On the very July day in 1969 when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon, the 56th Tour de France crowned a new champion. But the birth of American cyclist Lance Armstrong was still two years away.
The younger Armstrong would eventually shoot for the moon, too, by riding his bicycle faster and better than anyone else in the mountains of France. From 1999 to 2005, he won the Tour an unprecedented seven times. That he’d done so after battling testicular cancer that had spread to other organs made it all the more remarkable, if not unbelievable.
But in this tale of two Armstrongs, only one remains an unsullied hero, while the other an enigma. Their paths crossed unexpectedly last week in the kind of heavy-hearted headlines that evoke differing kinds of grief. Neil Armstrong died at age 82; Lance Armstrong fell from the graces of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which stripped him of his Tour de France titles and levied a lifetime ban from competition.
If the cyclist had conducted himself more like the astronaut, things might have been different. Quiet, studious Neil Armstrong was a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot from a small Ohio town. He not only became part of NASA’s fledging Apollo program, but also courageously allowed himself to be catapulted into outer space, though “one giant leap for mankind” was never a sure thing.
After the celebrations that followed the historic flight, Armstrong shunned publicity and remained out of the public eye with one exception: A couple of years ago, he testified before a U.S. Senate committee that it was wrong to slash NASA’s space shuttle program. Upon his death, those who knew him best described him as a man of great humility and integrity. President Obama said he “delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”