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Tour de Force

Lance Armstrong is about to win his fourth Tour de France, which, in case you didn't realize it, is a very big deal.

12:00 AM, Jul 22, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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THE NEWS HEADLINES have been awfully depressing lately: stock market doldrums, terrorism fears, priest-sex scandals, child kidnappings, massive wildfires, and on and on. In times like these, many of us turn to sports for a temporary respite. For instance, take 1998, when, amidst the sleaze of Anno Lewinsky, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated us as they chased Roger Maris's home run record.

But lately the sports headlines have been almost as depressing as the front page: Allen Iverson's problems with the law; the looming possibility of another disastrous, World Series-killing baseball strike; and the shocking death of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, among other things.

Those looking for an uplifting sports story hoped that Tiger Woods would win the British Open this past weekend and put himself in position to win golf's Grand Slam. Alas, Tiger's game imploded on Saturday amidst some of the worst weather conditions ever seen in a major golf championship--even by the standards of the British Open, where you can assume that the English wind and rain will play havoc, even in mid-July. Tiger's troubles demonstrate what makes golf the greatest sport of all: It is often cruel and unfair, just like life. In golf, as in life, even the best of us have our off days; occasionally the world's greatest players are humiliated by the game, just like us weekend duffers. All you can do is grind it out and "play the ball where it lies," and to Tiger's credit, he was gracious after his atrocious round on Saturday.

So, Tiger won't win the Slam, at least not this year. But there's another terrific sports story involving a dominant American in Europe right now--cyclist Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France. Last month during the World Cup, I tried to convince some of my more benighted Standard colleagues that soccer is a great sport. Now it's time to tout another sport that doesn't get much attention in America--cycling.

If you wanted to, you could argue that the Ironman Triathlon deserves to be considered the most grueling sporting event in the world, but in my opinion the Tour de France wins that distinction, hands down. It's three weeks of absolute physical and mental brutality, with only a few rest days inserted to break up the torture. Riders burn up to 9,000 calories during each day of racing, spending anywhere from three to six hours in the saddle in mid-summer heat, with the most insane stages going through the Alps and Pyrenees. Besides these demands, the Tour also presents other real dangers. It is no simple thing to have a peleton of some 150 cyclists streaming along in tight quarters at 30 mph; one rider's mistake can send dozens of them crashing to the pavement. It's also no cinch for riders to make the death-defying descents on the opposite sides of the mountain while approaching speeds of up to 70 mph. Not for the faint of heart, obviously.

Yesterday's Stage 14 of the Tour ended in Provence with the notorious climb to the summit of Mont Ventoux--the climb on which British rider Tom Simpson suffered a fatal heart attack in 1967 from a combination of heat stroke and amphetamine use. Armstrong finished third in the stage, but more importantly, he retained the yellow jersey (signifying the race's overall leader) and gained nearly two minutes in the standings on his closest rival in this year's Tour, Joseba Beloki of Spain. The upcoming week includes three more difficult stages in the Alps, but barring a major catastrophe, Armstrong will likely be standing atop the podium in Paris next Sunday, enjoying his fourth straight Tour victory. He would thus become only the fourth rider to win four straight Tours, and would need only one more victory to equal the record of five titles, held jointly by Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, and Spain's Miguel Indurain, who was the king of the sport in the 1990s. Only Indurain won all five titles consecutively; Armstrong, who shows no signs of slowing down at age 30, could equal Indurain's feat next year.