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A Grand Finale?

When Lance Armstrong announced his retirement, to begin July 24, theimplications for the 2005 Tour de France couldn’t have been more profound.Three weeks after the six-time defending champion takes the start in Fromentineon July 2, one of two historic scenarios will develop: Either a rival willrise to the occasion and become the only rider to have stopped Armstrongin his streak of Tour victories, or Armstrong will further distance himselffrom an elite group of five-time Tour champions with an unprecedented seventhconsecutive victory. Either way, the cycling world awaits the outcome. Since

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Armstrong is looking to go out on top with Tour No. 7

By Neal Rogers

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

When Lance Armstrong announced his retirement, to begin July 24, theimplications for the 2005 Tour de France couldn’t have been more profound.Three weeks after the six-time defending champion takes the start in Fromentineon July 2, one of two historic scenarios will develop: Either a rival willrise to the occasion and become the only rider to have stopped Armstrongin his streak of Tour victories, or Armstrong will further distance himselffrom an elite group of five-time Tour champions with an unprecedented seventhconsecutive victory. Either way, the cycling world awaits the outcome.

Since Armstrong’s April 18 announcement, speculation about his motivationfor the Tour de France has been rife, fueled by a sub-par (by Armstrong’sstandards) performance at the Dodge Tour de Georgia, where he finishedninth in the hilly 29.9km time trial, 1:46 behind former teammate and stagewinner Floyd Landis (Phonak). Armstrong’s ride led many to speculate thatperhaps the Texan has finally lost his notorious drive, or that he maybe spending too much time jet-setting with his rock-star girlfriend SherylCrow. Age, celebrity, doping allegations, lawsuits — there is no shortageof ammunition for why this year could see the end of Armstrong’s Tour deFrance reign.

Pundits should remember, however, that most of those factors were inplay last July, when Armstrong seemed to coast to victory 6:19 ahead ofrunner-up Andreas Klöden. In fact, other than an unforgettable 2003Tour — where the U.S. Postal Service leader faced a series of externalchallenges, including an admitted underestimation of his rivals — Armstronghas not been seriously threatened in the overall classification throughhis stretch of six wins. And if the past has taught us anything, historycould well repeat itself at the 2005 Tour.

THE QUESTION
Just moments after Armstrong dropped the retirement news that the cyclingcommunity had been anticipating for months, the questions came pouringin. In different variations, the inference was the same: How can you expectto dominate a race as grueling as the Tour in the days leading up to yourretirement from the sport? In usual fashion, Armstrong’s answer was swiftand assured.

Photo: MAO/L'EQUIPE

“Because of the dream to go out on top,” he said. “That’s a big dealto me. The number seven is different than any of the others. It doesn’thold the cachet that six did, but that’s not important. What is importantis that I still love what I do, I still go out and kill myself on six-hourbike rides and absolutely love it. The passion is there, and the will towin another one is there. Above all, this will to win one final one andthen stop is pretty compelling for sports fans. It’s been a dream of minefor a long time, and whenever I watch sport, whatever sport it may be,I love to watch the guy go out on top. I would love to try and do that.”

Is Armstrong worried that he might be taking it one race too far? “Iam absolutely concerned with that,” Armstrong admitted. “I think all championsare concerned about losing. It’s the fear that drives them and gets themup early. I don’t want to lose number seven, but I didn’t want to losethe others, either. It’s great to win, but it’s even tougher to lose, tolook at your teammates, your staff, your sponsors and try to justify whyyou didn’t win. I don’t want to face those types of questions.”

One man who knows Armstrong as well as anyone is his team director JohanBruyneel. It was Bruyneel who first planted the idea in Armstrong’s mindthat he could be a Tour champion, and it was Bruyneel whom Armstrong initiallyconsulted when he began contemplating retirement. Like Armstrong, Bruyneeldoesn’t see a correlation between impending retirement and any vulnerabilityat this year’s Tour.

“Knowing Lance, he’s a person [who] when he gets focused, he has hisobjective in front of him; it’s all in his mind,” Bruyneel said. “I don’tthink [his retirement] is going to be of any influence on him. On the contrary,I think it’s going to be a motivating factor. It’s going to be his lastone, and he wants to win his last one.”

Armstrong seconds Bruyneel, saying, “Hey, it’s a competition. The pleasureis in winning. It’s not for show.”

Could Armstrong change his mind? He rarely second-guesses himself,and he says he’s not about to start now. “Time is time,” he said. “I thinkpeople forget that if I were to win the Tour de France this summer, I wouldbe the oldest winner in modern cycling to win the Tour. Statistics likethat speak for themselves. While the Tour de France is an older man’s race,it’s not an old man’s race.”

THE COMPETITION
As in years past, a half-dozen riders will arrive at the Tour fullycommitted to ousting the American from the top step of the final Champs-Élysées podium. First on that list is T-Mobile’s Jan Ullrich, the man Armstrong has repeatedly named as the most talented rider in the pro peloton and his main threat. The Tour winner in 1997, Ullrich finished second to Armstrong three times (2000, 2001 and 2003) before taking his worst-ever Tour finish last year, fourth overall. Armstrong knows that Ullrich would like nothing more than to topple the Texan in this final opportunity.

“This is going to be a different year for the Tour de France. I’m oneyear older, and Jan Ullrich, who I always consider to be the main rival,looks to be much better than he’s ever been this time of year,” Armstrongsaid. “It could be an exciting Tour, and there’s a whole new young generationof riders coming up that I think will provide plenty of excitement.”

Armstrong admits he’s not paid close attention to that younger generation,partly because that’s not his primary concern. “Since I’ve basically beenpreparing in the United States, I definitely have less to go on than inprevious years,” he said. “I know that the younger and newer talent, likeDamiano Cunego and Alejandro Valverde, are going to want to beat me andmake my legs hurt. That’s not counting Jan [Ullrich], [CSC’s] Ivan [Basso]or [T-Mobile’s Alex] Vinokourov, who will still want to defeat me. Butthinking about my adversaries is looking at the problem the wrong way around:The important thing is to reach my peak form on July 2nd and to give myall every day.”

Many speculate that Basso, the only man able to hang with Armstrongin the mountains last July, could be the one to end Armstrong’s reign.The CSC rider’s second-place result at the Giro d’Italia’s stage 8 timetrial this year caught Armstrong’s attention, as he told the Italian newspaperLa Gazzetta dello Sport. “To be honest, I was really astounded byhis performance in the Florence time trial,” Armstrong said. “I knew thathe had improved, but he went well beyond my expectations. If he rides likethat in the Tour and is as strong on the climbs, he will be very difficultto beat.”

While racing in Georgia, Armstrong sized up his chief American rivals— namely Landis, Gerolsteiner’s Levi Leipheimer and CSC’s Bobby Julich.And while Landis convincingly won the time trial, Armstrong said it isLeipheimer he most expects trouble from in July.

“To me the best Tour rider [of the three] is Levi, only because he’sproved it, besides Bobby being third back in 1998,” Armstrong said. “Inrecent years Levi has really been consistent in the Tour, aside from theyear he crashed. I think he’ll be up there again. I’m impressed by howhard he works. He’s a tough guy. You can go out on five-, six-, seven-hourrides and he never complains. He’s a hard worker. That’s a great thingto see.… I think Levi will be tough in the Tour. I could see him beingtop five, top three.”

Armstrong often talks deferentially about his competitors, even thoughhe has dominated every one of them over the past six years. Many speculatethat the American needs to create this competitive tension in the placeof a true challenger.

Bruyneel disagrees. “It’s respect for his rivals. Once you start tobe in a position that you think that nothing can happen to you, it’s goingto go wrong,” he said. “I think that once he was in that position, in 2003,and it almost went wrong. That’s definitely never going to happen again.He has respect for the rivals, he knows that they are preparing, that theyare motivated. And he has respect for the race. He knows that it’s thehardest bike race in the world.”

It’s a sentiment Armstrong shares. “The Tour is crazy,” he said. “Itis not like any other bike race. It’s 10 times harder than the Giro d’Italiaand 50 times harder than a Tour of Switzerland, for example. It’s aggressive,it’s scary, it’s dangerous. The first week is like Paris-Roubaix everyday. It’s just fighting and fighting and positioning.”

THE CONDITION
Eyebrows were raised when Armstrong rolled across the time-trial finishline in Rome, Georgia, almost two minutes slower than Landis. While Landiswas quick to dismiss the significance of the result, insisting that theTour was still months away and Armstrong would arrive prepared, the presswasn’t willing to let it go quite so easily. In his customary straightforwardtone, Armstrong addressed his time-trial performance head on.

“Clearly the [Georgia] time trial was bad,” he said. “We can’t do timetrials like that and win the Tour de France again. But there’s one lesstime trial [at the Tour de France], thank goodness. So I have to look atwhere I am. Is it a problem with time trialing? Is it a problem with lackof time on the TT bike? Is it climbing? Is it my condition? Did I not doenough in the winter?”

Again, the question arose whether his high-profile status and the demandsplaced on him by sponsors, fans and the cancer community might have contributedto his falling off pace in his preparation.

“I don’t think so,” he answered. “While I was busy, I had been busythe year before and two years before. I think I am on track. I don’t knowthat it’s perfect, but I’m not far off. I have to reevaluate where I amand what needs work. I know that you have to look at every aspect of cycling— the training, the diet, the rest, the recovery, the focus, the lack ofdistractions — all that stuff has to be perfect in order to win anotherTour.”

At the conclusion of the Tour de Georgia, with Discovery Channel teammateTom Danielson secure in the overall race lead (in part due to Armstrong’space-setting on the decisive Brasstown Bald Mountain stage), the Tour championevaluated his late-April test. “I was not in great shape,” he said. “WhatI haven’t been doing is super-high intensity work, which leads to poortime trials. When you have climbs like [Brasstown], when you’re reallyin the red, it’s very difficult to go there if you haven’t pushed yourselfin that type of training. I haven’t touched that type of training yet,but it starts here.”

With a month of high-intensity training planned ahead of the June 5-12Dauphiné Libéré, the cycling world would find outsoon enough whether Armstrong’s renewed regimen would be enough.

THE TEAM
Following the Dauphiné was Discovery Channel’s final Tour preparation,the June 19 ProTour team time trial in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Just13 days before the Tour, the TTT would serve as an indication of whichteams are firing on all cylinders and which need to be tuned up headinginto La Grande Boucle.

In Georgia, Discovery had already tested some of its proven Tour deFrance team members, including José Azevedo, José Luis “Chechu”Rubiera and Russian veteran Viatcheslav Ekimov. All three rode as expected,most notably Rubiera, who put in a tremendous breakaway effort on the firstmountain stage on the way to taking the KOM jersey.

But the heart of Discovery’s Tour team was dealt a substantial blowwhen Ekimov was injured in late April while training with Armstrong inAustin, Texas. The 39-year-old Russian has been a mainstay on U.S. Postal’sTour-winning squads since 2000, and, as Armstrong said, he will be sorelymissed. “Eki is one of my most solid teammates,” Armstrong said. “It makesme sad, not only as team leader but also as a man, because he really wantedto be a part of the big party in July.”

On May 4, Discovery named an 11-man “long list” of candidates for theTour team: Armstrong, Azevedo, Manuel Beltran, George Hincapie, Leif Hoste,Benoit Joachim, Benjamin Noval, Pavel Padrnos, Yaroslav Popovych, Rubieraand Paolo Savoldelli. Of the candidates, only Armstrong’s American palHincapie has been a member of all six of his Tour victories, and it’s asafe bet he’ll be looking for the experience of this year’s Paris-Roubaixrunner-up again in 2005.

THE EMOTIONS
One of the biggest complaints in France about Armstrong’s Tour dominanceis his exacting, almost robotic approach to winning stages and the overallclassification. In a country that values heart as much as victory, Armstrong’smerciless dismembering of his rivals is, to some, too predictable. As anexample, many in the race’s homeland felt his stage 17 come-from-behindsprint win, depriving Klöden of the stage victory at Le Grand Bornand,was over the top. Of course, Armstrong sees it differently.

“When I denied Klöden a stage victory, I was being true to my principles,and honest with the fans,” Armstrong said. “Sport is the law of the fittest,within the framework of clearly defined rules. Spectators expect this fightwithout mercy. It’s up to others to show more aggressiveness. It’s morethan desire; it’s an extreme tension of will that transmits itself to thebody.

“The bike is all-out war. If you take that away, you can stop the Tour,races … cycling. Here’s a sport where you can still go head to head withoutholding back, without faking anything. I want to leave behind an imageof a rider who never backed down, who never gave up.”

But could the emotion of riding his last Tour bring out Armstrong’ssofter side? Could the weight of the race’s finality become a burden?

“Frankly, I’m too focused on this last challenge to think about that,”Armstrong said. “The thing that makes me strong, I believe, is my abilityto focus my entire being on an objective, to give my best, and not wastea single bit of energy; doing it any other way wouldn’t make sense. I amaware that I have been around long enough and that I’ve had my day in thesun. I’m ready to move on in life. I’ve addressed it. I’m comfortable withit. I’m looking forward to final days … final days in America. I’m lookingforward to the Champs Élysées, and just getting on with life.”

And first, Armstrong stresses, he plans to savor his last go-round ofFrance in July.

“The Tour is a bit like a lifetime in three weeks,” he said. “Thereare highs, lows, tough breaks, joys, doubts, and you see where you areat the end. It’s the intensity I like, and I want to take full advantageof this last Tour. Which means, yes, I want to win it.”


“OLD” ACCORDING TO WHOM?
There have been riders in the Tour older than 50 and younger than 18,but the oldest winner is still the Belgian, Firmin Lambot, who was 36 yearsand 4 months old when he won his second Tour in 1922. His “successors”were Henri Pélissier (1923) and Gino Bartali (1948), who were both34 when they carried the maillot jaune to the Parc des Princes. That’sa nice benchmark for Lance Armstrong, who will be only 33 years and 10months old on July 24, when the 2005 Tour ends. If he pulls off his seventhvictory, he will do so at the same age as Léon Scieur (1921), LucienBuysse (1926) and Joop Zoetemelk (1980), who all won for the first andlast time. — S.L.
English translation by Mark Deterline

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