As a bright-eyed pre-teen mountain biker who watched Le Tour, the emergence of Lance Armstrong was unsettling. Regardless of what you think of him now, at the time, he was an enigma. Here’s an annoying, loud Texan beating my glum, Droopy Dog look-a-like hero Marco Pantani on Mount Ventoux. He was crass. He wore the wrong color socks on occasion, and he wasn’t French or Italian. So why was he good?
The answer is either a strange concoction of chemicals, a steely, super-competitive mindset or a realistic combination of both. In 2000, he was the defending Tour champion, and by the time the race hit Ventoux, had a comfortable leading margin. The jersey was his, barring a disaster in the final time trial. He lept away from Jan Ullrich, Der Kaiser, as if the big German was pulling triplets in a Burley. He caught one of the greatest climbers in history, Pantani, as if it was absolutely nothing. Pantani was older and losing some of his talents, but he was still a serious an “Angel of the Mountains”.
At the top of the Ventoux, there was no distance markings. The line itself was actually just over the top of the climb, and the road turned over a bit before the riders crossed it. They couldn’t see the line until they were just a few feet from it. Watch the video. Did Lance grab a brake? Did he let Pantani, the elder statesmen, take the win?
He claimed to. Pantani initially said Armstrong hadn’t let him win, before later admitting the stage was gifted, and accusing Armstrong for disrespecting him by patronizing him. The European media was rife with stories about the incident, as there was little else to discuss. Armstrong had the race all but won, and no other rivals challenged him in the time trial. But the lesson was learned. No gifts, Armstrong would later say. For the next five Tours, Armstrong won. He never ceded a stage, and often chased down rivals for the simple point of proving superiority. He would have his team pull back breakaways of riders he didn’t like, or riders he was actively suing at the time. He never gave an inch. No gifts.