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-Elys�es 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 raucous peloton 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 Jos� Luis Rubiera of Spain, and Victor Hugo Pe�a 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.)