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In Advance of Lance

No one knows better than Lance Armstrong that there's no yellow jersey in the Tour de France without selfless teammates paving the way

By Tim Layden

  Click for larger image Armstrong is king of the hill, thanks to his climbing posse of (from left) Heras, Hamilton and Rubiera.  Simon Bruty
On the morning of July 14, 1999, Christian Vande Velde rode his bike out of the Italian ski resort town of Sestriere and directly to the front of the 10th stage of the 86th Tour de France. That was his assignment. A 23-year-old Tour rookie riding for Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team, Vande Velde was expected to exhaust himself riding the first 45 kilometers (28 miles) of the stage downhill into a brisk, warm breeze, forcing a fast pace that would discourage opposing riders from breaking loose from the peloton and denting Armstrong's six-minute overall cushion before the killing climbs that would follow. Vande Velde delivered, pulling on the lead for more than an hour before dropping back into the pack at the base of the steep rise into Mont Cenis Pass, the first of three precipitous ascents that culminate at the peak of the majestic L'Alpe d'Huez. From the start in Sestriere to the final peak is a ride of nearly seven hours and 138 miles.

For Vande Velde, using his reserves so early would make his final five-plus hours torturous. Yet his work was not finished. During the final climb to L'Alpe, USPS support-team members radioed to Vande Velde that the team's lead riders (including Armstrong) needed water. Still far from the top, Vande Velde was ordered to turn around, ride downhill to the support car and sprint back uphill with eight full water bottles, some of them attached to his bike, some of them stuffed into his jersey. "You hear a request like that, right when you know it's going to get even more painful than it already is," says Vande Velde, "and you want to say, 'Aw, man, isn't there anybody else who can do it?'"

He would deliver the water, slide backward through the peloton and struggle to the finish in 155th place for the stage, nearly 34 minutes behind Armstrong. Wearing the yellow jersey of the leader, Armstrong finished a close fifth. More important, he extended his overall lead to 7:42 en route to the first of his two consecutive Tour de France victories.

High in the Alps that night, Vande Velde would sleep deeply, a weary, contented soldier. "It's hard work," he says. "But in the end, it's an amazing experience to know that Lance is behind me and that I'm doing something to help him."

They are called domestiques, the French word for "domestic," and they perform the hard labor that makes it possible for Lance Armstrong to ride down the Champs-Elysées wearing the yellow jersey, to hold his young son, Luke, on his shoulders in celebration, to feel the love from a world of admirers and to become one of the most recognizable athletic celebrities on the planet. It is Armstrong who finishes first, but it is his domestiques who escort him through the enervating three-week race. "Americans don't understand that cycling is a team sport," said Armstrong in an early June interview with SI during the five-day Bicicleta Vasca tour in mountainous northern Spain. "They see a guy on a bike, they think: individual sport. At times it is. But I could never, ever win the Tour de France without the team. Never."

The cyclists who will join Armstrong for this year's Tour, which begins on July 7 in Dunkerque in northern France, are a collection of gifted individual riders who sublimate their ambitions in favor of Armstrong's, a hoary tradition that exists in cycling alone among "individual" sports. They will protect Armstrong from other teams (every contender is part of a nine-man team) in the dense and raucouspeloton of 189 riders, allow him to draft in the wind, cover opposing breaks and ferry him high into the Alps and the Pyrenees until he is ready to unleash his explosive late climbs. They will finish dead tired, anonymous outside the cycling world. "There will be nights when Lance is fresh as a daisy and all the support riders are facedown in their pasta, and that's the way it's supposed to be," says Frankie Andreu, an American who has ridden in nine Tours, including the last two as one of Armstrong's mules, before retiring at the end of the 2000 season.

They will feel pride at seeing the Tour leader's yellow jersey on Armstrong's back. "It is almost magical, the yellow jersey," says USPS director Johan Bruyneel, 36, who coordinates training and strategy for the team, two years after ending a cycling career in which he rode in seven Tours, exclusively as a domestique. "If a team can take the yellow jersey to Paris, a big piece of that shirt is theirs."

Bruyneel will select the nine-man USPS team for next month's Tour de France. "For sure, nobody will be on the team who is not willing to work to make Lance the winner," he says. Certain to be among Bruyneel's selections are climbers Tyler Hamilton of Marblehead, Mass., Roberto Heras and José Luis Rubiera of Spain, and Victor Hugo Peña of Colombia, along with flatland specialists George Hincapie of Greenville, S.C., and Vande Velde of Boulder, Colo. All are members of the USPS team, under contract to Tailwind Sports, the San Francisco-based company that operates the team with principal sponsorship from the U.S. Postal Service.

Hamilton, 30, has worked on mountain stages for two years, setting up Armstrong's ferocious late-stage climbs. A former ski racer who took up cycling only at age 20 while rehabbing a back injury at the University of Colorado, the 5'8", 143-pounder (all climbers are smallish; weight is their enemy) was 13th overall in the 1999 Tour and 25th last year. He is in the final year of his contract with Tailwind and at the end of the season will consider joining a team that will make him its lead rider. "I've thought about riding for myself in the Tour de France," says Hamilton. "But if it doesn't happen, I'll have no regrets having done what I've done for Lance. This is the biggest race in the world, and to have your teammate win it is incredible."

Heras has moved in the opposite direction. The 27-year-old came in fifth in last year's Tour de France as the leader of the Spain-based Kelme team, and many cycling observers regard him as having the potential to win one himself. However, at the start of this year he signed with Tailwind to work for Armstrong. "I am proud to help," Heras says. "This is the best team in the world. The guys can teach me how to ride in a big stage race." (In turn Armstrong plans to serve as a domestique as Heras tries to repeat his Tour of Spain victory in September.)

Hincapie was among the overall leaders for the first week of the '98 Tour de France, and Vande Velde, one of the best young riders in the world, is returning to France after having missed last year's race when he was bitten by a spider a few days before the start. Both will be vital to preserving Armstrong in the early stages and will sacrifice themselves by allowing Armstrong to draft and avoid collisions during the flat stages.

Together, the team will protect Armstrong in ways that are both obvious and hidden. In the early days, when the stages are generally flat or gently rolling, USPS teammates will try to keep Armstrong shielded near the front of the peloton, out of the wind and out of harm's way. "The farther back in the pack you are, the more likely you are to get in a crash," says Andreu. "Our goal has been to get Lance to the mountains [roughly stage 10 of 21, though the course changes from year to year; this year's race has 20 stages] as fresh as possible."

If there is a breakaway in the early stages, the USPS team will chase it down with Armstrong in tow, drafting to reduce his effort by as much as 30%. "We don't want Lance to touch the wind until he has to," says Hamilton. "Then it's up to him."

When the climbing begins, domestiques will help Armstrong high into the mountains, exerting maximum effort to keep him protected, until he attacks at the end of the climb. Drafting is less effective on uphills ("although it still helps," says Armstrong), but the presence of a teammate is emotionally reassuring to a leader and discouraging to opponents. "I see a guy alone, that's an opportunity for me," says Armstrong.

When Armstrong first takes the yellow jersey, his teammates defend it passionately. On the flats they study the peloton, waiting for a rider within hailing distance of Armstrong to make a break, then chase the enemy down as a group, alternating at the front position. Once reconnected to the pack, the lead team will never put itself in front to fight the wind. "It's understood in cycling that the yellow jersey [team] never takes a turn on the front [of the peloton]," says Andreu. "Those are the rules."

In the mountains support riders defend the yellow jersey by establishing a painful tempo that discourages dangerous pursuing riders from attacking. Last July 15 Hincapie rode in the front early in the 155-mile, three-climb stage 14 from Draguignan to Briançon in the southeast corner of France before yielding to Hamilton, who would yield to Armstrong. "I was completely wasted with something like 20 miles of climbing left," said Hincapie, who finished 67th in the stage.

In 1999 Hamilton climbed to the bottom of the last rise on L'Alpe d'Huez before Armstrong took over. In doing so, Hamilton not only stamped himself as a future contender but also shocked the European media, which didn't think Armstrong's teammates were strong enough to help him in the mountains. "When you have the yellow jersey on your wheel, there's something special about it," says Hamilton. "You draw extra strength from it. You know he's counting on you."

As his teammates grind, Armstrong rides sheltered but not silent, exhorting them from his protective cocoon.

We've got the best team in the world!

They're suffering back here!

These guys are pussies!

"He gets pretty crazy," says Vande Velde. "But it's motivation, and it works. It makes you want to ride harder."

In a number of stages, after his teammates have knocked themselves out protecting him, Armstrong is eventually left alone to build his lead, to crush the best cyclists in the world, as he has done each of the past two years. In 1999 he took the overall lead with a blistering time trial in Metz (the race has three time trials this year, and teamwork is no factor in them) and extended it in the mountains. In 2000 he assumed control with a breathtaking climb to Hautcam in the Pyrenees. It will be a huge upset next month if Armstrong does not again sit up in his saddle on the Champs-Elysées, arms raised. "I'm definitely fitter than I was the last two years," said Armstrong in Spain. "I am as passionate, as fired up, as happy as I've ever been in my life. And I want to win again because I know what it feels like."

The team, however, will not be forgotten. Armstrong gives away precious yellow jerseys (a rider receives two for every stage he wins) not only to his eight teammates but also to Bruyneel and his assistant and the USPS's sprawling entourage, made up of four bike mechanics, four soigneurs (massage therapists/managers/ do-it-alls), a team doctor, team chiropractor and three drivers. The jerseys are framed and put on display in homes from California to Massachusetts to Spain. In Tour de France tradition, the winner refuses his share of the $350,000 prize money and instead instructs that the cash be divided among his teammates and support crew. (The total comes to slightly under $20,000 for each domestique, after taxes.) In '99 Armstrong gave bonuses to each support rider out of his own pocket. By 2000 many of them had cash incentives—tied to an Armstrong victory—written into their contracts. (The riders' annual salaries are in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.) Every day during the race, on the USPS's custom tour bus, Armstrong finds each teammate and thanks him for the effort, looking straight into the rider's eyes. "It's up to me," he says, "to make them want to get on that bike again."

Last July 14, after the rolling, 115.5-mile stage from Avignon to Draguignan in the south of France, a ride in which the field was buffeted by brutal crosswinds, Armstrong heard grumbling among the domestiques.

"It's too tough up front," said one.

"I'm not going to make it," groaned another.

"The guys in the back are getting a free ride," carped a third.

The next morning Armstrong saw a picture in a French newspaper. It showed a panoramic view, with the USPS team spread nine-wide across the highway at an angle, each rider blocking the crosswind for the man behind him, except the front man, a position that was alternated. Behind the USPS riders was a long, single-file line of followers, all exposed to the wind, without teammates. Armstrong put the picture on the breakfast table in front of his teammates. "Look, we've got morale, solidarity and the yellow jersey with a week to go," he told them. Then, with his teammates watching in silence, he tapped the photo, his right index finger landing on the rider in a distant last place, painfully alone. "Think about what this guy has got."

Issue date: June 18, 2001

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