The defending champion is much more confident than a year ago
By Neal Rogers
When Lance Armstrong finished the 2003 Tour de France, even though he wonthe race for the fifth year in a row, he was full of doubts. Not much went right for him last year. His marriage broke up; he headed into the Tour with a gastro-intestinal infection picked up from his son; he developed sciatica from using new cleats in his shoes; and then he fell in the mass pileup on stage 1.
And that was just the beginning. After that came the rubbing-brake-pad incident on the Col du Galibier, his near-crash at Gap, dehydration in the first time trial, and his fall at the foot of Luz-Ardiden.
That he still beat an inspired Jan Ullrich by 61 seconds says much for Armstrong’s resilience. But it’s not an experience he wants to repeat at this year’s Tour, and that’s why he has been doing things a little differently in 2004.
Armstrong summed up his feelings on how he’s progressing with a new schedule during April’s Dodge Tour de Georgia.
“I feel ready to try and fix a performance that was very stressful and close for not only me but for the team and for the fans,” he said. “There’s more certainty and stability in my [personal] situation this year. I feel fine. I feel motivated and focused on the Tour.”
Just the Tour?
“The Tour is the granddaddy,” he said. “It’s the race I think about every day. All the work I do is based on the Tour de France. When I think about rivals, I think about rivals at the Tour.”
And did he consider that on the day in Georgia when he won two stages— a field sprint and a time trial — his main Tour rival, Ullrich, announced his withdrawal from the prestigious Liège-Bastogne- Liège one-day classic due to lack of fitness?
“It never crossed my mind,” Armstrong said. “It has no meaning. We’re sure Jan will show up to the Tour fit and ready to race.”
Returning for his first U.S. stage race since 1996 meant that for the first time since he came back from cancer, Armstrong missed all of the spring classics. Was this a good move? “Last year, the battle of the Ardennes exhausted me,” he revealed. “Wanting to win [the Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands] and then Liège-Bastogne- Liège wasn’t a good idea, as I spent myself both physically and mentally. I didn’t do this again, preferring to spend April in the States close to my children. That was really good for me, even if I was a little heartbroken to watch the Ardennes classics on TV and read about them on the Web.”
Another advantage of racing in Georgia was the chance to test his new time-trial position.
“We don’t have many opportunities to do time trials. It’s clearly one of the most important parts of the Tour. It’s where you can win or lose the Tour de France,” he said. “Considering you only do a handful of them before the Tour — whereas you have dozens of opportunities to do other types of stages — it’s one of the reasons we came [to Georgia]. We’re glad they added a time trial. This is the last time I’ll race this time-trial bike before the Tour de France.”
Indeed, in his final event before the Tour, the Dauphiné Libéré, he will use a road bike in the only time trial, up Mont Ventoux. However, the Ventoux should be great practice for the Tour’s featured time trial at l’Alpe d’Huez.
“L’Alpe d’Huez occupies a lot of [my] time, thinking about it, training for it, preparing for it technically,” Armstrong said. “We think that equipment and technical choices will be very important there. And then finally, when it warms up a bit, spending a lot of time over there.
“It’s a mountain that I know well, but I don’t know it well enough. I want to ride it like it’s my home course. I suspect that I’ll ride it between five and 10 times before the Tour.”
But when asked what he thinks will be the key stage to winning this year’s Tour, Armstrong didn’t follow conventional wisdom.
“That’s a difficult question,” he replied. “The time trial on the Alpe will be spectacular but I don’t think it will be decisive. Fifteen [kilometers], that’s not enough to make a big difference. I think that the first stages in the Pyrénées [La Mongie and Plateau de Beille] will be the key stages.”
Turning to his opponents, did Armstrong think that Ullrich’s T-Mobile team has too much talent and too many leaders?
“Obviously, Jan [Ullrich] and the T-Mobile team will be my toughest opponent. But to have so many potential leaders can become a handicap if everyone plays their own cards. To win the Tour, you must have a solid team and a leader.”
But Ullrich is the one that matters. Is he a true rival?
“Those who think we are enemies or don’t appreciate each other are wrong. Sure, we don’t vacation together, but I consider him a friend and my biggest rival.”
And in this attempt to win a sixth Tour, who are the other riders he’ll be looking out for? “I know that to win a sixth Tour is one of the most difficult challenges, and I’ll do everything I can to achieve that feat,” Armstrong said. “I also know that Hamilton, Simoni, Mayo, Basso, Zubeldia and several others will be sharp and supermotivated on July 3. What else can you say? It’s always the same story. You have to be ready for the day of the prologue and not have a bad day.”
Compared with a year ago, Armstrong should be more than ready. In fact, by winning the Tour de Georgia 10 weeks before the Tour starts, the U.S. Postal leader seemed to be getting ready too soon. “I’m a little ahead of schedule, which is not necessarily a good thing. So I suspect I’ll take it easy a little bit. [Georgia] has fit in really well. I think the race was a lot harder than I — than all of us — thought.”
Armstrong’s team director, Johan Bruyneel, is confident that Armstrong is on track. “Yeah, he’s good; he’s not on super form, but he looks okay, and I think things are going good now,” he said in Georgia.
“This race is a very good preparation race. There are long stages, some good hills, a long time trial. I think it was good for the team, also, to train how to defend the jersey because that’s something you have to train for — to know how everybody is, and how they have to manage a breakaway.”
Bruyneel was also happy with the progress of his team riders.
“Every year we try to maintain all the riders we think were a key in the past year, with perhaps some new additions,” said the Belgian. “So this year is a whole lot different than other years. We’ve added [José] Azevedo and [Benjamin] Noval, and the rest are mainly the same. So let’s say I have 12 riders at the moment, and from those 12 riders, the nine that are in the best shape will make it.”
Armstrong was equally confident about his teammates. “You will have seen at Four Days of Dunkirk that the team is competitive and that the new recruits are on top form,” he said. “There’s a real rivalry in the team, with everyone doing their best to win their place on the Tour team. You’ll see, the Posties will be ready.”
So everything that could be done before the Tour was being done. Maybe the good vibes will extend through the race itself, and Armstrong will win a sixth Tour going away. But then there is a different kind of pressure going for the record, the “impossible” sixth, right?
“I feel a lot of pressure to meet fans’ expectations in July,” Armstrong admitted. “A lot.”