Along with le Tour de France, two very different but inextricably entwined stories will come to their conclusions on the 24th of July 2005.
One the story of an average man overcoming great adversity, and rising to dominate his profession to an extent unprecedented in history. The story of a man who is as revered as he is disliked all over the world. His successful fight against debilitating and mortal illness inspires devotion, and his impersonal, machine like and extended domination of his sport fuels discontent. There are two kinds of people in this world - those who love Lance Armstrong, and those who despise him. The other story is strikingly different. It consists mostly of frustration, criticism and bad luck. Don’t get me wrong, Jan Ullrich is a great cyclist and a very successful man by any standards, but with 5 second places (3 of them to Armstrong) after being one of the youngest winners of the tour in 1997, a tendency to come into the season slightly overweight, and consistent failure to do justice to his talent, History will judge him harshly.
But then, History is a bitch.
It is she who has decreed that the difference between being 'there' and being 'almost there' is the same as the difference between immortality and oblivion. She bestows her favours upon those who court her. The 'big' people. People who say the things that she considers right, people who fight and win enough battles that she considers to be important, people who manage to put upon themselves a veneer of goodness and invincibility. She cares nothing for the rest.
If Armstrong wins his 7th tour on the trot, he might deserve every accolade and every superlative bestowed upon him, but that will cause everything else, the daily heroism of so many men on the tour, the brave, the resilient, the stoic, to not only be forgotten, but under the ubiquitous shadow of that celebrated achievement, also belittled. In the frantic celebrations that will follow, with everyone scrambling to outdo everyone else in congratulating the champion, inventing new words, spending millions of dollars on congratulatory advertisements, who will have the time or the inclination to remember the brave Erik Dekker at the fag end of his career on a long breakaway, refusing to give in, refusing even to look back at the chasing peloton led by the sprinter's teams, the young Nicholas Portal, from a different team, weak and exhausted but helping Dekker all he can, doing his time at the front to give Dekker some rest, sticking to the task for no reason other than character and pride, the spectacular ride of Mike Rassmusen who rode 167 km all alone on a average mountain stage and won it, the resilience of Christophe Moreau and Jens Voigt as they tried to chase him down, the spirit that caused Moreau to stop when Voigt had a puncture, and the countless, countless other examples of all that is good in man that the Tour throws up with such breathtaking regularity ?
People will talk about how dominant Armstrong was even on his last tour, passing his main rival Jan Ullrich in the time trial on the first day after starting with a one minute deficit, and not a thought will be spared for the pain, anguish and despair of a proud man with his last chance to make amends and pull something back, as he saw himself being overtaken and left behind.
A win for Jan Ullrich, on the other hand, will force history to look at the other men who rode with Armstrong, it will add a huge amount to what will otherwise degenerate into a long paean to the praise and glory of one man at the cost of all others. It will be a demonstration that not always will the favourite win and the mighty triumph. It will be reassuring to see the beleaguered and fallible triumph against the perfect. It is the same fight that you and me face everyday, the fight to overcome our faults, to justify our talent, to fulfil what we consider to be our destiny. It will add balance to scales that are tipped overwhelmingly towards those with success and power, and that strange blinkered vision that causes a man to achieve impossible things. It will bring a ray of hope to so many of us, who battle against overwhelming odds and stifling systems, against our own record of indolence and failure, against the unfair and cruel manner in which the world determines who deserves to be respected and who does not.
When Jan Ullrich rides out on to the Alps tomorrow, he rides not just against Armstrong, but against History. He rides not just for himself, but for all those of us who have had too much to do with the words 'imperfect', 'incomplete' and 'unfulfilled'.