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  • Liz Milner
    He s a Grail knight, said University of Maryland English professor Verlyn Flieger, who specializes in myth. Like Galahad, the Round Table knight who finally
    Message 1 of 4 , Jul 4, 2004
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      "He's a Grail knight," said University of Maryland English professor Verlyn
      Flieger, who specializes in myth. Like Galahad, the Round Table knight who
      finally succeeded in his quest for the Holy Grail, Armstrong grew up without
      his natural father, who left his mother when he was a baby. Like many an
      ancient hero, Armstrong's will to succeed has been forged in fire:
      testicular cancer, which invaded his lungs and brain and nearly killed him
      in 1996, when his pro cycling career was starting to flower.

      Starting today, the 32-year-old Armstrong is engaging in the ur-contest:
      against himself. "That is the more interesting and psychologically difficult
      battle," said Flieger. "He's battling against his own record. And he's
      battling against his own body as he approaches the point where his strength
      is not up to the task."


      For the full story see below:

      Tour all about blood, sweat, gears
      Event tests cyclists' ability, endurance and sportsmanship By Sarah Kaufman

      Updated: 9:36 p.m. ET July 03, 2004At a time when elements of Broadway and
      Vegas have invaded so much of the sports world, there is something classic
      about the Tour de France.


      The three-week-long bike race unspools today on a path toward certain pain,
      physical punishment and hazards of all sorts that are unmatched in
      athletics.

      Like completing the Appalachian Trail or running the Iditarod, riding in the
      Tour is at once very simple and richly metaphoric. It is heavy on steak,
      light on sizzle. It is exquisite self-flagellation, whose redemption comes
      in a commingling of anguish and glory.

      The Tour is decidedly medieval. With its platoons of the strongest and
      steeliest cyclists, astride the finest two-wheeled steeds that modern
      engineering can devise, traversing mountains and misery in equal measure and
      adhering to a code of honor that governs everything from bathroom breaks to
      what to do if your key rival crashes (wait politely for him to get back on
      the bike, of course), the Tour resembles nothing so much as a heroic quest
      from the days of King Arthur.

      Sure, most of the competitors are anorexic-looking, hollow-cheeked fellows
      with wan white chests and baby-smooth legs, wearing flashy Spandex and
      oversize insectoid sunglasses. To many, they may look more like large crop
      pests than warrior princes.

      But stick with this for a while. Throw five-time winner Lance Armstrong —
      the fatherless Texas boy who vanquished cancer on his way to becoming a pop
      icon and possibly one of the greatest athletes of all time — into the mix
      and you have so many parallels to mythic hero tales that fans need look no
      further for their 21st-century action figure.

      Perhaps this is why the Tour has fascinated Europe for the past century, and
      its fame is growing steadily here. It is the most storied contest in a sport
      that runs on technology (one of Armstrong's bikes incorporates materials
      used in space satellites). Yet it follows an ancient formula, where men are
      called to venture into open country and prove themselves against their
      rivals and against their own weaknesses. Tackling the slopes of the Pyrenees
      (during the race's second week) and the Alps (in the third), riders will
      crack, get dropped, slip backward, fall over sideways. Others will claw and
      grind their way up to the finish, only to face the same pain, fear and
      difficulty the next day, and the next.

      "It's a mirror-like reflection of real life," says Bob Roll, a former pro
      bike racer and a Tour commentator for cable's Outdoor Life Network. "It's
      like a soap opera unfolding. . . . It's a melodrama that guys are actually
      going through. Once you identify the strengths and weaknesses, you go
      through it with them."

      No rider makes his way to the finish at Paris's Arc de Triomphe alone.

      Teamwork is essential to the race: Eight pack dogs surrounding the alpha
      male. Bike racing is about working through pain, and beating back the wind.
      Riding six- to eight-hour days on the open road, you need your buddies
      around you as human windshields.

      If the team leader is a knight, his teammates (known by the French term
      "domestiques") are his squires. There's a feudal sense of hierarchy on the
      teams, designed to keep the leader in the best winning position throughout
      the race. This is especially true on Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team,
      which adheres to an all-for-one strategy. If deep within your domestique
      heart lies a grain of ambition to steal a Tour win away from Armstrong, you
      belong somewhere else. (Two of his chief rivals this year — the American
      Tyler Hamilton and Spain's Roberto Heras — are former teammates who defected
      to lead teams of their own.)

      On the Armstrong Express, your job is to suffer deeply each day to protect
      one guy.

      The teammate in front is battling wind resistance; everyone behind benefits
      from a 25 to 30 percent reduction in effort by riding in his slipstream. As
      lactic acid builds up in the muscles of the man heading into the wind, his
      thighs begin to burn. When he can no longer keep up the necessary pace, he
      fades back, and the teammate next in line takes his place.

      For much of the race, Armstrong rides relatively coolly a few men behind.
      Only at decisive moments in the mountains does he "attack," accelerating at
      a pace that tears the legs off his competitors. If he's thirsty, hungry or
      needs a rain jacket, designated teammates drop back to the team car to load
      their pockets with supplies.

      Domestiques are part mule, part Marine, fueled by loyalty to their leader.

      "A lot of being a domestique goes against what America sees as the elite
      athlete," said Ted Butryn, a professor of sports sociology and psychology at
      San Jose State University. In this country, the typical professional sports
      star is admirably self-indulgent — holding out for a contract, negotiating a
      deal, celebrating in the end zone. Compare this with the domestique, who
      gets respect in the subculture of cycling but is completely anonymous beyond
      that. "Where we're socialized to succeed, to work hard, what if your success
      is predicated on somebody else succeeding?" Butryn asks.

      Postal team member George Hincapie said recently: "I'm not really there for
      the recognition." He was in the Pyrenees and he had just finished a six-hour
      training ride so punishing that his speech was slurred. "I love the sport
      and I appreciate that I get to do it for a living."

      Hincapie, who is the only teammate to have squired Armstrong through all
      five Tour wins, marks his achievement in small, personal ways.

      There was the day last year when Armstrong's handlebars caught on the straps
      of a feed bag dangling from a fan's hands and he slammed to the asphalt.

      Doubts about Armstrong's fitness had been gathering throughout the race, but
      he went on to win that stage, thanks to Hincapie, whose push into the wind
      had brought his leader to the base of the Luz Ardiden peak in such good
      fashion that he could go on to conquer it. Hincapie slogged across the
      finish some 20 minutes behind. Armstrong, shaken but victorious, was already
      on the podium, acknowledging the comrade who had helped put him there.

      "I was going through the crowd," Hincapie said, "and I pointed to him,
      yelling at him — and he was pointing to me. It was funny; we both knew he
      had just jumped from not being sure of himself to being sure of himself —
      and being the same old Lance."

      Brotherhood — and fealty — alive on a Pyrenean crest.

      Tour de France history is full of examples of heroic exertion and gallantry.
      To be sure, there are also rats and opportunists and selfish
      "wheel-suckers," those who take up real estate in the slipstream and never
      pull at the front. As in many endurance sports, doping allegations and
      suspicions have dogged some of the favorites. (Armstrong included — an
      accusatory book has just been published in France by two journalists,
      British and French, though they acknowledge they have no proof of drug use
      and Armstrong, who is tested incessantly, denies the rumors.) Just in the
      past week, four riders have been forced to pull out of the Tour because of
      suspected drug use.

      But no other sport boasts a champion like five-time Tour winner Eddie
      Merckx, the Belgian considered to be the greatest cyclist of all time for
      his unmatched stream of victories in races besides the Tour.

      Merckx's 1975 attempt at a sixth Tour win was plagued with disasters. During
      one stage a spectator socked him, injuring his kidneys. Doctors advised
      Merckx to stop. He refused. Two days later, he touched wheels with another
      rider and crashed. Nose smashed and jaw broken — and wired shut — he sucked
      food through a straw for the remaining days of the race. Yet he wouldn't
      quit, even though at his daily news conferences, the whole dais would be
      shaking because Merckx, racked with pain, was shaking.

      "Journalists followed him everywhere, waiting for him to retire," recalls
      veteran cycling commentator Phil Liggett. "And he said, 'You can forget it.
      I'm not giving up, even if I can't win the Tour de France. You will say that
      the guy who wins only did so because I abandoned.' "

      Merckx soldiered on, heaving himself into second place behind Frenchman
      Bernard Thevenet.

      In the process, said Liggett, the vanquished winner "made Thevenet look
      fantastic."

      In its best moments, the Tour highlights honor as much as it does brute
      strength. A worthy contender pauses for the opponent who crashes, so as not
      to gain advantage purely because of luck, an icy patch, melting tar, etc.
      This happened a few years ago when German rider Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's
      greatest rival, ran off the road and flipped over his handlebars. Armstrong,
      already wearing the leader's yellow jersey, waited for him to catch up. Last
      year, Ullrich returned the favor after Armstrong was downed by the errant
      feed bag.

      And if the Yellow Jersey needs to pull over to answer nature's call? You do
      not choose this moment to attack. It simply isn't done — you risk being
      pelted with water bottles and dragged back to the peloton (as the mass of
      riders is called) for verbal flogging in half a dozen languages. One needs
      friends in the peloton. Best not to tick them off by flouting decorum.

      Besides, it's just not sporting.

      Lance Armstrong, as anyone glancing at a magazine rack lately knows, is
      hoping to achieve what no man ever has: a sixth Tour victory. That sixth
      heavy chalice — the trophy given to winners, along with about $400,000 — is
      the Holy Grail of cycling.

      Who better than Armstrong to attain it?

      "He's a Grail knight," said University of Maryland English professor Verlyn
      Flieger, who specializes in myth. Like Galahad, the Round Table knight who
      finally succeeded in his quest for the Holy Grail, Armstrong grew up without
      his natural father, who left his mother when he was a baby. Like many an
      ancient hero, Armstrong's will to succeed has been forged in fire:
      testicular cancer, which invaded his lungs and brain and nearly killed him
      in 1996, when his pro cycling career was starting to flower.

      Starting today, the 32-year-old Armstrong is engaging in the ur-contest:
      against himself. "That is the more interesting and psychologically difficult
      battle," said Flieger. "He's battling against his own record. And he's
      battling against his own body as he approaches the point where his strength
      is not up to the task."

      What if he loses? Judging by precedent, Armstrong can still win in the
      public eye. Loss humanizes a hero. We like flawed heroes, as long as they're
      more hero than flaw. (Mike Tyson, for example, has the proportions all
      wrong. Babe Ruth got them right.) Losing, in fact, would put Armstrong in
      company with the legendary knight with whom he shares most of a name:
      Lancelot. It was gifted, charismatic Lancelot who first got close to the
      Grail. Faulted by God for his moral shortcomings — messing around with the
      king's wife — Lancelot was granted only a vision of the Grail, and not the
      prize itself.

      Yet Lancelot's story is an enduring favorite. Torn between his passion for
      God and for Guinevere and his desire to excel, Lancelot became a knight for
      the ages. "We like him because of the failing," Flieger said, "because the
      failing is married to his heroic effort and to the conflict within him."

      Divorced in December, Armstrong has been inseparable from rocker Sheryl Crow
      for much of the past year. Has she been too distracting? The love affair
      will undoubtedly be factored into any failure. Armstrong may have more in
      common with Lancelot than he'd like.

      Yet as his perseverance in the Tour de France has shown us, he is perfectly
      suited to attempting what no one else has ever done.

      This is exactly what we look to heroes to do.

      © 2004 The Washington Post Company
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      Tour de France
      July 3-25
      • Armstrong plays it safe, is third overall
      • Notebook: Armstrong crows about Sheryl
      • Other champs support Armstrong
      • Lai: Lance no lock for 6th straight
      • Ullrich: Not just duel between me, Lance
      • Borges: Crow is inspiration enough
      • Why we should care about le Tour
      • Bondy: We take our best star for granted
      • Celizic: Lance not greatest ever — yet
      • Guts and Glory: The Armstrong story
      • Anatomy of a Champion: Armstrong's body
      • Top of the Tour: Best riders ever
      • Tour de Lance: Race map, riders to watch
      • Past Tour winners

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