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End of the ride

In 2001, I had the opportunity to ride my bicycle up the Col du Tourmalet, one of the classic Pyrenean climbs of the Tour de France.

The day was wet and cold. The muscles in my legs never seemed to warm up, and the higher I went, the colder they got. More than two hours and numerous stops later, I finally reached the top of the 10-mile long pass, totally exhausted. Two days later under a beautiful blue sky I watched amazed as Lance Armstrong ascended the same mountain in around 45 minutes, chatting to teammates and eating energy bars. He had already climbed three mountain passes and was en route to the final ascent of the day.

Watching how easily gravity’s fingers slipped from Armstrong’s shoulders merely added to my admiration for the 33-year-old Texan’s ability. Conquering cancer would be enough for most people. Beating the disease and returning to top-level sport would seem to be the stuff of legend. But returning from death’s door and winning more Tours than any rider in history defies belief. Little wonder that Armstrong has put cycling onto the front of newspapers and magazines in a country previously indifferent to the sport that mainstream Europe turns to in the summer.

Proof that Armstrong has transcended the limited popularity of cycling comes from a recent article from Forbes magazine, which stated that the $28 million Armstrong earned in the 12 months preceding June 2005 tied him ninth in athlete earnings, putting him ahead of star names such as LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez.

The true measure of Armstrong came in 2003 when, for the first time since his return from cancer, he struggled. It was a Tour he should not have been able to win. Plagued by a bad back and other injuries from a crash in a pre-tour race, Armstrong was vulnerable. He lost time to rival Jan Ulrich in a time trial. Instead of attacking, it was Armstrong being attacked in the mountains. But like the stoniest-faced poker player, Armstrong masked how much he was suffering and hung onto opponents’ wheels by sheer force of will power. By the end of the Tour he had eked out his fifth Tour victory, albeit by the slimmest margin.

On Saturday, Armstrong will begin the defense of his yellow jersey in what he has said will be his final race. I have only two hopes for his final Tour. Firstly, that the race will be competitive. Only in one of Armstrong’s six wins has another rider looked likely to strip the yellow jersey from his shoulders.

My second hope will be of small comfort to Armstrong’s vanquished rivals but is, I feel, an important matter for the aesthetics of cyclists everywhere.

I don’t care how much Nike is paying him, cycling socks should stop just below the ankle bone. The mid-calf design Armstrong favors make him look like a businessman who has been fitted out with cycling clothes as part of a team-building exercise. You might think such a matter trivial, but think about how many beautiful Alpine and Pyrenean photograph shots have been ruined by socks that would look more at home on a Floridian retiree’s white legs.

Yes, I was slow going up the Tourmalet. Yes, I was in danger of being overtaken by cows wandering across the road; but at least I had the right socks.