They say a picture speaks a thousand words. I say that 500 is a more accurate figure:
The two faces dominating this photo carry entirely different expressions. Wearing the Dauphine’s inverted polka dots is a rider with innocence and arrogance in equal measure. He’s unzipped, unleashed, and unaware of the hatred being stared into his back. The familiar face behind is fuelled with anger towards a rider he calls ‘the punk’.
It’s rewind time. It’s 2003 and Lance Armstrong has won the last four Tours after beating cancer and returning to racing. The Armstrong brand is strong; he’s yet to be tarnished by the biggest doping reveal in sports history. He’s extremely marketable, sponsored by Nike and packing enough bravado to wind up the French press. His interviews are crisp and cool. He’ll make jokes – but rarely at himself.
Everything he does is meticulously calculated. He starts the season modestly, has fun in April, rides either the Dauphiné or Tour de Suisse, and wins the Tour with minimal fuss. Everything is how Armstrong likes it. If you weren’t one of his many adorers, you probably hated the monotony of his victories.
It was almost impossible to dislodge Armstrong from the Paris podium but easier to get under his skin. Some would brag and challenge Armstrong, goading his pride. Others attacked when they wanted, ignoring the unwritten rules of Armstrong’s peloton. It’s not known exactly which sin Iban Mayo was found guilty of, but it didn’t take a genius to spot he was the kind of rider who Armstrong would hate; hyped up and unpredictable. Plus he wore two earrings. Armstrong would later confirm this in the book ‘Etape’, stating “he was a little punk”.
Armstrong enjoyed winning his chosen Tour de France warm-up event but it wasn’t critical to his plan. He started the 2003 Dauphiné as favourite but it was Mayo who won the prologue. Armstrong took the lead after the longer stage 3 time trial, leaving Mayo with four days in the mountains to snatch it back.
Armstrong stalked Mayo in the finale of stage 4 but lost out in a sprint. The following day Armstrong suffered a nasty crash when riding over a drain on a fast descent. Patrick Halgand attacked soon after and was treated to a mouthful of harsh words. Mayo would later test the bandaged leader – stirring an already bubbling pot.
In the photo, Armstrong is on the verge of losing the plot. There was no reason for him to continue and team doctors advised rest before the Tour. He would gain nothing from winning another Dauphiné. Mayo, however, would inherit the title and inflate his potential as Armstrong’s conqueror. This was not allowed to happen.
Riders tackled the Galibier on Stage 6. Armstrong was beat up with stitches in his arm and Mayo was flying. On the feature climb the Basque-native made his expected charge. Footage will show Armstrong squashing attacks in style but inside he was going through hell. His body ached and he had been taking antibiotics. He was risking a fifth Tour de France title to stifle the reputation of a man he disliked.
The photo shows Armstrong’s trademark stare but hides a tonne of emotion. This isn’t Armstrong the champion, nor Armstrong the cheat. This is a competitor with too much pride. The Texan allegedly shouted “is that all you got?” whilst ignoring his screaming legs. This photo shows Armstrong delivering one of his most incredible performances at the expense of an unsuspecting young punk.