Winning a third consecutive Tour will not be a shoo-in for Armstrong
By John Wilcockson
Only four men in the 98-year history of the Tour de France have managed to win the race three times in succession: Frenchmen Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil, Belgian Eddy Merckx and Spaniard Miguel Induráin. American Lance Armstrong is now attempting to join those four greats of the past.
Of the four, you would have thought that the insatiable Merckx would have had the easiest passage to his three in a row. He had won the Tour in 1969 and 1970 by margins of 17:54 and 12:41. Yet, his 1971 ride was the least glorious of his eventual five Tour victories. After wearing the yellow jersey for the first 10 days, Merckx was in trouble in the Alps, losing the lead by a few seconds on the stage to Grenoble.
Merckx fought back, but only retrieved the race lead after Luis Ocaña crashed in a thunderstorm descending the Col de Menté in the Pyrénées.
Merckx went on to take that third consecutive triumph in Paris, but his troubles that year underline the fact that even the winningest champion can expect to have problems in a race as long, demanding and unpredictable as the Tour. “There are too many factors you have to take into account that you have no control over,” Merckx said. “The most important factor you can keep in your own hands is yourself. I always placed the greatest emphasis on that.”
Merckx has taught that lesson to his good friend Armstrong — who at last year’s Tour also experienced a bad patch in the Alps. It was not as serious as the back pains that Merckx had in 1971, but the American’s hunger problem on the Joux-Plane climb emphasized how fragile even a several-minute lead can seem when a rider is in trouble. Armstrong was able to recover and went on to beat Jan Ullrich by 6:02, compared with the 7:37 with which he overcame Alex Zülle in 1999. What will this 2001 Tour produce?
If results and preparation going into the race mean anything, then Armstrong could win this Tour by a Merckx-like 10 minutes or more. The U.S. Postal Service team leader knows what he must do to win. He knows his teammates are ready to ride hard all day, every day to keep him as fresh as possible for the serious climbing efforts he’ll have to make in the Tour’s five consecutive summit finishes, and he knows that his preparation has been near perfect.
So fine-tuned is the athlete Armstrong that his coach Chris Carmichael has almost daily conversations on the minutiae of the rider’s physical state. Carmichael relayed a typical chat after Armstrong came in 11th on the first mountaintop finish of the Tour of Switzerland. “Lance said he was not feeling good today,” he said. “But he was perfect in the time trial the first day, so I keep second guessing. Have we done too much time-trial training, and not enough climbing. Or is it too much climbing and not enough time trialing….”
In this 88th Tour de France, climbing and time trialing have equal emphasis, and often come together. The prologue time trial at Dunkirk on July 7 is completely flat, but sprinting out of the 8.2km course’s 10 or so turns and fighting the likely crosswinds on the seafront finish straightaway demand the explosiveness and cadence that Armstrong has developed in his climbing. Then the 67km team time trial to Bar-le-Duc on July 12 is on a rolling course with a stiff 2km climb to the finish line; again, flexibility and power will be important.
This Tour’s most vital time trial, of course, comes on July 18. Its 32km is almost all climbing, with a 750-foot rise in the opening 13.6km, while the remaining 18.4km is a steady 7-percent grade to Chamrousse that climbs a further 4265 feet. This is steeper and longer than the Sion to Crans-Montana time trial that Armstrong won on June 26 in the Tour of Switzerland (see page 68), which was 7km shorter.
After a flat opening 9.2km, the Swiss time trial climbed through 3254 feet in the last 15.9km, a 6.2-percent average grade with the steepest 7.3-percent section at the start. Armstrong averaged 54.3 kph on the flat opening in the valley, and 25.7 kph on the climb itself. That gave him an average of 31.823 kph, which was good enough to beat possible Tour rival Gilberto Simoni by 1:26.
The same day that Simoni and Armstrong were battling in the Swiss Alps, a third possible rival, Francesco Casagrande of Fassa Bortolo, was riding the difficult final stage of the Route du Sud in the Pyrénées, and took his first win since crashing out of the Giro. His long hours of training after rehabilitating a broken wrist look to have paid off.
Besides Armstrong, Casagrande and Simoni, the other top favorites for the Tour are last year’s runners-up Ullrich and Joseba Beloki. While Beloki was busy racing in the countdown to the Tour — ONCE’s young Spaniard was lying fourth at the Tour of Catalonia after winning the hilly stage at Barcelona — Ullrich was training, training, training. The German came out of the Giro in reasonable shape, but had failed to show himself in the mountains. So the second half of June saw him training with climber teammates Kevin Livingston and Giuseppe Guerini in the French Alps — and no doubt he took a long look at the time-trial course to Chamrousse.
It should be quite a showdown for the Tour’s yellow jersey. Armstrong is the big favorite, but he won’t need reminding of the pitfalls that can happen to even the greatest champions.