02/20/2006 at 01:00 AM EST
Right now, somewhere in America, a deejay is probably playing a Sheryl Crow
song. But no hit by the chart-topping singer-songwriter has ever been dedicated like this: On Feb. 5 Lance Armstrong ended his weekly talk show on Sirius Satellite Radio by addressing news that he and Crow had suddenly broken off their engagement. "This week has been rough for us," said the cyclist. "That doesn't change the fact that I think Sheryl is an unbelievable lady [who] has shown me a love that I never knew." Not exactly known for big displays of emotion, the seven-time Tour de France winner added he was "torn that it didn't work out," then cued up his favorite Crow tune, "Letter to God," as his way of saying farewell.
Two days earlier Armstrong's rep announced to PEOPLE that the pair had split after 2½ years. Coming before a much-anticipated spring wedding, the news left loved ones "surprised and sad," says a source close to both Armstrong, 34, and Crow, 44. Agreed Crow's younger brother Steve, who owns a construction company in Kennett, Mo.: "It's a bad deal. They're both great people. We love Lance." Armstrong's mom, Linda Armstrong Kelly, sounded a similar note: "We love them both and want them to be happy."
Most people believed they already were. In October, Armstrong told PEOPLE he knew he'd found love with Crow "from the first night" he met her at an '03 Las Vegas benefit hosted by Andre Agassi. She also described a life of romantic bliss: "He's a picture of strength and control, and I'm the picture of sensitivity and vulnerability; we complement each other." But others say such differences put them on a collision course. "Emotionally they are on different sides of the track," says Daniel Coyle, author of Lance Armstrong's War
, who followed the cyclist as he trained for the 2004 Tour de France. "She's talked openly about her past struggles with depression. Armstrong's great skill is blasting past that stuff: ignoring pain. There's a reason he's won the Tour seven times."
The result, according to one source, was a tempestuous relationship. However, another friend of the couple's says they parted reluctantly—and shoots down rumors that the pair increasingly clashed over her desire to have children. (Armstrong has three kids with ex-wife Kristin: Luke, 6, and twins Isabelle and Grace, 4, all born by in-vitro fertilization after he underwent treatment for testicular cancer.) "This is extremely painful for both of them," says the friend. "All this about her wanting kids and him not is total crap. This is about timing."
Time was an issue for them from the start. "A day without commitments would be quite dreamy," Armstrong told PEOPLE. "We're not good about scheduling "us' time." And while she seemed to relish her role as head cheerleader during Armstrong's 2004 and 2005 Tour wins, Crow acknowledged it was hard sharing the spotlight with an equally high-powered mate. "It's definitely a challenge to be the less visible of the two when you're used to being visible," she told Allure
Still, the couple were "inseparable," said Armstrong after their first date, which began in London and ended, three days later, in Paris. The singer quickly bonded with Armstrong's children, and with their blessing, he proposed to Crow on Aug. 31, during a mountain-biking vacation in Sun Valley, Idaho. Just as their wedding plans seemed to be in full swing—with plans to marry in the spring in a family affair—rumors of trouble cropped up over the holidays. Armstrong's rep dismissed the buzz as "100 percent untrue," but eyebrows arched again on Jan. 18, when Crow did not accompany Armstrong on a Johannesburg trip to launch a health initiative. Again his rep deflected the talk, explaining that Crow had her own gig in Puerto Rico.
Whenever they did appear together last fall, "they seemed just fine," says a source. "But Lance is very professional, and so is Sheryl. So if there were any problems going on, they wouldn't have given any indication." Still, Crow clearly had marriage on her mind as recently as her Jan. 30 Nashville concert. Wearing a flowing white dress, she joked that she should get married right then and pretended to call Armstrong onstage (he was in California, she told the disappointed crowd). Four days later their split was official. Says Steve Crow: "All I can say is, they tried."
The couple quickly, and publicly, went their separate ways. Armstrong took to the Sirius airwaves, while Crow hit the catwalk Feb. 3, minus her platinum-set diamond engagement ring, for a charity fashion show in New York City. While she seemed tentative on the runway, backstage she "was in a great mood," says makeup guru Bobbi Brown, who helped her get ready. The Grammy nominee kept her spirits up in L.A. Feb. 6 as she honored James Taylor at the MusiCares Person of the Year event by singing Taylor's "Mexico" and telling the honoree, "You changed my life."
It's the same thing she has frequently said about Armstrong. As she comes to terms with the split, Crow's busy touring schedule over the coming weeks should help distract her. "She will be just fine," says friend Natalie Cole. "She is a strong woman." Meanwhile Armstrong, who canceled plans to present at the Grammys Feb. 8, is hanging at the Austin-area ranch they once shared and getting pep talks from mom Linda, who raised Armstrong as a single parent at 17. "I am a walking testimony," says Linda, "that people can go through difficult times." That's something both Armstrong and Crow are prepared for. "They do care for each other very deeply," says a mutual friend. "They are both struggling with this very much."