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August 01, 2005
Lance Armstrong added to his legacy as the greatest cyclist ever with his seventh straight victory in the Tour de France. What lies ahead for him--and his sport?
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August 01, 2005

A Grand Finale

Lance Armstrong added to his legacy as the greatest cyclist ever with his seventh straight victory in the Tour de France. What lies ahead for him--and his sport?

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The answer was yes. Standing near the Discovery bus on the morning of July 15 in Miramas, on the Mediterranean coast, Trek's Discovery team liaison, Scott Daubert, tells me about Lance's new time-trial bike. After Armstrong finished ninth in the time trial at April's Tour de Georgia, the Trek boys got busy. "We executed a five-month project in five weeks," Daubert says. Thus was born the postmodern TTX, whose design was conceived by CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics)--aerospace-pioneered software that predicts how air will pass over the bike most efficiently. Says Daubert, "It's wonderfully complicated, terribly expensive, and it produces very good results." Armstrong got on the bike in June, two days before the start of the Dauphin�-Liber�, his last tuneup race before the Tour. How'd he like it? Daubert allows himself a brief smile. "He said, 'It rolls like a Rolls.'"

Daubert and his Trek crew were but one entity, along with Giro, Hed, Nike and Carmichael Training Systems, in the recently disbanded F1 Consortium. That was the vaguely self-important handle of the group that pooled its resources and intelligence to help Discovery, and its leader, go faster. Creating such a group was just one way that Armstrong exerted his singularly American influence on this very European sport. Cycling "is becoming more specialized," says Jorg Jaksche, a German who rides for Liberty Seguros. "There is a case to be made that Lance is the [trend's] originator." By specialization Jaksche means the ironclad role each Discovery rider is assigned before anyone has ridden so much as a kilometer in the Tour. Everyone knows who will be doing what to help Lance perform at his best.

Compare Discovery's discipline to the often mystifying tactics of T-Mobile, a team that looked very good on paper, with three potential Tour winners in Ullrich, Andreas Kl�den (second in last year's Tour) and Alexandre Vinokourov (third in '03), but not so good on the road. While Vinokourov and Kl�den said all the right things--Jan is our captain, we work for him--they rode a disjointed race. Vinokourov never concealed his ambition to supplant his German captain, who, for the first half of the Tour, seemed the least fit of the three. So frequent were the Kazakh's attacks that it became clear he was riding for himself. With a week to go in the Tour, Vino announced that he would not be with T-Mobile next year.

More and more, teams are emulating Discovery. "The problem," says Jaksche, "is that if your team's only goal is to ride for one leader, and he has some bad days"--as his team leader, Roberto Heras, did--"then everybody is a little bit lost."

Jaksche spoke while leaning against the team bus on the main drag of Issoire, a charming town in the Auvergne region of France. Across the boulevard was the Bar de l' Europe, where cycling fans were eagerly, fervently anticipating the day when Armstrong would be out of the peloton.

Christian Prudhomme, the Tour's new director, has too much tact to come right out and say that Armstrong's retirement will benefit his event. "I don't know if it's a good thing," says Prudhomme, who then proceeds to explain why it will be a good thing. "Next year more riders will have a chance to win. When he's in the peloton, he's the only rider who can win."

Indeed, Armstrong wore the leader's yellow jersey for the last 12 stages of this Tour, and he locked up his victory with a win in last Saturday's time trial in Saint-Etienne. While it is always inspiring to watch him ride against the clock, devouring the course with his metronomic cadence, it was hard not to feel a bit blas� about Saturday's victory. Yes, it was his first stage win of his final Tour. But it was to be expected. He won, just as he has won the Tour's final time trial in six of the last seven years.

While Armstrong's departure stands to breathe life and hope into the European cycling scene, what will be the effect on this side of the pond? "We're losing one of the greatest cyclists in U.S. history," says Gerolsteiner team leader Levi Leipheimer, a Montana native, "but we still have the best-ever group of riders left over" (box, page 47). So for the next few years American viewers will have reason to keep tabs on the Tour. But other than Dave Zabriskie, who is 26 and wore the yellow jersey for three days this year, none of the top Americans are much younger than Armstrong. What happens when they retire?

"There was a five-or-so-year period where USA Cycling dropped the ball," says Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong's who now covers the sport for the Outdoor Life Network. "There were financial problems, and the development of young riders kind of quit out." Once this crop of Yanks checks out, says Andreu, "we're going to have about four years where the U.S. may have one or no guys in the Tour."

Gulp. Does that mean the bottom falls out of cycling in the U.S.? "All the people who have become cycling fans over the last seven years," says Vaughters, who is now the director of the TIAA-CREF team, which boasts the top young U.S. riders, "are they going to decide, Oh, this sucks now?" He answers his own question. "Some of them will. Some are just Lance freaks. All these tour groups, they know there's going to be a drop, but they're pretty confident that business won't fall off the face of the earth."

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