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 Brian�on 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."