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Force Majeure
Austin Murphy
December 26, 2005
In Lance Armstrong's seventh and final triumph in the Tour de France, the race was all but over as soon as he started
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December 26, 2005

Force Majeure

In Lance Armstrong's seventh and final triumph in the Tour de France, the race was all but over as soon as he started

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You wouldn't think that a 2,242-mile ordeal could be distilled into a single, indelible vignette. But then, Lance Armstrong had a singular knack for delivering these gooseflesh moments. There was the Look in 2001, his piercing gaze into the soul of Jan Ullrich on the l' Alpe d'Huez, followed immediately by an assault for which the German had no answer. There was the Detour across a fallow cornfield to avoid a fallen foe in '03, which enabled him to lose only 36 seconds to the stage winner that day. The remarkable characteristic of the Catch, the defining moment of his seventh and final Tour de France victory, was that Armstrong delivered it in the first half hour of a three-week race.

After getting a late start on his training, Armstrong had not performed well in the months leading to the '05 Tour. His rivals dared to hope. The race began with a 19-kilometer time trial on the Atlantic coast; as defending champion, Armstrong was the last rider out of the start house. Ullrich, who along with Italy's Ivan Basso presented the most serious threat to the 33-year-old Texan's reign, rolled down the ramp a minute before him.

Armstrong's right shoe came unclipped from its pedal at the bottom of the ramp, costing him several seconds as he fell behind. Recovering quickly, he was soon devouring the course with his trademark, metronomic cadence. Ahead was Ullrich, the Tour winner in '97 but a man whose career since then had been defined by his failure to beat Armstrong. Past the halfway point of the stage a live shot from a helicopter pulled away from Ullrich to reveal--could this be?-- Armstrong already within 100 yards. Closing inexorably, a moment later Armstrong blew by his rival as a Corvette overtakes a VW on the Autobahn.

Armstrong was gracious after the stage, reminding reporters that Ullrich had suffered a training accident the day before, when he tumbled through the rear windshield of his team car. This politesse, which came more easily to Armstrong in the latter stages of his career, stood in stark contrast to his demeanor on the bike, when he always seemed to be obeying an inner voice telling him it was not enough to defeat his opponents; he must demoralize them, crush their will. The peloton will not miss Lance Armstrong. Race fans will.

HOCKEY A Dashing Makeover

There was a low rumble and then a loud ovation as Christina Aguilera, a Pittsburgh-area native, strode out to sing the national anthem before the Penguins' home opener against the Boston Bruins. Ms. Genie-in-a-Bottle was lending cachet to a sport that sorely needed it, even before a lockout obliterated the 2004-05 season. A pop star was signaling a high-C change in the NHL's fortunes--not that the Oct. 8 game was over when the skinny lady sang.

No, Pittsburgh rookie Sidney Crosby scored his first goal that night, knocking in a rebound. Given his wizardry with the puck through much of the first half of the season, the goal was hardly a standout, but it will be one for the ages if his career path, as expected, traces the arcs of Gretzky's and Lemieux's. Between Crosby, 18, and the Washington Capitals' dynamic rookie left wing, Alexander Ovechkin, the league might have a Magic Johnson-- Larry Bird tandem to market for the next decade or two.

The Bruins rallied twice from two-goal deficits to win 7-6. During the Dead Puck Era starting in the mid-'90s, when six goals by both teams was more than a decent night's work, two goals down in the third period was akin to a loss. Now it was just a speed bump, surmounted with speed and pluck.

The game was also the first evidence that hockey's dramatic makeover--the removal of the red line, the extra space in the attacking zones and the other sops to skill players--would be a riotous success. The 7-6 track meet was a tarantella on the grave of the somnambulant hockey that had pushed the NHL to the brink of irrelevance. It might still teeter until U.S. fans realize that the league isn't peddling hockey's New Coke but an update of the classic version. But now the game is worthy of a wider audience. Indeed, at week's end the NHL attendance was up from 2003-04. New game, new star, new dynamic. On a bleak autumnal night the NHL hit all the right notes.

HORSE RACING Alex the Great

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