TOUR DE FRANCE, STAGE 1
Individual Time Trial, 15.5 km, Monaco
July 4, 2009

 

Here he is, Lance Armstrong. And there he goes, a blue-and-yellow-and-white figure on a black-and-yellow bike streaking over the gray surface of a road in Monaco late on a summer morning, the sun’s yellow pale in comparison to the shoulders of his jersey, the sky’s blue like nothing more than the original idea for the magnificent tones that wrap around his back and legs. He is bent forward and low over the top of the bike, arcing himself butt to fingertips from the saddle to the handlebar like an airfoil, like a thing dreamed of and studied in prototypes and finally forged in perfection to round out the top profile of a bicycle in a way that makes it slippery against the forces of friction.

His feet each make a complete circle about 120 times a minute, or two revolutions a second, which is roughly the same cadence Usain Bolt maintains for 9.71 seconds to win a gold medal. Today, Lance Armstrong will sustain this furious whirling of his feet for around 20 minutes. Some days he does it for six hours. This maelstrom occurs with a precision that if visible would surprise the untrained eye, and contains a daintiness that the sport’s acolytes would find embarrassing. At the lowest point of a stroke Armstrong’s foot lies almost flat on the pedal. As his leg begins to pull up on the pedal his foot starts to point down, and this oppositional change continues until his foot is almost vertical, a ballerina’s pose that is imperceptible as it appears and vanishes in around one-eighth of a second. Then his foot comes over the top of the pedal stroke. His heel drops, and the muscles of his leg begin pushing the pedal forward with visible force. The calves have ripped themselves in half lengthwise by their own development, a deep V cut into their center in a muscle configuration peculiar to cyclists. Whatever tissue that was not useful for the execution of this pedal stroke has been eroded by years and years and years of miles and miles and miles of training. The thigh is its equal on a larger scale, the glutes and the hamstrings also, with everything extraneous scooped away. It is an act of violence and disregard, the way these muscles ram the foot forward then plunge it down to the lowest point of the revolution to start the whole stroke over. Twice a second Lance Armstrong does this with each leg, while its opposite leg in unthinking synchronicity performs the counter movement, the frightening muscular explosion on one side while the ballerina’s pose is struck on the other.

His upper body betrays none of this effort. It floats placid above the dervish of his legs, covered in a skinsuit that appears more skin than suit in the way it ripples with every contour of his physique. The fabric of this suit draws sweat from his skin out to the air to be evaporated in seconds and cool him, and it also has been blended and tailored in such a way to soothe the swirling air into a smooth flow that diverges around his body instead of battering against it. The suit was custom-made, yet between the measuring and today’s Stage 1 time trial of the 2009 Tour de France, Armstrong shed more weight than anyone could have guessed. He is lighter for this Tour de France than he has ever been, even in his prime from 1999 to 2005, and there are wrinkles around the armpits and the backs of his quads where the material sags a little, unable to conform to the new concavities Armstrong has carved into his body. The zipper of the skinsuit is undone a few inches, a casual act that doubtless breaks the hearts of the suit’s designers and aerodynamic experts, who might have worked months to eliminate such miniscule amounts of drag. Snaking out of the unzippered collar is a black cord that leads to a radio earpiece taped into Armstrong’s right ear with white medical tape gone a little greasy from some mechanic’s fingertips. The pull tab of the zipper swings as Armstrong pedals, its metronomic motion coming not from his upper body, which remains still, but from a slight rocking of the entire bike itself.

This minor sway does not affect his steering. Any disruption it might cause is absorbed somewhere during its transmission from his torso through his arms, which are bent at the elbow nearly 90 degrees, then stretched out along aero bars that protrude in front of his bike. One black-gloved hand lies unmoving on each bar, and if you could touch these hands you would be startled by how relaxed they are. He is not clenching the bar but resting his fingers around it, the way someone might lightly palm but not grip a handrail on a set of familiar stairs. To clench would be to direct energy into something not necessary for propelling his bike forward. His hands move when the driver in the car behind him, his team director Johan Bruyneel, speaks to him through the earpiece and tells him to shift or to change his speed or set up for a corner or a climb or a long, straight flat section of the course. When this happens Armstrong’s fingers snap forward and make a subtle but crisp movement that clicks a lever on the end of the bar, which pulls a twined steel cable that moves the rear derailleur either right or left, dragging the chain onto a different cog.

Right now, as I watch him, Armstrong’s chain is meshed over a cog with thirteen teeth, one of ten cogs clustered onto the back wheel of his bike. The chain wraps around this cog, threads through the derailleur, and continues forward to pass around what is called the big chainring, which is one of the two toothed circles that are driven by the  crankset attached to the pedals locked to Armstrong’s shoes with cleats. The big chainring has fifty-three teeth, and in this gear combination (which in cycling jargon is identified simply as 53-13), one complete revolution of a pedal moves the bicycle forward a little more than 28 feet. At his cadence of 120 rpm that’s just over 56 feet per second, which is somehow easiest to picture by imagining something impossible: Spider-Man climbing a six-story building in one tick of a clock’s hand. More prosaically, that’s about 38 mph, a figure unimpressive in the car-centric and sedentary context of mainstream America but staggering to anyone who has ever tried to ride a bicycle with ambition.

Inside Armstrong’s body, an enormous amount of energy is being created — and wasted — to make this speed possible. More than sixty trillion mitochondria are firing inside his cells, turning sugar and oxygen and other molecular substances into the force that contracts and expands the muscles that, unfortunately, deliver only about 23 percent his power to the chain of the bicycle. Humans, even the most efficient ones like Lance Armstrong, are terrible engines, and most everything we produce is lost as heat. Even so, those sixty-trillion-plus intracellular explosions are at this moment managing to pump around 420 watts of power into the bicycle’s drivetrain, nearly three times what a normal human could sustain over an extended period. Armstrong’s heart pumps about nine gallons of blood per minute, not quite double an average man’s. His lungs inhale and process about three liters of oxygen each minute — imagine inhaling the contents of three of those big plastic soda jugs in 60 seconds — about twice as much as typical.

His face is unremarkable. It is set in a grimace, but one not uncommon to his expressions off the bike. His lips look chapped, as they frequently do off the bike as well, and thin and pale. When his lungs bellow out carbon dioxide from his body, his mouth purses. If anything, age ravages his face more than the effort of riding. His nose is starting to sag at the point and recede at the nostrils, forming a hawkish look. There are half-oval wrinkles, once dimples, from his nose to his mouth. His eyes behind dark wraparound glasses are blue but a thinner blue than when he was young, and they appear flat these days, a little smeary at the edges where once they were sharp. He is thirty-seven years old, that’s all his face says. It does not say he is going 38 mph.

He is thirty-seven and he has returned to the sport after a four-year absence to great acclaim and controversy. His most fierce and bitter rival is on his own team. He has suffered in 2009 like never before and, for much of the race season, he has appeared for the first time in anyone’s memory to be human on a bicycle. Now, on this 15.5-kilometer course that each man rides alone against the clock, under a threat of rain he is pedaling his bicycle close to the riot fencing and fans that line the street. These spectators lean over as far as they can, and many thrust cameras out at him. When he cuts a corner tight, the heads, hands, and cameras seem about to hit his face, then are pulled away in a panic at the last possible second. Anyone standing there could reach out and touch him if they really wanted to — more like getting slapped as he hurtled past, but still: to touch him. Did any fan ever touch Michael Jordan as he dribbled? Babe Ruth as he swatted homers? Anyone could touch Lance Armstrong as he rides. No one does. Police stand inside the barriers in the corners, and here and there where the crowd is thickest, but as Lance Armstrong rides toward them the police watch him instead of the fans and they turn and watch him go, then remember they are supposed to be watching the crowd and do so after Lance is out of sight. The Astana team car follows Armstrong closer than anyone who is not a professional cyclist or a team director would judge prudent. Its wheels squeal as it tries to match his speed through the tight corners of narrow European roads. A motorcycle with a television cameraman buckled onto the back of the seat follows Armstrong, roars ahead of him, fades back to get a close-up from beside him. The cameraman tilts toward him. The fans pop flashes in his face. Bruyneel talks into his ear. Because the radios used in time trials are one-way devices, Armstrong can’t reply.

I see all of this. But that is only because I understand and love cycling in a way few do. In truth, Lance Armstrong is a blur.

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