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Friday’s Eurofile: An interview with Chris Carmichael

Chris Carmichael has been synonymous with Lance Armstrong’s success at the Tour de France. Carmichael’s been Armstrong’s trainer and coach since the early 1990s, helping guide him to three consecutive Tour de France victories. A former 7-Eleven pro and U.S. national cycling team head coach, Carmichael works closely with Armstrong and another dozen or so top athletes in cycling, triathlon, athletics and more recently in such mainstream sports such as NHL hockey. VeloNews’s Andrew Hood caught up with Carmichael for an interview a week before the start of the 2002 Tour de France. Here are

By Andrew Hood

Chris Carmichael has been synonymous with Lance Armstrong’s success at the Tour de France. Carmichael’s been Armstrong’s trainer and coach since the early 1990s, helping guide him to three consecutive Tour de France victories.

A former 7-Eleven pro and U.S. national cycling team head coach, Carmichael works closely with Armstrong and another dozen or so top athletes in cycling, triathlon, athletics and more recently in such mainstream sports such as NHL hockey.

VeloNews’s Andrew Hood caught up with Carmichael for an interview a week before the start of the 2002 Tour de France. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

VeloNews: Other than a different racing schedule, has Armstrong’s training and preparation been different going into the 2002 Tour?

Chris Carmichael: “We’ve pretty much been sticking with the plan that’s worked before in the past. Lance is always a detail guy. You’ve got to give him the training program – the specific training intensities, wattages and other indicators – and it all has to be laid well in advance. It’s something that you’re able to modify quickly based on results.”

VN: So is the training program set in stone with specific targets or do you leave room to maneuver?

CC: “It’s more broken up by training periods, into more or less two-month blocks. In March-April, we want to be able to produce this type of power. In May, June, we want to hit specific targets and peak going into the Tour. We put together the training program to hit those targets, but we have to be quick modifying it, depending on how he’s progressing. It can change depending on whether he’s plateaued, or if he’s moving backward. Lance is no different than any athlete.”

VN: How will his victories at Midi Libre and Dauphine help?

CC: “Winning is always nice. Lance likes to win. Racing well at Dauphine, especially riding so well at Joux Plane, was important.”

VN: Was Armstrong stronger than you expected at Dauphine?

CC: “Going into Dauphine, Lance didn’t feel very good. He felt kind of sluggish, but then he started to click as race went on. One of the main reasons he wanted to race there was the Joux Plane, where he struggled so much in 2000. This year, he excelled and soloed in when he was in the race lead, so that mentally gave him a lot of confidence.

During the Tour recon (after Midi Libre), when he went scouting the climbs, he rode the Joux Plane two times. He rode up, rode back down and rode it again, a long eight hours in the saddle. The Joux Plane held a cloud over Lance because he suffered so bad on it in 2000. He came close to losing the Tour on that climb. He lost about 2 minutes to Ullrich with about 3 km from the top.

If he had bonked 2 km earlier or bonked at the bottom, he could have potentially lost the Tour. That was part of the reason why he did so much training on that climb, why he attacked so hard in the stage at the Dauphine, to sort of get out from under that cloud. Now there’s nothing to fear from that climb.”

VN: What’s Armstrong been doing since Dauphine?

CC: “He’s been in home in Girona with his family. He’s also been doing some altitude some training in France for a few days.”

VN: Where is Armstrong in comparison to last year’s fitness?

CC: “I think he’s at about the same level as last year. Last year he was the strongest he had ever been at the Tour and now he’s at the same level. We’re not ahead, but just getting to that level is a big feat. Getting back to that top level and being able to nail it right at the start of the Tour de France is not easy.”

VN: There is some talk that Armstrong is peaking too early. Do you agree with that?

CC: “We like to start the Tour with the mind-set that each and every day could be the critical day of the race, where that’s the day that’s going to win the Tour. Instead of some other guys, who think they can start a little bit down and build up and hope nothing happens in those earlier days.

Lance doesn’t have that same philosophy. He rides up front, stays out of trouble. There are so many important stages in the first half of the Tour this year. The team time trial, the prologue and the first individual time trial; you cannot afford to lose time there. He’s got to gain time there. All those key days, you want to be gaining time instead of holding even. That’s our philosophy.”

VN: Armstrong was criticized as fading in the final week of the Tour, but he overcame that last year. Is that a worry this year?

CC: “It’s always a concern. It’s a three-week race. You’ve got to hold your condition the whole three weeks. So far, we’ve been lucky. We’ve won three Tours. The last week of 2000 took a lot out of him. In 2001, we made a few changes, and last year in the last week he was stronger. We believe you gotta go everyday flat out, and have the conditioning and reserve to make it through the final week.”

VN: What is Armstrong’s mindset going into the 2002 Tour?

CC: “He’s reached a new level. He’s not sitting here worried about the competition. He’s not thinking how am I am going to win against these guys. He looks at it from a different perspective, and asks, ‘How can I do this better than I did before?’ ‘How can I climb a little bit better last year,’ not, ‘How can I climb harder to drop so and so.’

He’s not looking at it that way. It’s about finding perfection, and always searching for it. It’s about the process; getting a little bit better here, a little faster there. The margins you gain might not be as great, but it puts him in a place that doesn’t stress him and it gives him more longevity. You see it in a great athlete, like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, who’ve transcended the sport they’re in. It’s not about beating others, it’s about doing it better than before.”

VN: Is Armstrong as sharp and driven this year as in year’s past?

CC: “We haven’t seen that mental dropout. He still demands complete attention from us. He still wants everything as tightly organized as ever. He’s never less than 50 watts out of top Tour de France shape. He has to be an athlete 365 days a year, 24/7. There’s no real off time.

Even in his cooling off periods, he’s still turning pretty good. He’s never more than 10 to 15 percent off top shape. You can see that in the Classics and Tour of Flanders. He was up there and doing good work for George. You saw it at Amstel Gold, he carries that form. You cannot be this grand champion by just peaking and dropping into terrible condition in winter. You have to stay in good shape all the time so you’re not playing catch-up. He gets a lot more confidence and it’s more secure. It’s not as hard on the body and that’s important.”

VN: You’ve known Armstrong a long time. Does he still surprise you in any way?

CC: “What surprises me most is the magnitude of his success as an athlete. I work with athletes at the top level in a multitude of sports and they all just admire the hell out of Lance. We were in Santa Barbara two weeks in February for training and one day Lance says he has to cancel the next day’s session because President Bush invited him to the opening ceremonies for the Winter Games.

Things like that demonstrate the magnitude of the sports figure that he’s become in America. He just flies out to Utah, hangs with the President, Tommy Franks, the general of the Afghanistan war, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and Lance Armstrong. What am I going to say?”

VN: Has Armstrong reached his maximum potential or is there still room for improvement?

CC: “I think there’s always room to improve. It’s when an athlete stalls and begins to rely upon their own natural ability and they’re not willing to really push it, that’s when they get very vulnerable to have a young up-and-comer appear and knock them out.”

VN: Who do you see out there who’s capable of that?

CC: “I don’t see anybody now, but there will be somebody. They’re coming. We cannot control it. If he’s in great shape and somebody rides through him and beats him, they’re a better man. If he doesn’t stay in that shape, if he’s not as dedicated, then shame on him, he probably deserves to lose, but I don’t see that right now.

You have to think, ‘I know there’s somebody out and I know they’re coming.’ It’s so competitive. Someone wants to step up. We may not know who, but when an athlete starts to think, ‘I don’t see anybody close to me. As long as no one is giving me a run for the money, I can loaf on my laurels.’ That’s when somebody comes by and knocks you on your butt.”

VN: Are you predicting victory at the Tour?

CC: “I get more cautious as I get older. I am predicting victory, but there are no guarantees. He’s looking good, he’s strong, but a lot can happen out there. It’s almost as though each year I get more conservative in my predictions. In three years, he’s had no bad luck and that always worries me.”

VN: The magical six is looming closer. Is there a lot of discussion about the Tour record?

CC: “It’s not been a big topic. At times, there has been some discussion of it, but when you start talking about it, you realize how far off that is. It’s like saying you’re going to the moon. It looks possible, but you know what, you’ve got three more Tours de France to win.

He has to double what he’s won to date. Winning one is a huge accomplishment. We take it one year at a time, staying focused on the next Tour de France. You get through that, and if things go your way, you can look to the next year. If you start looking at 2004, and just assume you’ve won 2002 and 2003, that’s stupid.”