Lance Armstrong has made it to what he calls "the big show, the big deal, the Super Bowl" and what everybody else calls the Tour de France. Armstrong can be excused for his excitement because he is 21 and hardly anybody else in the bicycle race, including the youngster who distributes soft drinks at the finish line, is even close to being that young.
To judge from his first two days in the Tour de France, despite his youth, he's doing just fine. The American rider for the Motorola team finished Sunday's stage in 20th place among the 180 riders and was not close to hyperventilating.Not that it has been easy. Armstrong rode a middling prologue Saturday and wound up 81st among the 180 riders and 18th among the 43 riders under the age of 24.
"Awful, just awful," he said of his Saturday performance. But he was grinning and upbeat when he gave that verdict Sunday morning before the start of the 80th Tour's first daily stage, 215 kilometers (135 miles) through green, clean and uninteresting countryside, a sort of French Iowa, from Lucon to Les Sables d'Olonne.
The leader's yellow jersey remained in the possession of Miguel Indurain, who picked up four bonus seconds by surprisingly contesting, and finishing second in, a sprint along the way past fields of corn, wheat and the rather tasty mogette, the regional white bean.
Armstrong made no similar moves, contenting himself with riding in the pack and staying out of the way of the sprinters. As everybody says, he is here to learn.
Not 22 until Sept. 18, Armstrong is one of the youngest men to start the Tour in years, along with Andrea Peron, an Italian with Gatorade who is 21 too. Because Armstrong is also a neo-pro, as first-year professionals are called, his entry has caused a bit of controversy.
Indurain, the current Tour champion, was also a 21-year-old neo-pro in his debut in 1985. There was no similar controversy then because Indurain, who dropped out after 4 of the 21 stages, had not shown the great potential that Armstrong has. In other words, the Spaniard was regarded as cannon fodder - as Gatorade's Peron is - and the American is considered a star of the future if he is not misused.
The possibility of burnout troubles some observers.
"Too young, his body isn't ready for it," said Cyrille Guimard, the coach of the Castorama team, who has led three riders to seven Tour victories in the last 17 years. He also doubted that Armstrong was ready psychologically for the pressure of the world's greatest bicycle race.
Guimard signed and coached Greg LeMond, 20, who has won three Tours, but did not let him enter his first Tour until he was 23.