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TOUR DE FRANCE, STAGE 1
Individual Time Trial, 15.5 km, Monaco July 4, 2009
Here he is, Lance Armstrong. And there he goes: a blue-and-yellow-and-white figure on a black-and-yellow bike streaking over the gray surface of a road in Monaco late on a summer morning, the sun's yellow pale in comparison to the shoulders of his jersey, the sky's blue like nothing more than the original idea for the magnificent tones that wrap around his back and legs. He is bent forward and low over the top of the bike, arcing himself butt to fingertips from the saddle to the handlebar like an airoilf, like a thing dreamed of and studied in prototypes and finally forged in perfection to round out the top profile of a bicycle in a way that makes it slippery against the forces of friction.
His feet each make a complete circle about 120 times a minute, or two revolutions a second, which is roughly the same cadence Usian Bolt maintains for 9.71 seconds to win a gold medal. Today, Armstrong will sustain this furious whirling of his feet for around 20 minutes. Some days he does it for six hours. This maelstrom occurs with a precision that if visible would surprise the untrained eye, and contains a daintiness that the sport's acolytes would find embarassing. At the lowest point of a stroke Armstrong's foot lies almost flat on the pedal. As his legs begin to pull up on the deal his foot starts to point down, and this oppositional change continues until his foot is almost vertical, a ballerina's pose that is imperceptible as it appears and vanishes in around one-eighth of a second. Then his foot comes over the tope of the pedal stroke. His heel drops, and the muscles of his leg begin pushing the pedal forward with visible force. The calves have ripped themselves in half lengthwise by their own development, a deep V cut into their center in a muscle configuration peculiar to cyclists. Whatever tissue that was not useful for the execution of this pedal stroke has been eroded by years and years and years of miles and miles and miles of training. The thigh is its equal on a larger scale, the glutes and the hamstrings also, with everything extraneous scooped away. It is an act of violence and disregard, the way these muscles ram the foot forward then plunge it down to the lowest point of the revolution to start the whole stroke over. Twice a second Lance Armstrong does this with each leg, whils its opposite leg in unthinking synchronicity performs the countermovement, the frightening muscular explosion on the one side while the ballerina's pose is struck on the other.
His upper body betrays none of this effort. It floats placid above the dervish of his legs, covered in a skinsuit that appears more skin than suit in the way it ripples with every contour of his physique. The fabric of this suit draws sweat from his skin out to the air to be evaporated in seconds and cool him, and it also has been blended and tailored in such a way to soothe the swirling air into a smooth flow that diverges around his bosy instead of battering against it. The suit was custom-made, yet between the measuring and today's Stage 1 time trial of the 2009 Tour de France, Armstrong shed more weight than anyone could have guessed. He is lighter for this Tour than he has ever been, even in his prime from 1999 to 2005, and there are wrinkles around his armpits and the backs of his quads where the material sags a little, unable to conform to the new concavities Armstrong has cerved into his body. The zipper of the skinsuit is undone a few inches, a casual act that doubtless breaks the hearts of the suit's designers and aerodynamic experts, who might have worked months to eliminate such minuscule amounts of drag. Snaking out of the unzipped collar is a black cord that leads to a radio earpiece taped into Armstrong's right ear with white medical tape gone a little greasy from some mechanic's fingertips. The pull tab of the zipper swings as Armstrong pedals, its metronomic motion coming not from his upper body, which remains still, but from a slight rocking of the entire bike itself.
This minor say does not affect his steering. Any disruption it might cause is absorbed somewhere during its transmission from his torse through his arms, which are bent at the elbow nearly 90 degrees, then stretched out along aero bars that protrude in front of his bike. One black-gloved hand lies unmobing on each bar, and if you could touch these hands you would be startled by how relaxed they are. He is not clenching the bar but resting his fingers around it, the way someone might lightly palm but not grip a handrail on a set of familiar stairs. To clench would be to direct energy into something not necessary for propelling his bike forward. His hands move whent he driver in the car behind him, his team director John Bruyneel, speaks to him through the earpiece and tells him to shift or to change his speed or set up for a corner or a climb or a long, straight flat section of the course. When this happens Armstrong's fingers snap forward and make a subtle but crisp movement that clicks a lever on the end of the bar, which pulls a twined steel cable that moves the rear derailleur either right or left, dragging the chain onto a different cog.
Right now, as I watch him, Armstrong's chainis meshed over a cog with thirteen teeth, one of ten cogs clustered onto the back wheel of his bike. The chain wraps around this cog, threads through the derailleur, and continues forward to pass aroudn what is called the big chainring, which is one of the two toothed circles that are driven by the crankset attached to the pedals locked to Armstrong's shoes with cleats. The big chainring has fifty-three teeth, and in this gear combination (which in cycling jargon is identified simply as 53-13), one complete revolution of a pedal moves the bicycle forward a little more than 28 feet. At his cadence of 120 rpm that's just over 56 feet per second, which is somehow easiest to picture by imagining somethign impossible: Spider-Man climbing a six-story building in one tick of a clock's hand. More prosaically, that's about 38 mph, a figure unimpressive in the car-centric and sedentary context of mainstream America but staggering to anyone who has ever tried to ride a bicycle with ambition.