Work in Sports
No gold for Armstrong
Judgment error proves costly for U.S. cycling team
SYDNEY, Australia -- There are plans that work and there are plans that don't work. This is about a plan that worked, but also didn't work. It belonged to Lance Armstrong and the United States cycling team.
The goal was to put the two-time Tour de France winner on the gold medal stand at the end of yesterday's 239.4 kilometer road race, adding another glorious chapter to his comeback from testicular cancer. The plan was for the other four U.S. riders to protect him, to force the action, then bring him to the front for the final 14 laps, when he could break away for the win. This was exactly what happened, Armstrong fresh and ready to go at the start of the 14th lap.
"I got to what I thought was the front," said Armstrong. "I pulled up to (teammate) George Hincapie and asked if there was anyone else to catch. George told me 'No.' I thought we were in great shape. George thought we were in great shape."
Well, the radios the U.S. team used to keep in contact with the coaching staff had gone dead. This had become an old-time cycling game, the competitors left to figure out for themselves where they were on the course and what they had to do. Hincapie had thought the leaders were two Italians, Michele Bartole and Paolo Bettini, who had sprinted from the pack. The two Italians had been tracked down, and Hincapie thought he and Armstrong now were in the lead group.
This was wrong, as Armstrong noticed when he crossed the start-finish line to begin the final lap. A scoreboard screen showed two Germans and a rider from Khazikstan far in the lead. Armstrong pointed out the picture to Hicapie.
"George," he said. "What's that?"
"Oh, bleep," Hincapie said.
One of the Germans was world cycling champion Jan Ullrich. He and teammate Andreas Kloeden and Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazikstan had made their move halfway during the preceding lap before Hincapie's group had caught the Italians. They were so far gone that the race was over.
"The only rider in the world who could race with Jan Ullrich in that situation is Lance," Hincapie said. "But we were already too far back."
So Ullrich rode to the gold in a time of 5:29:08. Vinokourov was second. Kloeden was third. Hincapie finished eighth, Armstrong 13th, a minute and a half back. The new chapter would have to wait as assorted members of the U.S. press corps slipped their computers back into their bags and hurried to the track or to the U.S.-Cuba baseball game in hopes of better tales of gold. Armstrong was saved for another day, Saturday, when he will compete in the time trials.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "No one can slip away during a time trial. That is the race of truth."
The only plan necessary for that race will be to ride really fast.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Leigh Montville is in Sydney covering the
Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. The opinions expressed here are solely
those of the