A champion needs more than strength

With the countdown to the Tour de France officially on, we are all thinking about one thing: a three-peat. It suddenly feels as though the spring season has flown by and the big show is about to start. This is usually the time of year when I ask myself, "Man, weren’t we just in Paris?" As I write this, Tiger Woods is battling to capture the U.S. Open and his fifth consecutive major. Seeing a champion like Tiger nine strokes behind heading into the final round reminds us all that there are no sure things in sport. Even unprecedented favorites sometimes face challenges. When it comes down to

The yellow jersey demands passion from its wearer and his team

By Tyler Hamilton, US Postal Service Writer

Inspiration Tyler looks to champions like Tiger Woods and Ray Bourque for his.

Inspiration Tyler looks to champions like Tiger Woods and Ray Bourque for his.

Photo: Graham Watson

A champion needs more than strength

A champion needs more than strength

Photo:

With the countdown to the Tour de France officially on, we are all thinking about one thing: a three-peat. It suddenly feels as though the spring season has flown by and the big show is about to start. This is usually the time of year when I ask myself, “Man, weren’t we just in Paris?”

As I write this, Tiger Woods is battling to capture the U.S. Open and his fifth consecutive major. Seeing a champion like Tiger nine strokes behind heading into the final round reminds us all that there are no sure things in sport. Even unprecedented favorites sometimes face challenges. When it comes down to it, all you really have are a bunch of human beings trying like hell to do their best.

Since I’m never one to lose faith, as evidenced by my undying support for the Boston Red Sox, I’m keeping my money on Mr. Woods. Not because I think he should win, but because I think hanging tough can be as impressive as winning. What I admire most about Tiger’s performance at the Open is that he’s still got his head in the game; he still sees himself in the hunt for victory. When you never say die, you never know what you can do.

Maybe it’s all the suffering we do in cycling that makes me empathize with Tiger on a weekend like this. We don’t often see him struggle. Many cyclists will tell you their sport is the toughest in the world. On the right day, you’ll find me among those who will defy anyone to contradict that sentiment. But it’s also important to put the struggling into perspective. How many folks competing in a game they love have the opportunity to do so at the highest level? Fewer still are able to defend titles on this plateau.

So, it’s important to appreciate the opportunity and the experience as much as the challenge. When you are consumed by cycling day in and day out, it’s easy to lose sight of where you are. And in doing so, you may miss an important point: This is as good as it gets.

Having missed the play-by-play action of the Stanley Cup finals, I wasn’t able to see the Colorado Avalanche pile up on Ray Bourque in real time. But I read about it over the Internet and felt as much emotion as if I had been there to see it happen in person.

Bourque’s sportsmanship and loyalty to hockey over the past 22 years are unprecedented. He has been the ultimate team captain, a player who leads by example.

When he left the Boston Bruins for Colorado, Bourque left an incredible void. But his fans supported his personal goal to finally win a Stanley Cup. When he fulfilled his dream in Game 7 of the finals, you can bet the city of Boston celebrated.

His story is a great inspiration, and one I may find myself reflecting upon during the upcoming Tour. If Bourque could make it through 22 years of hockey, I should be able to get through three weeks of bike racing.

People always want to know how the team prepares for the Tour. It’s well known that we are all measured by how many kilometers we’ve ridden, our weight, body fat and resting heart rate, our watts per kilo, lactate thresholds and average training speeds.

While this data makes for a nice bar graph, it only tells part of the story. The other criteria that matter are intangible but equally important. But there’s really no way to statistically quantify motivation. Or morale. Or enthusiasm. Or commitment. Or loyalty. Or dedication. Or passion. Or desire.

Nevertheless, these are some of the other qualifiers that, when combined with the hard data, go into making a great teammate for a defending Tour de France champion. In fact, they may be what distinguishes one rider from another. They certainly factor into naming a Tour de France team. And it’s every director’s job to assess each rider in total.

Consider the U.S. Postal Service. Everyone selected for the Tour team will be expected to give his heart and soul to Lance Armstrong’s cause. The objective is to stack the team with the riders who will be able to give until they have nothing left — then find the strength to give more. Those are the guys you want on your team. The ones who will give everything they have and then some because the yellow jersey depends on it.

Selecting the final team is a difficult process, especially if you have a roster rich in talent. I recently had a conversation on this subject with our team director, Johan Bruyneel. He brought up a good point about how my riding for Lance on L’Alpe d’Huez in 1999 was more impressive than my 13th-place finish overall. People remember good teamwork, and they especially like to see athletes who can push themselves beyond what is expected of them. Until that day, I had never proven myself as a climber. But as I’ve said many times before, I never knew how much strength I had until I had the yellow jersey on my wheel that day.

It’s memories like this one that motivate you while you train. It’s epic moments like that climb that stick with you and inspire you. Maybe I’m getting nostalgic about this memory, given that L’Alpe d’Huez is part of the Tour again this year. But in a drawn-out event like the Tour de France, a little nostalgia can take you a long way.

There are champions, and there are champions worth rooting for. I think the difference between the two is how each goes about his job. I hope people think of the USPS team as part of that second group — as the kind of guys who understand the importance of teamwork, camaraderie and selflessness.

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