It's Tour time, baby!

Ever since 1999, July has meant one thing in my mind: Lance in France. The 2005 Tour de France kicks off Saturday morning, and I'm all geeked up. One thing, though, does have me down. I'm not headed over to watch the Tour in person for the first time in four years. The cost proved prohibitive this time around, and I'm going to ache as much as if I had to work through the Christmas holiday season. There's nothing like being in France and watching the Tour in person. It's the type of vacation I could do every year for the rest of my life, and for a while I thought I just might. Everyone should try it at least once.

I'll miss riding through the beautiful sun-drenched French countryside, hundreds of thousands sunflowers swaying in the wind; suffering up the gorgeous but soaring Alps as if climbing into the azure skies; inching up the steep and unforgiving Pyrenees in sweet agony; eliciting a few cheers of my own from spectators from all over the world, camped out on the roadside waiting for the Tour to pass by; burning so many calories that no amount of delicious French food can keep me from dropping a few pounds; struggling to make sense of sweat-drenched paper maps and unmarked backcountry roads; French cheese and bread; the thrumming bass of helicopter blades from further on down the mountain, portending the arrival of the head of the peloton; the sound of several hundred thousand fans, worked up to a frenzy; partying with crazy Dutch contingent on a mountaintop finish (so generous the past two years with their satellite television, their beer, their music); the invigorating chaos; feeling the breeze from these god-like cyclists screaming by at 35 mph just a foot or two from my face; les femmes françaises; discussing cycling with people who've followed the sport nearly all their lives, who know cycling like few people in the American public do; Paris.

I wish I could be there to watch Lance's last Tour. As those of you close to me know, I feel a particular kinship with Armstrong. I lost my mother and grandmother to cancer in 1998, the year Armstrong came back from cancer to prepare for the Tour. My left knee exploded (just about) that same year, that awful year, and after surgery my physical therapist prescribed cycling, a low-impact way to regain mobility in my knee and strength in my legs. In 1999, when Lance Armstrong shocked the cycling world by winning his first Tour de France, I purchased a road bike and became a cycling junkie. In 2000 I completed the Seattle to Portland (STP) one-day ride with a group of friends. In 2001 I got a taste of what it means to suffer in the mountains during the Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day (RAMROD).

In 2002 I really learned what it meant to suffer in the mountains during a Tour de France cycling camp led by Lance Armstrong's coach, Chris Carmichael. Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux in 1967, and under a scorching French sun I thought I might join him. In 2003, on my second tour of duty in the south of France, Lance survived all sorts of calamities to tie the record of five Tour victories. And last year, my most recent trip to France, Lance broke that record.

Though American television has carried very little of Lance's race season, I've followed his performances online. He looked strong in the Dauphiné Libéré, and he looks to be peaking at just the right time. Meanwhile, Jan Ullrich looks just a bit heavy and slow, as if he'll have to ride himself into shape during the Tour yet again. Some things never change.

I don't see any reason why Lance shouldn't be favored to win again. He has Tour preparation and his team dynamics down to a science. Despite living at the eye of a hurricane of publicity and fame, he has an iron grip on every variable in his control.

The team he's bringing to the Tour de France is, on paper, the best cycling stage team ever. The new ICU rules requiring teams to enter all the Grand Tours actually consolidated power with the top teams, and Discovery Channel Cycling is now the strongest team in the world. Among those shepherding Lance around the outside of France:

  • Jose Azevedo, sixth in the Tour in 2002 and fifth in the Tour last year.

  • Manuel Beltran, three time top-10 finisher in the Vuelta.

  • George Hincapie, Lance's faithful lieutenant, someone who's evolved into the ultimate domestique. Also the guy who's lived every male cyclist's dream by hooking up with one of the Tour de France podium girls.

  • Yaroslav Popovych, perhaps the best of the rising young stars in the cycling world and Lance's future successor as Discovery Channel team leader.

  • Jose Luis Rubiera, four time top-10 finisher at the Vuelta and Giro.

  • Paolo Savoldelli, winner of the Giro in 2002 and this year!

If they stay healthy, they'll be a juggernaut.

At this stage in his career Lance would not ride the Tour de France unless he felt he could and would win. The athlete Lance reminds me of most is Michael Jordan, and not just because they both have their own buildings at Nike HQ. Both are hyper competitive, brash and magnificently arrogant, and both maximize their freakish genetic athletic gifts with an unmatched work ethic. Both say the right things to the press, managing their public images with meticulous care, yet ask any of their opponents and they'll tell you that Lance and Michael are vicious, ruthless killers. I remember reading an article by Jason Williams (the one who shot someone on his estate) in which Williams described Michael as a "hard, hard man," that if you crossed Mike on the court he'd track you down and utter, "I'll f***ing break you" in what I can only imagine was a voice from hell. Mike even cracked many a teammate in practice, before they'd even made it into an actual game. One of the images of Michael I'll always remember is his face-off with Xavier McDaniel in the 1992 Eastern Finals. The Knicks had been beating up on the Bulls all series, and the X-Man had finally crossed a line. Michael locked foreheads with McDaniel, shooting him a look of raw fury and uttering what I doubt was the Lord's prayer. Then Jordan went out and led the Bulls to a Game 7 rout.

Various stories of how Lance and Mike gain a psychological edge on their chief competitors circulate among followers of the sport like myths. Lance calling his competitors during the offseason from mountainside climbs and asking them if they knew where he was. Michael trash-talking opponents like Charles Barkley during offseason rounds of golf, probing for any sense of doubt or weakness. Jeff Van Gundy called Michael out on it one season in the press, and the next time the Bulls played the Knicks, a game I was at, Jordan dropped 51 on the Knicks and then cussed Van Gundy out from the court after points 50 and 51 dropped through the net.

They both also demand absolute loyalty from those around them. Slip up once and you'll go from the inner circle to the doghouse just like that, and that doghouse is like a max security prison. Pippen was the perfect teammate for Jordan because he didn't want to be the alpha dog. Hincapie is the perfect sidekick for Lance because for three weeks each July he has no thought other than to put and keep Lance in yellow. Lance's teammates who've left for other teams--Kevin Livingston, Roberto Heras, Floyd Landis--well, let's just say Michael Corleone telling Fredo, "You're dead to me now" comes to mind. One can't shake the sense that even those loyal to Michael or Lance are scared of them. Tiger Woods is the same way, as his former caddy will attest. At this year's Tour of Georgia, when Lance Armstrong helped lead out teammate Tom Danielson to the overall race lead over ex-teammate Floyd Landis on the brutal Brasstown Bald climb, Lance pointed at Landis and then the race clock as they crossed the finish, as if to point out that Floyd could have had the race lead if he'd just stayed by Lance's side.

Even if they didn't have enemies, I suspect Lance and Michael would conjure some up. Both athletes have origin stories for their greatness, almost like comic book heroes. Peter Parker became Spiderman when bitten by a radioactive spider and when his neglect of a criminal led to his Uncle Ben's death. Michael Jordan set out to prove the world wrong when cut from his high school basketball team. Lance Armstrong carries an eternal chip on his shoulder because his father abandoned he and his mother to grow up in a rough neighborhood in Dallas. Later, the cancer that nearly killed him actually transformed him into a champion. Mentally, he had cheated death, and no human competitor could ever intimidate him. He'd live life to the fullest because he had been given a second chance. Physically, it didn't sap his power but did shave some ten or fifteen pounds off his frame, turning him into a that rare combination: a cyclist who could climb and time trial. Who knows if these events have any significance at all? The stories may be passed around more for the rest of us than for Lance or Michael.

Both elevated their sports in unique ways. Jordan, as documented in Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam, Jordan was a once in a lifetime player on the court and off the court, transcending his country, sport, and race to become an international mega celebrity. The NBA is still searching for Jordan's successor as its international mega-ambassador. Armstrong's first Tour win came a year after international cycling seemed ready to collapse under a series of drug scandals. Though cycling still has the drug-use sword of Damocles hanging over it, Armstrong has stayed clean and remained the sport's top story. Having beat cancer, Armstrong is more than just a cyclist; he's an living miracle, an all-purpose motivational speaker, and a deity in the cancer survivor community. Though not everyone loves to see one person dominate a sport year after year, having a single lightning rod for the fan's adoration and attention or hatred allows mythologies and legends to sprout. The NBA hasn't been the same draw since Jordan retired from the Bulls, and I highly doubt the Tour de France will see the same number of American spectators in 2006 that it did in 2004.

Lance's toughest competitors in the 2005 Tour? Himself and bad luck. He's definitely older, not quite as dominant in the time trials on mountains as he once was. For a professional cyclist he's an old man at 34. In a three week stage race, when only minutes or seconds separate the top several riders after over 90 hours on the road, any number of mishaps can cost a rider the race. A crash, an injury, one bad day on a mountain, food poisoning, an overzealous fan, a political protester, mechanical failure.

After that, his toughest competitors, as named by Johan Brunyeel, will be Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov, Ivan Basso. Ullrich is a great time trialist but isn't explosive on climbs, and he's like Patrick Ewing or Karl Malone to Armstrong's Michael Jordan: perhaps just not vicious or cold-blooded enough to deliver the winning blow. Vino is a brave, aggressive rider, but not a great time trialist, and he'll be marked the whole race through this time around. Basso hung with Armstrong on two mountaintop finishes last year, but his time trialing isn't in that topmost echelon. Levi Leipheimer, and old teammate of Armstrong's, is also a strong time trialist and climber, but his team may not be strong enough to carry him through. None of Armstrong's former teammates has ever really damaged Lance in the Tour, and there may be a psychological barrier at play there.

Two ways to get pumped for the Tour this week: read Lance Armstrong's War by Daniel Coyle and watch the Lance Week programming on the Discovery Channel family of cable networks. Sang first alerted me to Coyle's book (his cousin used to date Coyle), and then I spotted a few rave reviews in the press. I'm a sucker for any non-fiction Lance Armstrong and/or cycling-related book, and the details at the book's official website sealed the deal. In particular, don't miss the Q&A with Coyle about Lance. Coyle moved to Europe and followed Lance for the year of his sixth Tour de France win, living my dream life, and in doing so, Coyle appears to have captured a more intimate portrait of the man. Most people who've been around cycling for many years know that Lance can be brash in a Texas-sized way, and Coyle donned his wings for a flyby of the sun. This quote from a Velonews interview with Coyle is revealing: "he is a good hero for my 10-year old son, but I wouldn't necessarily want him to date my daughter." Sounds like Michael Jordan, no?

I just received my review copy of the book today, and it will be a miracle if I don't devour it in the next few days.

Tour coverage in the U.S. will be on OLNTV, as usual, live from 8:30 to 11:30am EST daily, with several replays on into the evening. In most years, the Prologue doesn't provide much separation among the race contenders. This year, however, the Tour begins with a medium length time trial rather than the more customary short prologue time trial. This will limit the top finishers to true time trialers, of which Lance and Ullrich are two of the best, and it might provide significant separation among the contenders right away. Santiago Botero and Michael Rogers are also excellent time trialists, and Lance's former teammates Leipheimer and Floyd Landis could be near the top as well.

Follow daily updates on the Tour online at Velonews. Find collections of links at the Tour de France blog, which I'll be checking out this year for the first time and through which I discovered this gorgeous infographic on Lance (PDF). Read commentary at The Paceline and Team Discovery Channel websites. And this year Sirius is offering a daily Lance in France podcast during the Tour; iTunes 4.9 makes it a cinch to subscribe.

And to ease the blogging load on myself so I can keep up with the Tour, I'll try to post bits from my personal journal from my first visit to the Tour de France in 2002.