Moving Mountains to Stop Lance
For three years running, Lance Armstrong has won their race by breaking it wide open in the mountain stages, customarily found in the middle of this three-week bear. In so doing, Armstrong has reduced the final week of the world's most famous bike race to a prolonged anticlimax, a battle for deuxième. Now, in a marked departure from tradition, and in hopes -- who knows? -- of seeing a fresh face atop the podium on the Champs Élysées, officials have moved most of the mountain stages to the final week. While not as overt as the attempts by the good ol' boys at Augusta National to "Tiger-proof" the Masters, it still seems obvious what's going on.
"Three days before we ride into Paris, we're still in the Alps," says Armstrong. "It's pretty unheard-of."
How does backloading the climbing into the final week penalize Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service team more than any of the 20 other squads? Says USPS team director Frankie Andreu, "It used to be, once you got through the mountains" -- where Armstrong does most of his damage, leaving his top rivals spent -- "you had a week of flat days, and you were home free."
The mountain stages always cull the contenders from the pretenders in a Tour de France. This year that shakeout is postponed, meaning that Armstrong & Co. must spend an extra week bearing the burden of the favorite: Every time a few hotheads get more than a kilometer up the road, all eyes in the peloton will be on the Posties. "It increases the pressure on us," says Andreu. Even though, at 2,050 miles, this is the second-shortest Tour ever, "it will," he says, "be a long, long race for us."
Moving the mountains to the final third of the Tour ratchets up the drama by narrowing Armstrong's margin for error. "If there's a day in the mountains that doesn't go well -- say he wakes up with a bad stomach and loses a lot of time," says Chris Carmichael, Armstrong's coach, "he could run out of road before he can make up the time."
Gone is the cushion of a week of rolling and flat stages into Paris. Gone also is Armstrong's main rival for the last three years, Team Telekom's Jan Ullrich. The 28-year-old German, who won the Tour in 1997 and has thrice been second to Armstrong, withdrew in May, citing a bum knee. It's been a spring to forget for Ullrich, who lost his driver's license after getting drunk and crashing his Porsche into a bike rack outside a hotel in Germany, proving that if it isn't doping plaguing the sport of cycling, it's dopes.
The Posties, though, see a downside to Ullrich's absence. "With just one overwhelming favorite," says Andreu, "everyone's going to look to us to control everything."
"We're going to have to defend the jersey from Day One," says Tom Weisel, who owns the Posties. "It puts a lot of strain on a team."
Yet Armstrong did not sound particularly strained last week as he relaxed in his condo in Girona, Spain. "With 10 flat stages in the beginning, we won't try to chase down every breakaway," he said. "We'll pick and choose our fights."
He'd just won a weeklong tune-up race, the Dauphiné-Libéré, but wasn't exactly bubbling over with excitement. "Of course I was happy to win," he said. "But every second of that race I was thinking about the Tour de France."
While he never feels "super" in June, said Armstrong, he felt stronger this June than he had in Junes past: "Subconsciously I save the hard efforts, the deep, deep efforts, for the big race."
He has yet to reach down for one of those efforts this season. That can't be good news for a depleted Tour de France field. (Notable no-shows, aside from Ullrich, will be former Tour winner Marco Pantani of Italy, who is serving a drug suspension, and his countrymen former Giro d'Italia champions Gilberto Simoni and Stefano Garzelli, both of whom face drug-related disciplinary action.) Barring crashes, tactical blunders and ill-timed bellyaches, Armstrong should come out of the mountains in yellow -- regardless of where in the race those mountains are. And once he dons le maillot jaune, good luck getting it off him. That will be Armstrong, next summer, powering up the Alp d'Huez with a kickstand on his bike.
The author, an incorrigible outdoor sports junkie and Sports Illustrated senior writer, muses on sundry subjects adventure-related.
Issue date: July 1, 2002
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