Saturday, July 4, 2009

Savvy Will Be Lance's Greatest Strength

By Chris Carmichael

It's hard to believe this is really happening. I've been Lance Armstrong's coach for 20 years and I've been writing about the Tour de France for 10 years, but I thought my days of referring to Lance as a Tour de France rider were long gone. The past three years, the Tour de France has been interesting, intense, and – for better and worse – rife with both triumph and scandal. The Tour went on without Lance, as we all knew it would, but now he's back and his influence on the race is inescapable. He's not the odds-on favorite for the yellow jersey like he used to be – and based on the results of today's Stage 1 time trial he's the fourth-ranked rider on his own team, but there's no doubt he has the power and savvy to significantly impact the final results.

During the height of his career, Lance's tremendous strength overshadowed his intelligence; people believed he won by large margins because he was just physically stronger than the competition. What the fans, most of the media, and even some of his competitors rarely recognized was the extent of Lance's tactical prowess. He won the Tour de France seven times, not because Johan Bruyneel was talking in his ear (although that certainly helped), but because he's one of the best on-the-road tacticians the sport has ever seen.

It's Lance's savvy, and not necessarily his strength, that should have riders throughout the Tour de France peloton worried. Don't get me wrong, he's extremely fit and his performance in Stage 1 – finishing 10th, within 22 seconds of Alberto Contador and only 40 seconds behind Fabian Cancellara – confirms my belief that his power output, stamina, and explosiveness are on par with any established contender in the race; but he's not the athlete he was in 2001 and 2002, either. On the other hand, at nearly 38 years old and with seven yellow jerseys to his credit, he's smarter now than he was when he was at his absolute strongest.

Part of winning bike races is making your competitors defeat themselves, and no one is better than Lance Armstrong at orchestrating situations that encourage his rivals – or his teammates' rivals – to make costly mistakes. “The Look” in 2001 – when Lance feigned weakness and suckered T-Mobile into burning through their riders on the roads leading to Alp d'Huez, was perhaps the clearest application of this tactic. A far more subtle example can be found in 2003.  Lance's primary rival – Jan Ullrich – should have won the Tour de France that year. The German was stronger than Lance at the beginning of the race and had him on his knees, suffering through a dehydration crisis following the Stage 13 individual time trial. If racing were purely a physical competition, Ullrich would have finished Lance off the following day and been the 2004 Tour de France Champion. But Lance had been beating up on Ullrich psychologically for months leading up to the Tour de France, and indeed for years as the two perennially battled for the yellow jersey. Instead of capitalizing on Armstrong's weakness, Ullrich remained timid and hesitant, and essentially allowed Lance time to recover and an opportunity to fight back.  

What's truly dangerous about having Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France this year is the fact that he's under no outside pressure for specific results. He doesn't need an eighth yellow jersey and isn't necessarily starting with the goal of winning the overall. He's not the unequivocal team leader and he's not even the top favorite on the team. That puts him in the unique position to keep everyone guessing about his next move. We all know that Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador, Carlos Sastre, Denis Menchov, and Christian Vandevelde are going to make decisions based solely on increasing their chances of winning the yellow jersey, and that makes them somewhat predictable. You can identify key places within the race where the known contenders are likely to hang back and conserve energy, and places – like summit finishes – that are well-suited to race-winning attacks. But what do you do about a guy like Armstrong? His rivals don't know if he's strong enough to really challenge for the yellow jersey. They don't know if he's riding as a domestique or a team leader, or at what moment he may switch from one to the other.

The man who could benefit most from Lance's presence at the Tour de France is Alberto Contador. Already we've seen that he's arrived at the Tour with great form and finishing second to Fabian Cancellara today and ahead of all other yellow jersey contenders shows that his abilities against the clock have improved since 2007. With a director like Johan Bruyneel in the car and a rider like Armstrong alongside as a teammate in the mountains and during the team time trial (not to mention Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer, who are currently sitting 4th and 6th), Contador could potentially win the Tour de France by a massive margin. But to be a strong asset to Contador, Lance has to be a factor in the race himself. He needs to be high up in the overall classification so he's perceived as a threat to the other contenders, and he's likely to ride high up in the classification as a natural result of supporting Contador during mountain stages. Thus far, even though we only have 15 kilometers in the bag, he's performing exactly how he needs to. A tenth-place finish in the opening time trial isn't exactly the dominating performance we saw and grew to expect from Lance in 1999-2005, but nonetheless he is sitting in 10th place overall, and in front of Carlos Sastre, Christian Vande Velde, Andy Schleck and Denis Menchov.

The other reality is that Lance Armstrong in a support role could also set up everyone's nightmare scenario: the only 7-time Tour de France Champion sitting just a few minutes behind the yellow jersey with less than a week of racing left to go. No one knows how to win the Tour de France better than Lance does, he has a proven ability to get stronger in the last week of a Grand Tour, and if he's within 5 minutes of the yellow jersey at the start of the final week, no one in front of him should breathe an easy breath.

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