-- Pau, FRANCE-- "I quit." It's not something one is used to hearing from professional athletes. For the men and women who dedicate themselves to sport, training day in and day out to be the very best, competition is all there is. The greatest pride lies in giving it all you have, and hope never dies because anyone can come from behind. There is no greater anathema than throwing in the towel. And yet
A stunned world watched on in silence today as the combined competitive body of the 2005 Tour de France conceded the race, with five stages to go, in the face of what they termed "indefatigable opposition". Nobody had to ask what they meant. The statement drafted by the athletes began: "Lance Armstrong always had us beat. Why waste another five days?"
The field of 209 competitors, minus Armstrong, had apparently been meeting in secret to discuss the possibility of gutless surrender for some time. Tuesday's stage 16, a grueling 180.5km trek through the Pyrenees from Mourenx to Pau, seems to have sealed the deal.
"Yes, he whipped up all, again" a dejected looking and somewhat touchy Ivan Basso told reporters after finishing the stage 2 minutes, 46 seconds behind Armstrong. "I've been doing this all my life, and I love to compete, but as that cyborg bastard flew past me with that I beat cancer' happy grin on his face, something just snapped. I started thinking, I've got a beach house and a trophy wife I never see. What the hell am I doing here?"
Basso isn't the only one with cause to be down. Jan Ulrich, the cycling world's perennial second banana, has stood one down on the podium five times since winning the tour in 1997. "Oh I'm good, make no mistake," boasted Ulrich as he showed reporters calf muscles the size of Christmas hams. "But that guy's resting heart rate is like 34 freaking beats a minute. How am I supposed to compete with that? He's like the son of the bicycle god, sent down to earth to make me look like a chump." Added Ulrich, "To hell with this, there's a little place I know in Montmartre where Jan always wins, if you dig what I mean "
Race officials, stunned by the unprecedented mass defections, have decided to carry on with the final stages of what is now a literally undisputed Tour de Lance. Armstrong will be permitted to coast into Paris at his leisure on Sunday, stopping along the way for a sightseeing tour in the wine country. And while many Americans are delighted at the news, other Tour fans are somewhat less jubilant. Jean-Claude Magnin, a lifelong Tour enthusiast and staunch Crédit Agricole supporter, says he'll never watch the event again. "You cannot just, just, give up, run, and hide when these things get tough!" he exclaims. "It makes me ashamed to call myself a Frenchman."
As for Armstrong himself, he seems remarkably unfazed by the whole situation. He whips through the scenic foothills, his legs a blur of motion, occasionally looking up from his copy of the new Harry Potter novel to banter with reporters. "Not having to worry about jealous, no-talent clowns trying to run me off the road is really going to give me some time to concentrate on other projects before I hit Paris," he quips. In addition to some light reading, Armstrong says hew would like to finish up a series of self-help tapes he began recording during the easier early stages. Screw Mike; I Wanna Be Like Lance should be available in stores this fall.