A French television camera crew pull alongside in their car and beg an interview In rapid French, Lemond happily agrees. We stop. A microphone is clipped to his yellow-and-green polka-dotted Lemond Tours jersey. The questions begin. When an Irish fan leans in close to surreptitiously touch Lemond just touch him, as if his fame had a healing aura the interviewer takes the opportunity to ask the man, in English, about Gregs physical condition. Do you think he looks fat? the host with the ample bottom says, nodding at Gregs thick middle.

No I dont, the Irishman answers. I think he looks healthy.

A true answer, for Lemond is not fat, merely approaching 40. He looks like a man, with square shoulders and broad lats and biceps too big for a cyclist and squint marks around his eyes from one too many days cycling before the advent of performance sunglasses. But he was once the most dominant cyclist in the world. In the publics eye, his body will always be 25 and skinny. How many of us look like or would even want to look like we did at 25?

Then the questions turn to Lance Armstrong, as they always do at this 1999 Tour de France. The young man too long entangled in being labeled The Next Greg Lemond is in the process of becoming just Lance Armstrong, all-American boy. Does it pain Greg to see another American doing so well at the Tour?

No, Lemond says sincerely, for he is nothing if not guileless. I couldnt be happier.

Lemond has reconciled himself to the simple awareness that the torch in American cycling has been passed. Even if Armstrong did not go on to win this years Tour, in one gutsy moment, American cycling finally matured. And as I climb LAlpe de Huez 21 switchbacks and 13 percent grade on a day so hot my sweat leaves a trail like wet bread crumbs on the pavement, I distract myself from the pain by reliving the moment.

It came on July 13, when the Tour entered the Alps for a 120-mile stage from Le Grand Bornand to Sestrieres. Lemond is visiting the Tour as a guide, leading a dozen American cyclists along portions of the course in the mornings. The peloton passes through in the afternoon. As if riding the Tour de France course with Lemond is not enough of a cycling fantasy camp, the Lemond mystique magically opens doors. After a two-hour ride from our hotel to the starting area in Le Grand Bornand, we come upon barricades lined with thousands of spectators. On the other side, the peloton warm up casually, as if preparing for just another easy days ride instead of 120 miles of intense climbing and 55-mph descents. To keep the spectators away, an army of gendarmes man the impenetrable barricades, one stationed every 10 feet.

Lemond leads us to the barricades. The crowd magically parts as he is recognized. He works the group like a politician, moving forward while tossing off quips and shaking hands and enduring fingers straining just to touch his jersey. The gendarme who steps forward to stop the advance is no less surprised, and he admits Lemond grandly. Lemond steps through the portal, nodding to the gendarme that were with him. No problem.

Lemond, greeting one old riding acquaintance after another, wants to know one thing: Wheres Lance? While Armstrong and Lemond are friends, Lemond only arrived in France the day before, and the two havent had the chance to speak since the start of this Tour. With Armstrong having regained the yellow jersey with a blistering time trial two days prior, its Lemonds goal to find Lance and offer advice that only a former wearer of the hallowed jersey can. Chris Boardman, George Hincappie, Frankie Andreu all shrug as Lemond poses the question for almost an hour. Even U.S. Postal Service Team officials Lances team profess no knowledge. They suggest Lemond try the team hotel that night.

Where are you guys staying?

I dont know. Youll just have to look for us.

The questioning continues.

Word comes that Lance is holed up in a small trailer, awaiting the start. Lemond jumps on his bike. Lets go, he says excitedly. I pedal in his wake to the small Winnebago parked near the team cars and porta-potties. Two men stand outside the door, one guarding the entrance and another holding Lances trusty steed, a patriotic blue Trek that seems too compact to be the performance machine that will carry the yellow jersey.

Greg is ushered inside. A hand is placed on my chest by the guy at the door when I try to follow. Wait out here.

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