This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And this is The Score.
The Tour de France will end its three-week grind this Sunday on the Champs-Elysses in Paris. For me, the race ended yesterday. The steep ascents of both the Alps and the Pyrenees, make or break a rider-s chance for wearing the final day-s maillot jaune, or winner-s yellow jersey. And now it is echoed across the French mountainsides. Lance Armstrong is king of the climbs. The ascent yesterday was in a place of grand mystique. It-s called L-Alpe d-Huez, a ski resort very near Grenoble in the Southeast of the country. The climb is relatively short, about 10 miles, compared to the long days of 100-plus miles on the route. But it-s steep and unrelenting, with 21 hairpin switchbacks and one stretch of more than a mile at a 10% grade. Do you know what a 10% grade looks like? Imagine this. You-re walking up a steep mountain road, so steep that you can reach out and touch the road chest high in front of you. It-s a climb that can humble even the most fit among Tour de France riders.
Yesterday, a new twist was added to the infamous L-Alpe d-Huez. Instead of making it the end of a longer ride that usually includes lots of flats and some dramatic descents, they made the mountain an individual time trial. Each rider grinds up the grade on his own, unable to rest a bit behind the wheels of his teammates, the usual modus operandi for Tour de France competition. Each individual is on the clock and the fastest time wins. The hoped-for rivalry between mega-star Lance Armstrong and former Tour winner Jan Ullrich, from Germany, might have finally heated up in the mountains. The French have been giddy day by day as one of their youth, Thomas Voeckler, has performed above all expectations. And Italian Ivan Basso has matched Lance pedal stroke for pedal stroke. Until yesterday. Until L-Alpe d-Huez.
Lance Armstrong is in a quest for his 6th Tour victory this year, which will put him ahead of the four retired stars who have also won 5. With this potentially huge moment in history escalating throughout this year-s race, you strained to pick up on a chink in the Armstrong armor--now that he-s 32, on the older side for a pro cyclist. You were impressed with Basso and Voeckler and Richard Virenque and Tyler Hamilton. Until yesterday. Until L-Alpe d-Huez.
Hamilton didn-t even make it that far due to internal bruising in his back. The other three bowed in submission to the king of the climbs. Lance was up out of the saddle, pumping in his high cadence, as the rest of the field sat most of the way up. Just short of a million fans crowded the course and made a very narrow thoroughfare for the riders to thread through. The crowd on the final day on the Champs Elysees isn-t anywhere near that big. Many of the fans arrived in high spirits of anticipation at the mountain a week ago and, with only a few seconds to see their favorite riders swoosh by them, they waved flags, reached out and touched the quickly fleeting jerseys and wrote good luck wishes on the asphalt in chalk. They allowed only a bike width to pass at some points and when Lance pumped by, they pressed even harder into the middle of the mountain lane, in hopes of at least once being that close to a living legend.
Much has been written about the need for a great champion to have at least one worthy rival. Well, Lance Armstrong has none. There will be no guessing, betting, analyzing who might come into Paris wearing the signature maillot jaune. You might admire Lance for his courage in the face of multiple cancers. You might not like him for leaving his wife for Sheryl Crowe. You might suspect him of taking illegal performance drugs. All I know is I forgot any other opinions I have had about Lance Armstrong yesterday. Watching him clearly dominate both the talented field and the formidable L-Alpe d-Huez threw me into a new gear of appreciation. This man is not only the king of the climbs. He-s the king, period.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that-s The Score.