07/26/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
The start of the Tour de France does not usually generate quite so much heat and passion: Defending champ Lance Armstrong left the gate last, set a blistering pace and wound up with the second-fastest time of the day among the 188 competitors. At the finish line, girlfriend Sheryl Crow
, wearing a white coat with a leopard lining and trembling from the excitement of the race, threw her arms around her man and shared a kiss that one French sportswriter described as "fiery, impetuous and nearly unending." A French kiss, as it were.
"She's a great girl," Armstrong said later. "She's been there every day for me." He has needed her slim shoulder to lean on, because going into this year's Tour, Armstrong, 32, has been dogged by questions—mainly whether he can take an unprecedented sixth consecutive crown. And in a book published recently in France, Armstrong's former masseuse alleged that he had asked her to get rid of used syringes, triggering speculation that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. (Armstrong has angrily denied the allegation, and his lawyers have filed suit.) Above all, however, there's the issue of whether his romance with the singer Crow, at 42 ten years his senior, will prove to be the distraction that dethrones him: Will she become, wondered one columnist, "the Yoko Ono of cycling"? Lance's mom doesn't think so. "Sheryl is a superpositive influence on Lance," says Linda Armstrong Kelly. "She's onboard and she's telling Lance, 'Go kick some booty.' " Her own feelings about Sheryl? "I adore her," says Linda. "She's so dear, loving and caring."
While in the middle of a divorce from his wife, Kristin, with whom he has three young children, Armstrong ran into Crow in October 2003 at a charity event in Las Vegas hosted by Andre Agassi. Soon they were flirting via Blackberry. "I said I'd teach him to play guitar, if he taught me how to cycle," Crow told Sports Illustrated. Friends say that despite coming from such different realms, the pair have much in common. "Their personalities really seem to mesh," says one of Armstrong's buddies. "They're both extremely driven people. It really seems like the real thing." As the lovestruck Crow, who's dated Eric Clapton and actor Owen Wilson
, told a reporter in early July, meeting Armstrong "changed my life—and I'm happier than I've ever been."
Armstrong stays at Crow's Hollywood Hills home when he trains in California (he gave her a new bike last year, and they ride together), and Crow has happily taken on laundry and cooking duties during some training stints. So far she's spent almost every day following Armstrong at the Tour. "I have no gripes being in the shadow," she said. And for one of Armstrong's oldest chums, Austin bike-store owner Hill Abell, that can only augur well. Asks Abell:" What's going to make him faster than being in love?"
By Bill Hewitt. Peter Mikelbank in Paris and Alicia Dennis in Austin