Before the race could begin, Armstrong faced another task: escaping the bus. Which was difficult enough in the Tour de France, where he had the muscular assistance of two bodyguards, several gendarmes, and steel barricades. Here in Georgia, there was only a puny roll of fabric tape, one that had long ago given way to the force of the fans’ love, a force which now pressed and surged and yelled his name so that it echoed around the parking lot: Lance, Lance, Lance!
Armstrong stood on the top step and looked through the tinted window, figuring things out.
The key was being on the bike. In a crowd, being on his bike was like being invisible. Once he got rolling, his hands firmly on the bars, he could weave in and out of all but the densest crowd, at five miles per hour, doling out an occasional tap or a hello, then watching their faces as they realized who it was—too late! It was beautiful, the kind of gotcha joke that Armstrong loved. Instead of the crowd invading his space, he was invading theirs! Sometimes he would get to the finish and hide out in some race official’s car, then Armstrong would ring up Bruyneel, and when his coach asked where in the hell he was, Armstrong got to say, “I’m twenty feet behind you, in the car.” Dave Bolch, a Postal soigneur, called it “the Batman move.”
There was no Batman move possible now, however. No, he was definitely trapped, sealed in by the intense love of what looked to be several hundred people. And he needed a way through.
Armstrong pulled on his team cap, which had the advantage of hiding his distinctive hair and making all the Posties look alike. He let a few teammates provide interference, then he stepped down. The crowd surged forward; his teammates scattered like lemmings. Armstrong grabbed his bike, which had been placed as usual by the door, handlebars forward. Someone shouted his name, and they began to close in.
But Armstrong was already ahead of them. He shielded himself with the bike and searched the front row for his goal: a white-haired woman named Iris, who had an artificial leg and the foresight to pass a note onto the bus. Other people had passed notes, too, but for whatever reason (prayer, Iris later vouched) their notes were not chosen, their faces were not noted and memorized from behind the glass.
Armstrong saw Iris, reached for her. The crowd backed off instinctively, sensing that something was up.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Yep,” Iris said, smiling hugely and showing her yellow disposable camera.
Armstrong took the camera in his hands. Held it up so everybody could see it.
“You sure this thing is gonna work?” he asked.
A ripple of pleasure flashed through the crowd. He was challenging this one-legged grandma, testing her! It was like a parlor trick, a quick unveiling of the will, executed with such an easy, locker-room style, the exact same way he addressed huge crowds, pushing them, teasing them, wanting them to rise up. Iris rose.
“I’m sure, dang it,” she said loudly, and everybody laughed at her boldness, including Armstrong.
The photo was snapped. Armstrong got on his bike, and said well, he was sorry but he’d better get to work. People tried to surround him but he started paddling with his leg, getting moving. Soigneurs swept people back. The crowd parted reluctantly, and he glided off, Batmanning through the crowd toward the start line.
People milled about the bus, thrill giving way to disappointment. He had been there—right there—and now he was gone. A middle-aged man approached John Korioth, having deduced that Korioth was Armstrong’s good friend. The man told his story. His name was David, and he had leukemia. David had come from California to see Lance. This was his third straight day outside the bus; each time Armstrong had stopped for ten seconds, talked to one person, and bolted. Now David was more than upset; he was pissed. He wanted thirty seconds, no more. What more could he do? Was there a way, any way?
Korioth gave David a long, steady look.
“I sure hope you didn’t drive all that way for this,” Korioth said. “Because in front of you there’s a guy whose wife and kids both have cancer, and in front of that guy are ten more people who’ve got something worse.”
Korioth watched David’s face go slack as the information sunk in.
“I’m sure it sounded harsh,” Korioth said later. “People come to him with expectations; they have this connection to him that goes very deep, and it’s endless. If he stops for five seconds, it could be five hours, and Lance understands that the only way to have any kind of life of your own is to sometimes be perceived as somewhat of an asshole.”
How else can you explain the depth of it, except through harshness? The line outside the bus starts with Iris. Behind her stands the widow of the pastor in Michigan who died after being hit by a car, could Lance write a letter to be read at the funeral? Behind her stand the parents of a twelve-year-old Pennsylvania boy wondering if Armstrong might have a minute to make a phone call. Behind them stand others, more and more every day, every minute, like the parents in France who wrapped up their sick child in a white blanket and met Armstrong in a field. Could Lance just touch him on the forehead, just once? Please?
How do you satisfy that much need?
More interestingly, what kind of person tries anyway?
For most people, that answer comes easily: a saint. One who lives a simple, powerful message of hope. And for the many who consider Armstrong a kind of citizen saint, the evidence is plentiful: his Augustinian journey from impetuous youth to maturity and wisdom; the Old Testament savagery of his affliction; his eloquent relishment of suffering; his triumphal arrival at a far-off mountaintop—it’s all there.
But as Armstrong has said a thousand times, he doesn’t qualify. He does not believe in God, the afterlife, or anything but the here and now. “I think too many people look to religion as an excuse, or a crutch, or a bailout,” he wrote in his second book, Every Second Counts. “I think that what you’ve got is what you’ve got, here and now.” Armstrong wears his unreflectiveness like a badge of honor. Sheryl Crow got him a book on meditation; he couldn’t get through it.
Yet it is difficult to imagine anyone more capable of inspiring people to religious heights. At his speeches (for which he charges $150,000), he sometimes plays a homemade video that a friend took while Armstrong was sick, a video that shows a skinny bald guy on a stationary trainer, weakly grinding away. “I couldn’t beat anybody’s grandma,” he’d say. Then he’d tell how the doctors carved his head up like a pumpkin, to find tumors like so many snowflakes—a blizzard of tumors, in fact. His story is dark and unflinching and revelatory. It is replete with angels (his mother, Linda, his nurse, LaTrice Haney) and devils (Cofidis, the French team that refused to honor his contract), and, though he would never brag about it, visitations. Armstrong continually sneaks in time to help out someone with cancer, take them on a bike ride, pick them out of the mob just like he picked out beaming Iris.
“The obligation of the cured” Armstrong calls it—and there was no doubt that he’d fulfilled that commitment a hundred times over. The barest list of his services to the cancer community would fill several pages; stories of his inspiration would fill volumes (and do).
But that isn’t enough. He inevitably disappoints people, like poor David from California. The line stretches forever, and it gets longer every second. He can’t possibly fulfill all the demands, he can’t overcome that endless field of reaching hands, that pulling, clutching frenzy, that appetite.
And yet Armstrong seems uniquely suited to handling the downside. When they come at him, Armstrong does not, as some would, shrug and smile and endure while letting some secret seed of resentment take root. No, he plays a game of hide-and-seek with them, a game that works because he has understood from the start that in order to get close to someone you have to be willing to push them away; in order to love you have to be ready to fight.
David from California stood by the bus for a long time, still pissed off. He watched Armstrong ride away, then he walked to his car.
There wasn’t much time. He had to get on the highway, if he was going to get to the finish line in time to try to see Armstrong again.