| Lance Armstrong during a practice session with teammate Floyd Landis on the second rest day of the Tour de France on Tuesday. (Reuters)
It is the anger that drives him on and on. Lance Armstrong has fought tooth and nail for everything in life, including life itself, and when he crashed painfully at the foot of Luz-Ardiden on Monday, it was a cold-eyed street fighter who bounced back and proceeded to demolish the epic climb and the opposition.
The Tour de France has rarely seen anything to match his extraordinary charge up the mist-shrouded mountain. It was a highly charged, super-human effort. After a second near calamity when a gear slipped and he almost fell again, Armstrong was up out of his saddle and a Mexican wave of noise and encouragement swept up the valley indicating his miraculous recovery.
It was aided by a fine gesture from his great rival, Jan Ullrich, and others in the leading group who refused to launch an attack, thereby allowing Armstrong the opportunity, should he wish to bust a gut, of regaining contact. After that it was every man for himself. Two years ago it was Armstrong who applied the brakes after Ullrich suffered a crash on the Col de Peyresourde. So this was payback time in the best sense. Armstrong is possibly the only cyclist in the world who could sprint up such a mountain and then lift the pace another couple of notches to reach the line 40 seconds ahead of his rivals.
Afterwards Armstrong wearily spoke of a “tour of too many problems, close calls and near misses” and alluded to other behind-the-scenes dramas which he declined to expand on. No matter. He seems to thrive on adversity. The Texan with attitude has been angry and edgy for much of his life, ever since disowning his absentee father who abandoned his 17-year-old mother. In the early days, he was the archetypal brash American, baiting opponents and failing to show respect.
Later he was angry at his inability to finish the Tour — he abandoned three of his first four attempts — and then, in 1996, came a massive jolt to the system. Testicular cancer with secondaries in his lungs and brain. He bravely raged against the killer disease and eventually emerged on the other side.
Previously untapped sources of courage and strength seemed to flood forth. A man reborn. Then he started riding bikes again and, incredibly, the cyclist who could scarcely complete the Tour suddenly won four in succession. The sceptics raised a collective eyebrow. They could not believe what they were seeing.
He fought accusations of doping when testing positive for steroids in 1999 — it was later decided he had legitimately used the steroid cream to fight a skin complaint — and then his team, US Postal, successfully defended themselves in the courts against accusations of using Actovegin.
And now after a troubled year which has included a separation from his wife, Kristin, he is toughing out the hardest race of his career against another individual who is motivated from within. It is an epic contest and, after previously showing respect rather than admiration, the French public are warming to Armstrong like never before.
Ullrich is another massively talented athlete — a Tour winner in 1997 — fuelled by anger. Again the product of a broken family, he has greedily sought to devour every opportunity that has come his way after spending the first 17 years of his life in communist East Germany. The Daily Telegraph