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July 21, 1995
166.5 km, flat
The memory is as vivid as the stain that could be seen darkening the road. It was a damp patch, a small puddle emanating from a stricken rider's head, expanding on the asphalt as riders sprinted past, rubbernecking at 45 mph to catch a glimpse of the figure on the road. He was lying on his side, curled up in the fetal position.
The riders streaming past included a 23-year-old American, Lance Armstrong. Looking back now, he recalls, "I had been behind—it was on the descent of the Portet d'Aspet—and we were in single file. It wasn't as if you were bunched up and one side saw, one side didn't. Everyone saw him. I was one of those guys. And, yeah . . . I knew it was Fabio.”
Less than three years earlier, Armstrong had ridden the Olympic road race in Barcelona. It was his final race as an amateur; he would turn professional the following week and ride the Clásica San Sebastián, finishing last. But in Barcelona he had been expected to shine; he had been expected—not least by himself—to win.
Instead, however, a 21-year-old Italian, Fabio Casartelli, rode a masterful race. Casartelli escaped with two other riders, Erik Dekker of Holland and Dainis Ozols of Latvia, as the rest of the field watched the big favorites, Armstrong and Davide Rebellin, who was Casartelli's Italian teammate. Casartelli, in a washed-out, faded version of the Italian Olympic team's famous Azzurri jersey, judged the uphill finish perfectly, putting his bike in a big gear and jumping hard at 200 meters. He won easily. Behind him, Dekker and Ozols were celebrating their silver and bronze medals even before they crossed the line. And 30 seconds behind them, a young German, Erik Zabel, won the bunch sprint for fourth. Armstrong was 14th.
Casartelli turned professional with the Ariostea team the next year and joined Armstrong's American Motorola squad in 1995. He was 24. It was the year he was selected for the Tour de France. "I didn't know Fabio that well,” says Armstrong now. "It was his first year on the team. We had raced together as amateurs. But—and I don't want this to sound the wrong way—he didn't act like all the other Italians. He was less serious; he whined a lot less; he was more fun-loving. A lot of the other Italian guys, I always considered them to be whiners. Fabio was more jovial. He had a free spirit; he laughed at a bunch of shit that those guys wouldn't have laughed at.”
It was stage 15 of the Tour de France, the toughest day, the "Queen stage.” They were 34 km in; 172 km remained, including much tougher climbs: the Col de Menté, the Col de Peyresourde, the Col d'Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet, with a summit finish at Cauterets. It was sunny and hot in the Pyrenees. It was 11:48 a.m.
Until July 18, 1995, the Col de Portet d'Aspet, in the central Pyrenees, would have been regarded as relatively innocuous. What happened on the descent changed that.
The TV cameras showed the aftermath of a crash: bikes on the road, a rider, Dante Retze, lying in the ravine after flying over the curb. He was the lucky one. On the road, curled up like a cat, was Fabio Casartelli. The damp patch was blood. Just behind his head were square concrete posts, only a few inches high, just enough to stop a vehicle plowing over the edge. Casartelli, helmetless like almost all of his peers, had hit one with his head.
A helicopter arrived; a stretcher was produced, brilliant white in the blinding sunshine. He was taken to a hospital in Tarbes, suffering three cardiac arrests while in the air.
Up ahead was Casartelli's teammate, Armstrong. He was in the gruppetto, the last group that forms on tough days in the mountains. "We finally got to the bottom,” says Armstrong. "The thing that sticks out for me the most on that day was that when we got to the bottom, I went to the back. I was looking around, waiting for him to come back up, and Erik Breukink was at the back, too. And Breukink looked at me and said, ‘Don't wait. He's not coming back.'
"Breukink was an older guy,” Armstrong continues. "I was a young kid. But he saw the severity. He saw something I didn't see. But he meant that he wasn't coming back into the race. Nothing more than that.”
At 2:39 p.m. the Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, announced over race radio that Casartelli had died. "I arrived 10 seconds after the fall,” said Dr. Gerard Porte, the Tour's chief doctor. "I could tell it was a serious injury. Casartelli had cuts that were bleeding badly. We did everything in the best conditions and as fast as we could. But he had very serious cuts, and when there's such heavy bleeding you know it was a very powerful impact.”
Armstrong heard the news before the stage was finished. "One of the motorcycles, a press motorcycle, I think, came up. . . . It was a hard stage. I was in one of the dropped groups. And the motorcycle came up and told us. I almost didn't believe it.”
Up ahead, Richard Virenque climbed through exuberant crowds to the stage win at the ski resort in Cauterets; he was chased by the always-aggressive Claudio Chiappucci; the eventual winner, Miguel Indurain; Bjarne Riis; and Alex Zülle. Virenque crossed the line smiling, arms in the air. On the podium he celebrated by spraying champagne.
* * *
It was as though it took the Tour de France 24 hours to process what had happened. A rider had died. Virenque always denied that he had known before the podium ceremony, saying the information had been held from him until afterward. It seemed that only the stragglers, the Armstrongs riding in the gruppetto, learned of the tragedy before the stage had finished.
It seems hard to believe. The Tour organizers appeared reluctant to let the death of a rider interrupt proceedings or encroach on the show. It was a strange, but perhaps revealing, response.
It fell to the riders to respond appropriately. In the main, they knew what to do, though some, like Bjarne Riis, just wanted to put the incident behind them. Riis wanted to race the day after Casartelli's death, on stage 16. So did Marco Pantani; he thought the peloton should pay its respects two days after Casartelli's death, on the day of the funeral. There was an advantage for the two of them in this in that they would have had a better chance of holding or improving their positions. By paying their respects on stage 16, from Tarbes to Pau, the race lost its final day in the mountains, Pantani's last chance of a stage win and Riis's last opportunity to move further up in the general classification (GC).
But stage 16 resembled a funeral cortege. There was a precedent: The day after Tom Simpson's death on Mont Ventoux in 1967, the Tour had proceeded slowly, somberly, to Sète in the south of France, not far from the Pyrenees. Barry Hoban, Simpson's teammate, had ridden off near the end to win the stage, an uncontested victory. On this day for Casartelli, the stage was neutralized. It took the riders eight hours to cover just 149 km from Tarbes to Pau. At the finish, the six Motorola riders clipped off the front. A gap opened back to the peloton, and they crossed the line together, eyes hidden behind dark glasses. Some wore helmets, but not all. The Tour doctor maintained that a helmet would not have saved Casartelli, although opinion was divided. (It was 16 years before a similar scene was replayed, in 2011, at the Giro d'Italia, the day after the death of Wouter Weylandt, also following a crash on a descent. But by then helmets were mandatory. Weylandt was wearing a helmet.)
Casartelli had a young wife, Annalisa, and a two-month-old baby boy, Marco. It was his widow who, on the night of his death, had persuaded the Motorola team not to pull out en masse but to stay in the race. Armstrong says he wanted to withdraw. Casartelli's bike remained on the roof of the team car, a black ribbon tied to the frame.
At the finish, the team manager, Jim Ochowicz, said of Casartelli, "He was a super kid, somebody you were proud to be associated with. The [team is] taking it hard, which is to be expected. We think Fabio is there behind us; he wants to keep us going, to keep in the race, so the boys have decided to continue on in his memory.”
At the start of stage 17 to Bordeaux, the day of the funeral, another of the Motorola riders, Frankie Andreu, spoke of the previous day's tribute. "The first 10, 15 km of the race everyone was broken up, crying. The whole day was in honor of Fabio. The hard part is, it's going to be superhard getting to Paris, doing that lap with that missing slot. It's not a fun Tour anymore. You're not so much looking forward to finishing. You're not so much looking forward to getting to Paris. You want to get away from it now.”
Riis continued to feel that the tribute had been too much, too soon. "Maybe I'm the only one who thinks so,” he said, "but I think it was a mistake what we did yesterday. It was too long. It was a very hard day. To ride eight hours and think all day of this poor guy. I think we shouldn't have started, or just ridden 100 km, or just done the stage as normal. I think it's best for everybody to leave it behind as quick as possible.”
Armstrong said, "I can't sit here and say I was his best friend. But what I knew I really liked. And he was going to be part of this program. He was our friend, our teammate, our brother. He was just a great guy. Yesterday was certainly the toughest of my career.”
Armstrong was speaking to ESPN, which broadcast the Tour in the United States. The commentator then mentioned, presciently, that Armstrong's was "a young career that may improve, in part, because of hardship.”
* * *
Who was Lance Armstrong? He was a young, talented, brash Texan who ruffled feathers as soon as he entered professional cycling. He didn't adapt to European ways; in fact, he didn't even try. He brought his own ways, his own attitude, with him. But after his unpromising professional debut at the Clásica San Sebastián in 1992, his performances improved dramatically, and almost immediately. In 1993, in Oslo, he won the world road race championship. On the finishing straight, where he arrived alone on a murky, wet day, he pumped the air as part of an extravagant celebratory ritual and yelled, letting everyone know that he, Lance Armstrong, had arrived.
Armstrong was the "second American.” Greg LeMond had been the trailblazer a decade earlier, and if they had anything in common, it was that they were nonconformists. When LeMond won one of his first European races he, too, celebrated in a distinctly American way, screaming, "Yeeee-haaaa!” cowboy style as he crossed the line. But where LeMond made himself popular with his charm and humility, Armstrong's trademark was arrogance and abrasiveness—or you could call it attitude. Some loved it, loved the fact that, in such a tough sport, with deep working-class roots, with a rigid hierarchy, where the majority were workers rather than stars, Armstrong was different. And riders who were well respected—Armstrong's teammates Sean Yates and Phil Anderson among them—warmed to him and mentored him. More remarkably, Armstrong listened. He hung on every word that Yates, a very different type of rider and character, told him.
Initially it seemed that Armstrong's vision of his place in the cycling pantheon would prove to be at odds with his abilities. Armstrong had started out in the ultimate upstart sport—he was a triathlete—and he was limited as a rider. He was bulky for a road cyclist, with muscular arms and broad shoulders from his swimming days. He didn't have the build to be a Tour contender.
His body might have held him back. His mind didn't. What Armstrong did have was a will to win and a dread of losing; if ever a competitor would do what it took to win, or avoid defeat, it was Armstrong. And he was certainly strong for such a young man. It has become fashionable to dismiss the young Armstrong as a rider of mediocre talent, but this ignores his world title at 22—the second-youngest world champion after the incomparable Eddy Merckx—and his first stage victory in his first Tour, a couple of months before Oslo, when he won in Verdun from a small group. The following year he showed a glimpse of something else: He was second in the mountainous classic, Liège–Bastogne–Liège. He was also second in the race in which he'd finished last on his professional debut, San Sebastián, which was also hilly. Perhaps there was something else there after all.
But the sport was in a period of transformation. If a cycling historian were to identity the very worst year for a young rider to turn professional, it might be 1993. Since the early 1990s, the use of EPO, the blood booster, had spread like a contagion. It was banned, but there was no test. In many eyes, that meant there was no reason not to use it.
EPO transformed the sport. It transformed riders. With it, big, bulky cyclists could transfer their power on flat roads to climbs, soaring up the grades like mountain goats. The riders who used to dominate in this terrain—the slight, birdlike climbers—saw their natural advantage eroded. On the other hand, with EPO pumping through their own veins, they could turn in a decent time trial. Everything was topsy-turvy. Some performances beggared belief. At the 1994 Flèche Wallonne, a hilly classic in the Ardennes, three riders from one team, Gewiss-Ballan, simply rode away from the field to occupy all three steps of the podium. Afterward, the team's doctor, Michele Ferrari, with what might be considered refreshing candor, said, "If I were a rider, I would use the products which elude doping controls if they helped to improve my performances and allowed me to compete with others.” He told the French sports newspaper L'Équipe, "EPO is not dangerous. Only excessive consumption of EPO is dangerous, as the excessive consumption of orange juice is dangerous.”
Ferrari's comments prompted a furor. He was forced to step down as the Gewiss doctor. But he didn't disappear. He worked with more riders than ever. And he was more careful with his public comments, making hardly any at all.
In the first major classic of the 1995 season, Milan–San Remo, Armstrong was way off the pace. He was 73rd. Seventeen years later, George Hincapie, a young teammate on Motorola at the time, admitted that he and Armstrong had had a conversation on the way home from that race. Armstrong was "very upset,” Hincapie said. "As we drove home Lance said, in substance, that ‘this is bull[shit]. People are using stuff,' and ‘we are getting killed.' He said, in substance, that he did not want to get crushed anymore, and something needed to be done. I understood that he meant the team needed to get on EPO.”
At the same time, Armstrong began to work with Dr. Ferrari.
* * *
Stage 18 of the 1995 Tour, 166.5 km from Montpon-Ménestérol to Limoges, was one that Armstrong would probably have targeted regardless of the loss of his teammate, Casartelli. But he felt an imperative to make his continued presence in the race count for something; otherwise, what was the point in being there at all?
It was a classic late transitional stage, largely flat, and it came the day before the final time trial. "It was logical for me,” says Armstrong. "It was late in the race, the GC had been set, and that's how those stages go on the Tour; they're good for breakaways. You had to know that there was going to be a breakaway, so I kept my eye open for the right move.”
It was hot, 100 degrees, and the racing was intense. The previous day had been a sprinters' stage to Bordeaux won by the young German Erik Zabel. Today was the last chance for the opportunists. Armstrong was 39th on general classification, almost an hour and a half behind Indurain, who was set to win his fifth and final Tour. That didn't make it easy to get into the break because so many wanted to be in it.
It wasn't until halfway through the stage, at 80 km, that the move was finally established. Attacks had been going off the front all day, but they were always brought back. When the group went, it was big, with 12 riders, including the headliners Max Sciandri, Rolf Järmann, Laurent Dufaux, and Massimiliano Lelli. Also in the break were Johan Bruyneel and Viatcheslav Ekimov, riders with whom Armstrong would in future be closely associated. Armstrong has almost forgotten that they were there. "I only knew them as guys in the peloton at that time,” he remembers. "I didn't know them like I know them now.”
It was the size of the group, says Armstrong, that enabled it to go clear—the fact that so many teams were represented. "There were 20 teams in the race; almost all of them wanted to be in the move, so it had to be the right circumstances, the right mix of teams, where it sticks. But I was pretty dead set on being in that group.”
Wearing number 111 (the "1” at the end denoting team leader) and a white cotton team cap (not a helmet; judging from the exposed heads, Casartelli's death had not shifted attitudes to helmets), Armstrong always seemed to be near the front of the group. It was a criticism that had been leveled at him—that he was too eager, too enthusiastic, not smart or shrewd enough. He was frequently out of the saddle, too, stomping aggressively on the pedals while others sat, looking more relaxed, legs turning smoothly.
Armstrong was second over the top of a small climb 26 km from the finish in Limoges. Andrea Ferrigato led. Armstrong shadowed him but kept glancing around. Then he jumped hard up the inside, sneaking past Ferrigato on the right-hand side of the road. It was a move nobody would have expected so far from the finish. "That part of the world is not mountainous, and it's not flat,” says Armstrong. "You have these big rollers. We came to the top of a big roller, and I got a gap. I thought, ‘Well, shit, I'll just turn on the pedals here and see what happens.' When I turned around, I had quite a gap, and at that point we'd started going downhill and I gave it everything I had.”
It was a strange move to make so far out; to try to outride such a large group over 26 km seemed like suicide. Armstrong disagrees. "I actually thought going like that from the bigger group would be better because there was so much dissension in a group like that,” he says. "It's hard to get those groups organized, so if you can get a gap and get away, then nobody's going to work together; they're going to bicker: ‘You do this, you do that.' And next thing you know, you're gone and they don't catch you.
"It's one thing if you do those moves that are sort of . . . TV attacks, and you don't have anything to back it up,” Armstrong continues. "But for whatever reason I felt . . . perhaps it was the circumstances leading up to it, but I felt so good. It was as if I had not ridden any stages before that.”
Before long Armstrong had 12 seconds. Behind, there was no cooperation. Dufaux had a go at bridging the gap, jumping after Armstrong, but he was chased down, and then the impetus was lost again. There were two riders from the MG-Technogym team, Sciandri and Järmann, and most looked to them to do something. But they were in a bind, too. What could they do?
Still, it was remarkable that a lone rider was putting time into the group. Armstrong was flying. He said later that he felt as though there were four feet on the pedals: his and Casartelli's. His gap increased to 40 seconds. He removed his cap. He wore a black armband; it covered his left sleeve. What was evident was his commitment. Watching Armstrong in full flight wasn't pretty; he shifted around on the saddle, punching the pedals, teeth gritted and nostrils flaring as he threw his bike around corners, dodging straw bales on the road into Limoges. He was riding on emotion, as the TV commentator Paul Sherwen kept saying.
Was he thinking of Casartelli? "Oh, of course, of course,” Armstrong says now. "Yeah, and I wasn't alone. I think everyone in the race was thinking about that. But, y'know, I wasn't going to get caught. My most vivid memory is Hennie Kuiper, who was the director in the car; he kept coming up and giving me my time splits. Back then we didn't have radios. So he kept coming up beside me and giving me the times. He was kind of an annoying guy anyway, but finally I told him, ‘Hennie, don't come up here again. They're not going to catch me.'”
The lead hovered around 45 to 55 seconds even as two chasers, Maarten den Bakker and Andrea Tafi, set off in pursuit. Anything under a minute was a fragile advantage, especially as the final 2 km were up a drag. The win only seemed safe as Armstrong entered the final kilometer.
Armstrong looked around, sat up, shook his head. He rubbed his eyes, sticking his fingers behind his sunglasses to do so, then ran his hand through his hair. He zipped up his Motorola jersey. He looked around again. He sat up again. This wasn't showboating as he'd done in Oslo; his expression was serious and somber, his jaw clenched. He pointed with one finger, then two, toward the sky, head tilted up toward the heavens, or heaven.
"I'm not religious,” he says, "but I know that Fabio was, and I know his family is, and I know that his country is very religious, so it was more on their behalf than mine. I don't necessarily believe . . . but certainly his mother and father, his community and country, they do believe he is in heaven.”
Beyond the finish line, Armstrong, with his sunglasses removed to reveal red, bloodshot eyes, said, "I won a stage, which is nice. Certainly I wanted to win a stage. I was close one day [stage 13] but came up short. Then we had the tragedy, and I didn't think . . . phew . . . it was going to happen. Because I was . . . too devastated; everybody was too devastated and my mind was in another place. But just, it all came together today.
"Certainly Fabio was motivating me today. I thought about him every second.”
He had ridden as though he were possessed, suggested Sherwen. "No, I was possessed,” stated Armstrong. "Certainly.”
He continued, "It was super, because all day the people on the side of the road never let me forget—not that I was going to forget—but the people were very supportive and there wasn't a minute that went past when I didn't hear, ‘For Fabio.'”