On July 17, 2004, one hour before the Tour’s toughest stage, Lucky 13, the thousands of people swarming the sunny Pyrenean town of Lannemezan were burning with the same desire: to see Lance Armstrong’s face. The fervent throng of fans gathered outside the U.S. Postal team bus were motivated by the usual goals—a photo, a word, a touch. But Armstrong’s rivals had their own goals, summed up by a single image that glowed in their minds: the Dead Elvis Grin.
The Dead Elvis Grin refers to Armstrong’s facial expression when he’s pushed to the edge, on the verge of cracking, that tactically useful moment poker players call the tell. Armstrong’s tell began with the American changing positions on his bike—standing, sitting, standing again, rooting around for more power. Then he leaned forward on the handlebars, throwing his body weight into the pedals. His face went red, then ashen. The furrows in his forehead deepened, his eyes fixed, and his upper lip slowly rose over his front teeth, unveiling the signature half snarl, half smile.
Dead Elvis had made an appearance only the day before, during Stage 12, on an eight-mile climb to La Mongie. The ascent saw Armstrong put some distance on his rivals, but he was unable to shake 26-year-old Italian rider Ivan Basso, who won the stage over a visibly exhausted champion. There was also French upstart Thomas Voeckler, of the Brioches la Boulangère team, a previously unknown 25-year-old who’d tenaciously held the yellow jersey for the past e...