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By Lennard Zinn
Watching the Tour de France, one can easily conclude that one of Lance Armstrong’s biggest strengths is he can be coldly calculating, but the same can be said of the U.S. Postal Service team, which also plays the Tour de France as if it were a game of chess.
Armstrong and the team have brought many new things to the Tour, like chiropractors, team chefs, and the scouting of every single stage route prior to the race. Less publicized and perhaps as unprecedented are the tiny details of meticulous planning that the team does. As in chess, every move a team or rider makes during the Tour has repercussions later in the race, and having seen Johan Bruyneel and his team in action, I don’t think I would want to play chess with any of them.
It is no secret that success in the Tour is critically dependent on recovery after each stage, and the Postal team planning focuses on this as much as on the tactics during each stage. I think it is Chris Carmichael who said that Lance wins the Tour de France by the quality of his sleep, and all of the team’s support personnel work to give him and the other riders as much quality rest as they can.
The battle of the busses
As a way to maximize rider recovery time, the U.S. Postal bus somehow always manages to get the best possible placement at the finish of any bus, and where that is depends on the stage. On many road stages, the team buses are lined up, often in a double line, straight down the road beyond the finish line. And the blue Postal bus is always at the front of the line.
Postal riders, who have clearly been given directions in advance to the bus location, go straight through the finish area and continue directly to the bus. They hop on, and the bus is usually the first to leave and down the road while their competitors are stuck behind other team buses waiting for riders.
Scooting around the press
For the team time trial, the Postal bus placing after the finish in the narrow, cobbled town center of Arras was quite different. As usual, the final kilometer of the course was completely fenced in, as was the entire finish area and beyond. Only people with race credentials are allowed into the fence openings, and the throng waiting at the far end opening for the riders to come out after completing the stage grew ever denser as the day wore on.
Within the fenced finish area, the road took a sharp right past the finish line, and the journalists were huddled out of the rain under a tent along the subsequent straight section, watching the race on TV monitors. The road then took a sharp left before exiting the opening in the fencing, and it was right here that the Postal bus was parked, backed right up to the opening in the race fencing, while most of the other buses were down the street in a large parking area.
The wet riders from every other team crossed the line, then made the right turn and were immediately enveloped by journalists who had poured out of the TV tent. But not the Posties. The journalists saw them finish on the monitors and stood outside the tent waiting for them, but they did not come. They had obviously been instructed to stay at the finish to avoid the journalists. This is the opposite of the road stages, where they blaze right through the finish, get past the crowds of riders, photographers, journalists and support personnel, and go straight to the bus.
The journalists waited in confusion, and, by the time they realized what had happened, Armstrong had disappeared. The rest of the team pushed through their confused and dispersed ranks rapidly, a phalanx of team staff waiting by the fence opening pushed fans out of the way so the riders had a pathway along the side of the bus, and they were on it before anyone got their prized rain-soaked autographs.
The experience of other teams after the TTT was quite different. Most of them had to push through a gauntlet of fans to get to their team buses in the large parking area down the street, being glad-handed in their soaking-wet and exhausted state. And the lowest-ranked team, R.A.G.T. Semences, showed its lack of experience by not securing parking for its team bus at all in the city center. Its riders were forced to seek shelter under the journalists’ unheated TV tent to don an extra layer or two, at which time they were told by their team personnel that they would have to ride five kilometers or so to their hotel.
When one rider whimpered in his wet agony that he did not know if he could make it, he was told that perhaps it was only three or four kilometers, and, if he wanted to wait, somebody could maybe come pick him up with a team car, but it would take a long time because the whole city center was jammed with people, traffic, and barricades. It’s a world of difference from the support given a Postal rider.
One vehicular glitch came right before the start, but otherwise Postal’s ability to avoid crashes and mechanical problems of its riders or its vehicles has seemed far better than others. The day before the prologue, U.S. Postal team’s Director of Communications Dan Osipow got two rear flat tires on his team car. The team mechanics mobilized to change the tires, and Osipow expressed concern about this being an ill omen or sabotage, since in five prior Tours he and the team had never had a single mechanical glitch with an automobile. However, it later turned out that the tires were just low and did not have holes in them. Osipow theorized that somebody had simply deflated them.
Calculating stage placings?
It is clear that Armstrong is not as enamored with simply getting to wear the yellow jersey as other riders, except at the end of the race. He could not have been more pleased with his second place in the prologue, so the onus was not upon Postal to protect the yellow shirt. And after coming into it after the team time trial, he was quite happy to let it go onto the shoulders of Thomas Voeckler the next day. The extra effort required from teammates working all day long, and the extra media demands placed on the wearer of the Golden Fleece itself reduce recovery for the tough mountain and time trial stages later on. But in those mountain stages, I contend that Postal is still calculating Armstrong’s placings based on recovery considerations.
One of the hardest things to do after a mountaintop finish is to get off that mountaintop. In most cases, there is only one road up, and as soon as the race passes by, that road floods with spectators trying to get back down, making it virtually impassable to vehicular traffic. The team cars get priority and can go down the mountain before any other vehicles, but it is still a slow and arduous process to wend their way down. Often there is not room for team buses at the top, so riders are not relaxing in the bus during the drive, and you know how rejuvenating it is to sit in a car in a traffic jam. Also, it is well documented that breathing the rarified air of high altitude slows recovery, so the sooner you can get the riders to lower-lying terrain, the better.
You have probably seen that some of the well-financed teams like Postal fly at least their star riders off of the mountain in helicopters. But with whatever means you get them down, you want to set off ASAP, and I would not be surprised if recovery time went into the decision for Armstrong to let Ivan Basso win the stage to La Mongie. (I realize that it is not a generally agreed upon point that Armstrong did not contest the final meters, but I have no doubt.)
Had Armstrong won that stage, he would have had to go to mandatory medical control, stand on the podium, and, after the podium presentation, give a mandatory press conference (the stage winner and the yellow the jersey always must do all three of these things). Once he has the yellow jersey, he must commit this amount of time anyway after each stage, but until then, he only is required to if he wins a stage. These duties can delay his departure for the hotel, massage, dinner and bed by perhaps an hour and a half.
Given the way this Tour was shaping up and how Voeckler was holding up, it was reasonable to think that the following day Armstrong might take the jersey at Plateau de Beille (indeed, Armstrong later admitted that he had even planned on it), in which case he would have to be at the podium presentation and press conference anyway. That was to be an extremely tough, as well as pivotal stage, and the maximum amount of rest before it would be beneficial. So why not let Basso bathe in the glory, excitement and lost recovery time at La Mongie while Armstrong got a jump on the recovery process for Plateau de Beille?
While Voeckler did hold onto the jersey once again at Plateau de Beille, it was only by the hair on his chinny, chin, chin. Until his last few pedal strokes, it could have gone either way, in which case a delayed departure from the mountaintop was in the cards for Armstrong. Furthermore, the next stage was flat and was followed by a rest day, so immediate recovery was a little less crucial. That was a more strategic time to zip up the jersey and pop the Italian in the sprint.
I of course have only circumstantial evidence to support my theory of why Lance passed on the sprint at La Mongie, and nobody would ever ‘fess up even if it were true, but it would certainly not surprise me, given that every move Postal’s riders and staff make in the Tour is done as if they are coolly playing chess, calculating many moves ahead.