Headstrong Armstrong? : America's Best Cyclist Since LeMond Will Succeed or Fail on Own Terms

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Being an expatriate is seldom easy. Lance Armstrong, a Texan with a treble twang and cowhide-toughness, has discovered just how desperate one can get on the lonely road to nowhere.

As a professional cyclist, Armstrong is stationed for half the year in Cuomo, Italy, in the bucolic Lake District north of Milan.

One day last year, he and members of the American Motorola team flew into Milan after a race and found exactly no one waiting to take them to Cuomo.

No problem, they thought. They simply donned some cycling clothes, stored their luggage, assembled their racing bikes and pedaled away.

Normally, it's a two-hour ride for world-class riders. That's nothing.

But this late spring afternoon was turning out to be something. After negotiating the pitted, clogged streets of Milan, the cyclists encountered a little drizzle.

Then a little rain. Then lots of rain.

They kept pedaling.

It started to hail big, icy balls.

They kept pedaling.

The hailstones left welts on their arms and foreheads, but they finally made it to Cuomo.

"I swore I would never live in Italy again," Armstrong recalled.

Armstrong is living in Italy again and plans to continue to do so every year during the spring and summer months, when he is spinning across Europe as America's best road racer since Greg LeMond.

In his rookie season last year, Armstrong won the world road racing championship in Oslo, Norway, by sprinting past the sport's biggest names in the final kilometers. He became the only American beside LeMond to have won the prestigious event, elevating his stature far beyond expectations.

Everyone should have known better. It was enough of a struggle to acclimate to Italian culture, much less become a dominating figure on the cycling scene in a year's time. So when Armstrong, 22, lines up to defend his world championship Sunday in Sicily, it will be the climax to a disappointing second season.

Perhaps most frustrating was his failure to win America's premier event, the Tour Du Pont, last May. Motorola put great emphasis on winning it, but Armstrong was second to Viatcheslav Ekimov when the Russian gained a large advantage during the first time trial.

Armstrong's best race also ended in disappointment. He placed second in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic last April when Eugeni Berzin of Russia sprinted past him about four kilometers from the finish.

Armstrong was among the top 10 during the early stages of the Tour de France, but dropped out before the serious mountain climbs. Motorola coaches said they had planned it that way. They did not want his confidence to erode with devastating defeats in the French Alps. Their idea is to bring him along slowly.

But cycling purists cared little about development and youth. They expected Armstrong to ride like a world champion as long as he wore the special rainbow-striped jersey signifying his stature. That meant finishing what he started--no matter what.

That jersey has done in others.

No matter what event--whether a major spring classic or an out-of-the-way local race--the man in the rainbow jersey will be chased, shadowed and boxed every kilometer of the route.

The pressure is nerve-racking, particularly if the cyclist is struggling and a threat to no one but himself.

After winning the world championship last August, Armstrong wanted to show he was worthy of the jersey. So, by the time the season began in January with a tour in Mexico, he was exhausted. The O-word was blamed. He had overtrained.

"I just said, 'I can't ride bad with the rainbow jersey,' Armstrong said last spring. "I shot myself in the foot."

There was more to it than the pressure of fulfilling competitive expectations. By virtue of his title, Armstrong was thrust into the forefront of the American cycling scene. Taking the torch from LeMond, a three-time Tour de France winner, increased the tension.

LeMond had given the sport a boost in the United States since 1986, when he won his first Tour. But when he lost his edge in 1992, the industry was desperate for a new face to fill the void.

At 22, Armstrong was not ready to assume the role.

A convert from the triathlon, he needed time to mature in the comfort and obscurity of his Motorola teammates.

His first year, after all, had been a long, difficult climb.

Everyone remembers the World Championships, but 12 months earlier Armstrong had felt the sting of disappointment by placing 14th at the Barcelona Olympics, where he had been favored.

Then, in his professional debut shortly thereafter, Armstrong finished last among 111 competitors at the San Sebastian Classic in northern Spain. As he struggled up the final ascent, Spanish fans lining the road mocked him.

Hanging on was his first victory. After that, he began improving, little by little, on the roads. And then came the notice in 1993. And soon the rainbow jersey.

And that only brought trouble.

"All you hear from these guys, 'Oh, the curse. The rainbow jersey weighs 20 pounds,' " Armstrong said. "I got really scared and worried about that. I was not going to let anything interfere with my training."

So, on "Lance Armstrong Day" in Austin last winter, Armstrong could not be found during the ceremony. He was cycling.

Episodes such as that gave Armstrong a bad reputation when all he was trying to do was protect himself.

"A lot of people forget that I'm just 22," he said. "They are expecting you to be a 40-year-old politician."

That has never been his style. He's always had the tact of a bowling shirt.

Armstrong went to Europe with Texas bravado, telling the cycling press how he would overwhelm the Euro competition. Those who had ridden for years on the circuit were a bit insulted. They wanted more humility from an American.

Armstrong might never replace LeMond as a cycling icon, but he will compete on his terms.

What is best for the sport?

"Is it a guy who wears his helmet every day?" Armstrong asked. "Is it a guy who never says a bad word? Is it a guy who has no character? Or is it a guy who wins races?

"I'm not going to be everybody's dream boy. I'm going to win bike races and if that's your dream, then I'm your dream."

Just when it seems he is finished, he isn't.

"Cyclists as a whole are just not exactly cutting-edge-type people. I don't want to say they're nerds, but they don't understand personalities very well.

"I certainly don't want to be Charles Barkley. Deion Sanders is not the answer either. You have to have a personality, but you also have to have some (decorum)."

LeMond, who handled outside pressures as well as any world-famous athlete, sees a younger version of himself in Armstrong. LeMond said that before a hunting accident in 1986 altered his career, he wanted to win every race he entered.

"Just like Lance," he said.

His advice to Armstrong: Start picking objectives because it is impossible to succeed in all facets of cycling. For LeMond, that meant foregoing the spring classics to win the Tour de France, which led to greater spoils and plenty of criticism that he was not a complete racer.

Armstrong may do the opposite. So far, he has shown more potential in the one-day races than in the major tours.

Time will tell.

Armstrong still is serving an apprenticeship. But he is trying.

Since breaking up with a Texas girlfriend, Armstrong has spent the season with a Dutch rider, Danielle Overgaag. That has helped. So has the familiarity with the cultural milieu.

"It's becoming less foreign to me," he said, his twang sounding softer around the edges.

It might never replace Texas, but for now, it is home.

So, he keeps pedaling.

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