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
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-Elysees 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 Jose Luis Rubiera of Spain,
and Victor Hugo Pena 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.
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
Briancon 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-Elysees, 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
"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."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT Deja vu Last year the USPS team helped Armstrong control the Alps for a second straight Tour de France win. Now Lance & Co. go for three in a row.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Uphill battlers Armstrong is king of the hill, thanks to his climbing posse of (from left) Heras, Hamilton and Rubiera.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Next in line Down the road, Hamilton may win the Tour himself.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Got my back? When the domestiques' work is done, Armstrong can do what he does best: leave the pack behind.
Says Andreu, "There will be nights when Lance is as fresh as a
daisy and all the support riders are facedown in their pasta."
"You draw extra strength from having the yellow jersey on your
wheel," says Hamilton. "You know he's counting on you."
As his teammates grind, Armstrong rides sheltered but not silent,
exhorting them from his protective cocoon.