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Armstrong at doors of cycling legend

Posted: Wednesday July 10, 2002 5:23 AM
Updated: Wednesday July 10, 2002 7:14 AM

As Tour de France gets under way Cycling Weekly magazine takes a last look at race favorite and defending champion Lance Armstrong's opening odds.

LANCE Armstrong’s succession of Tour de France wins has been described by fellow American Greg LeMond as “the greatest comeback in the history of sport”. Nearly three years after the Texan’s first Tour win, there can be little doubt about that fact. The question now is how far Armstrong can go, and what his limits really are.

2003 represents a crucial moment in Armstrong’s career. Not just because if he does take the Tour for a fourth consecutive time, he will be only the fourth rider ever to do so. Quite apart from leaving behind the three other riders with a Tour hat-trick in their palmarès -- Louison Bobet, Philippe Thys and LeMond -- another victory would mean Armstrong would be just one July away from joining Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as a five-Tour winner. In other words, he’ll be at the doors of cycling legend.

The omens for Armstrong cracking a fourth Tour could hardly be better: to begin with, he’s won his last two races, the Midi Libre and the Dauphiné Libéré. Only two other riders have taken both French warm-up events for the Tour in the same season, Eddy Merckx in 1971 and Miguel Indurain in 1995. Both then won the Tour.

Armstrong’s team is in equally excellent shape. Teammate Roberto Heras’s victory in the Tour of Catalonia shows the Spaniard has regained his best climbing form, so the Texan should get solid support in the mountains. Not that he really needed it in 2001, but you never know.

As for the team time trial, Viatcheslav Ekimov and Jose Luis Rubiera are both cast-iron guarantees of a top three placing for US Postal.

Then there are the rivals -- or rather the lack of them. Jan Ullrich’s absence is a huge advantage for the Texan, although he says he will miss him. “The Tour needs favorites,” Armstrong said recently. ONCE-Eroski’s two leaders, Joseba Beloki and Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, could prove to be a formidable tandem but -- and the same goes for Kelme’s Oscar Sevilla and Santiago Botero -- Armstrong has had no problems defeating them soundly in the past.

Stronger still

Physically, the American told Le Dauphiné newspaper in mid-June, he feels “stronger than ever.”

“In 1999, I was 28, and the Tour de France demands high levels of endurance. It’s three weeks long, so it’s better to be older,” he said. “29, 30, 31, those are the good years in cycling. Just look at the Classics this year -- all the winners were veterans. You’re not finished in cycling after 32.

“I think that because of my illness, the longer I go on, the stronger I will be, because of the year I spent without racing, the treatment, the surgery, everything that implies. Of course, that won’t last for 15 years, but I think it’s still lasting now.”

So what can go wrong for Armstrong in the 2002 Tour? Firstly, like any rider, he could be a victim of illness, or injury. He could crash -- or be in the wrong place on a descent when somebody crashes right in front of him.

Secondly, he could have a very difficult first week. “The race will be more open than last year,” Armstrong predicts.

Thirdly, he could have a bad day, like in 2000 on the Joux Plane. Some argue the signs are already there: the Spanish rivals in particular have been saying that Armstrong is not as strong as he was in 2001.

Fourthly, Armstrong has laid the first foundation for his victories each year with a major attack at the foot of the final climb on the first major mountain stage. This year’s first summit finish at La Mongie does not come after a long ascent, so Armstrong’s tactics may have to change. This may cause him problems.

These are the factors that anyone can predict. There may be others -- like Postal getting overconfident of their advantage, or an unknown new star emerging. It has happened before to other Tour de France greats.

So nobody should automatically expect an Armstrong victory. Nobody should say the 2002 Tour is automatically going to be a monotonous one-man show. If Armstrong makes winning the race look easy, in the future that won’t be remembered as something boring, it’ll be remembered as something impressive.

What’s more, the Texan is just two steps away from becoming a major part of cycling’s history. Stick around for the ride.

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