They could have required all Texans in the Tour de France to
ride Schwinn three-speeds with kickstands and tasseled
handlebars, but that would've been too obvious. So the grandees
running the Tour, which starts on July 6, did the next best thing.
For three years running, Lance Armstrong has won their race by
breaking it wide open in the mountain stages, customarily found
in the middle of this three-week bear. In so doing, Armstrong
has reduced the final week of the world's most famous bike race
to a prolonged anticlimax, a battle for deuxieme. Now, in a
marked departure from tradition, and in hopes--who knows?--of
seeing a fresh face atop the podium on the Champs Elysees,
officials have moved most of the mountain stages to the final
week. While not as overt as the attempts by the good ol' boys at
Augusta National to "Tiger-proof" the Masters, it still seems
obvious what's going on.
"Three days before we ride into Paris, we're still in the Alps,"
says Armstrong. "It's pretty unheard-of."
How does backloading the climbing into the final week penalize
Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service team more than any of the
20 other squads? Says USPS team director Frankie Andreu, "It
used to be, once you got through the mountains"--where Armstrong
does most of his damage, leaving his top rivals spent--"you had
a week of flat days, and you were home free."
The mountain stages always cull the contenders from the
pretenders in a Tour de France. This year that shakeout is
postponed, meaning that Armstrong & Co. must spend an extra week
bearing the burden of the favorite: Every time a few hotheads
get more than a kilometer up the road, all eyes in the peloton
will be on the Posties. "It increases the pressure on us," says
Andreu. Even though, at 2,050 miles, this is the second-shortest
Tour ever, "it will," he says, "be a long, long race for us."
Moving the mountains to the final third of the Tour ratchets up
the drama by narrowing Armstrong's margin for error. "If there's
a day in the mountains that doesn't go well--say he wakes up
with a bad stomach and loses a lot of time," says Chris
Carmichael, Armstrong's coach, "he could run out of road before
he can make up the time."
Gone is the cushion of a week of rolling and flat stages into
Paris. Gone also is Armstrong's main rival for the last three
years, Team Telekom's Jan Ullrich. The 28-year-old German, who
won the Tour in 1997 and has thrice been second to Armstrong,
withdrew in May, citing a bum knee. It's been a spring to forget
for Ullrich, who lost his driver's license after getting drunk
and crashing his Porsche into a bike rack outside a hotel in
Germany, proving that if it isn't doping plaguing the sport of
cycling, it's dopes.
The Posties, though, see a downside to Ullrich's absence. "With
just one overwhelming favorite," says Andreu, "everyone's going
to look to us to control everything."
"We're going to have to defend the jersey from Day One," says
Tom Weisel, who owns the Posties. "It puts a lot of strain on a
Yet Armstrong did not sound particularly strained last week as
he relaxed in his condo in Girona, Spain. "With 10 flat stages
in the beginning, we won't try to chase down every breakaway,"
he said. "We'll pick and choose our fights."
He'd just won a weeklong tune-up race, the Dauphine-Libere, but
wasn't exactly bubbling over with excitement. "Of course I was
happy to win," he said. "But every second of that race I was
thinking about the Tour de France."
While he never feels "super" in June, said Armstrong, he felt
stronger this June than he had in Junes past: "Subconsciously I
save the hard efforts, the deep, deep efforts, for the big race."
He has yet to reach down for one of those efforts this season.
That can't be good news for a depleted Tour de France field.
(Notable no-shows, aside from Ullrich, will be former Tour
winner Marco Pantani of Italy, who is serving a drug suspension,
and his countrymen former Giro d'Italia champions Gilberto
Simoni and Stefano Garzelli, both of whom face drug-related
disciplinary action.) Barring crashes, tactical blunders and
ill-timed bellyaches, Armstrong should come out of the mountains
in yellow--regardless of where in the race those mountains are.
And once he dons le maillot jaune, good luck getting it off him.
That will be Armstrong, next summer, powering up the Alp d'Huez
with a kickstand on his bike.
The next SI ADVENTURE will appear in the August 5 issue.
COLOR PHOTO: PASCAL RONDEAU/GETTY IMAGES FOUR-RUNNER The three-time champ wants more.
The Tour de France has raised the drama by narrowing Armstrong's
margin for error.