Steve Larsen, 1970-2009
He was the best, always the best. From the moment Steve Larsen mounted his first road bike, a sleek blue Motobecane, at age 13, it seemed like he couldn’t lose a race. "He killed everyone," recalls his former teammate Frankie Andreu. "And according to the girls, he was the best-looking."
Recognition came quickly. At seventeen, in 1987, he was photographed for GQ, his golden locks falling down to his stars-and-stripes national champion’s jersey. Everyone said he was the next Greg LeMond—including LeMond himself, who had befriended the teenaged Larsen when they both lived in Davis in the mid-1980s. "That was always who I measured myself against, which was a pretty good measuring stick," Larsen says, diving into a grilled-eggplant panini in a Davis sidewalk cafe. "So if Greg turned pro at 19, I expected I would turn pro at 19. If Greg won the World Championships at 21, I expected I would win the Worlds by 21."
But he didn’t win the Worlds at 21. Another young Motorola rider did: Lance Armstrong. This was the same Lance Armstrong who’d beaten him in the U.S. national championships in 1991 (where Larsen finished second). Armstrong’s 1993 world championship cemented his role as Motorola team leader, and pushed Larsen—who felt he deserved a shot—further to the side. Before Lance came along, when they were both 18, it was Larsen who was supposed to be American cycling’s next great hope, the apple-cheeked California boy who would win the Tour de France. (Ironically enough, Lance was busy racing triathlons as a teenager.)
They came from similar backgrounds, each the son of a struggling single mother, but where Lance describes himself as a rubber-burning hellion, Larsen was the teachers’ favorite, the wholesome kid who would eventually marry his high-school sweetheart, Carrie Feldman. After his parents divorced when he was eight, largely because of his dad’s drinking, he shouldered much of the family responsibility. "He was always the little helper," says his mother, Connie Larsen. One of his three paper routes helped to pay for household expenses. The other two supported his racing. It didn’t matter that his schoolmates thought he was weird, or that his older brother called him "gay," or that he basically dropped out of high school in his junior year, although he’d always gotten good grades (he later took a few semesters’ worth of college classes). Larsen’s future was clear: He was going to be the next great American bike racer.
Until Lance came along. Armstrong was like a Ferrari, capable of head-snapping acceleration; Larsen more resembled a big, old diesel truck. He could ride steadily for a long time, but he couldn’t pull-off the race-winning breakaways the way Lance could, and did. “He has an incredible engine in terms of aerobic power, but he didn’t have that second speed, that top speed,” says Dr. Massimo Testa, who was the Motorola team physician and became Larsen’s close friend. Once Armstrong had established himself as leader, Larsen had two options: Work for Lance, or say goodbye. “The team was organized around Lance, and the best races for Lance,” says Testa. “Steve is a strong personality, and I didn’t see him working as a domestique for anyone."