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In the shadows

While the world focuses on Lance Armstrong of the U.S. Postal Service teamduring this year’s Tour de France, the team will be looking toward a personwhose work will be seen by few. Jeff Spencer is officially listed as thePostal team’s chiropractor, a job that requires attending to the variousaches, pains and injuries incurred by riders during every stage of theTour. Spencer is the team’s own special sauce, and his work has helpedput Armstrong in yellow for the last three years. "I don’t know what to call myself, because there are so many thingsthat I do that fall into so many disciplines and

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You might not be familiar with Jeff Spencer, but the riders of the U.S. Postal team are again counting on him for the Tour

By Rex Reese, Scotsdale, Arizona

Jeff Spencer may be the US Postal Service team’s official chiropractor, but his experience and skills makes hi …

Photo: Rex Reese

While the world focuses on Lance Armstrong of the U.S. Postal Service teamduring this year’s Tour de France, the team will be looking toward a personwhose work will be seen by few. Jeff Spencer is officially listed as thePostal team’s chiropractor, a job that requires attending to the variousaches, pains and injuries incurred by riders during every stage of theTour. Spencer is the team’s own special sauce, and his work has helpedput Armstrong in yellow for the last three years.

“I don’t know what to call myself, because there are so many thingsthat I do that fall into so many disciplines and realms,” said Spencer,who lives with his wife Kristina in Scottsdale, Arizona. “The riders don’tknow what to call me either.”Whatever anybody calls him, there’s no question about Spencer’s placewithin the Postal team.

“My principal role is to make sure that their bodies are capable ofputting in top performances on the bicycle,” he said. “Second, I need todo everything possible to make sure that the recoveries from day to dayare optimized, because if you don’t recover there will be body breakdown.The third part of my task is to minimize injury recovery, so in the eventa rider gets injured, I make sure that we minimize downtime and optimizetheir capacity for remaining as competitive as possible. Finally, we takepro-active measures on a daily basis to evaluate where strain may be accumulatingin the system where it may express itself in some form of tendinitis downthe line, which is catastrophic for any rider, particularly during theTour de France.”

Spencer’s relationship with the Postal Service team began in 1997 ona flight to Chicago when he ran into Mark Gorski, general manager of TailwindSports, owner of the U.S. Postal pro cycling team. Spencer and Gorski hadbecome close friends in the early 1980s, when Spencer helped Gorski toa gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in the men’s track sprint. In the monthsthat followed their meeting on the plane, Gorski got an idea that therewas a place for Spencer and his skills on the then relatively new Postalsquad.

“[We] started figuring out the process about how to get him involvedwith the team,” said Gorski. “At this point, Jeff had his own chiropracticpractice and did one-on-one with some world-class athletes.”

The following July, at the final stage of the Tour in Paris, Spencerwas carefully introduced to the Postal team, which included Armstrong,who had been recently signed by the team and was still recovering fromhis near-fatal bout with testicular cancer. It was a meeting that had potential.

“It’s important to know that you just can’t show up for work at theTour de France,” said Spencer, “because there’s a level of intimacy withinthe team that requires that relationships be established well in advanceof that. No rider in their right mind would ever allow anybody that theydidn’t know do any procedures within the context of what I do during theTour without having any previous relationship.”

Spencer at home with some of the tools of his trade.

Spencer at home with some of the tools of his trade.

Photo: Rex Reese

Spencer became more involved with the Postals in January 1999 at theteam’s winter training camp near Santa Barbara. During that time, he beganhis formal work with the riders as he assessed their individual conditions,noted critical issues, and took the necessary steps to optimize their performances.

That July marked Armstrong’s first Tour victory.

Spencer’s own background as an Olympic sprint cyclist, and his workwith other athletes, set the stage for his contributions in ’99. “I certainlyknew what I could bring to the team, and it was a dimension that the teamdid not have,” he said. “I know that if you have access to that over 22days, it’s a significant contribution to the sustainability of every memberof the team’s ability to put in top performances day after day.”

Two more Tour victories by Armstrong have placed the Texan and the restof the Postal team firmly in the pro peloton’s center stage — and alsoin the crosshairs of every other contender for the yellow jersey. It meansmore work for everybody in the Postal team to not only stay on top of theirgame, but to also look for every advantage to stay in front.

In this regard, Spencer’s work in preparing for the Tour is never done.When he isn’t attending to riders at a Postal training camp in the U.S.or Europe, he’s busy searching for new technologies — “modalities” as hecalls them — that can be applied to the needs of the team. When he shipsout for the Tour, Spencer will be taking along almost $60,000 of equipmentthat will be used to treat the various wounds, strains and other physicalissues that may present themselves.

The current lineup of gear that Spencer is willing to talk about runsfrom the exotic to the prosaic. An Erchonia cold laser is used to “treateverything,” says Spencer, from wounds to nerve function. Another devicecalled an “H-Wave” helps treat muscular pain. Then there’s a silver-coloredfabric that Spencer shows, but refuses to disclose any details about, exceptthat it’s just another tool in his arsenal to help Postal riders recoverfrom injuries. At the low end of the technology spectrum is The Stick,which Spencer says is no less important than the most expensive equipmenthe uses. If there is a real secret, it isn’t the different gadgets themselves,but how Spencer uses them to produce results.

As Tour time approaches, Spencer’s pace increases. In late March, hewas called upon to make a quick trip to Spain before the spring classicsbecause, he said, “every week is an important period before the Tour. Youneed to make sure that you don’t dig a hole for yourself that you can’tget out of. I just spent a couple days with Lance, Christian, George [Hincapie]and Floyd [Landis] to go through their bodies and discharge any issuesthat may show up as a problem in a week or month down the road. You’vegot to find it when it’s silent and resolve it before it expresses itselfwith some loss of function or symptomology.”

In late May, Spencer was due to join the Postal team for a special climbingcamp where final details for the Tour would be set. From that point onward,Spencer’s strategy for the war, as he calls the Tour de France, will bein place and ready to go. “You never try anything for the first time duringthe Tour,” he said. Moreover, he added, “You have only one chance to makethe right decision. You have to consider the cost of today’s choice asit applies to tomorrow and the following week. And if today’s choice isgood only for today, but it’s not good for tomorrow, then it’s not a goodchoice.”

In assessing this year’s race, Spencer speaks with certainty about whatit will take to keep the Postal riders going: “The Tour will have fivemountaintop finishes, the last one three days (actually, four days — Ed)before the final leg into Paris. So sustainability of the riders becomespivotal, and it goes back to two categories: That we do everything possibleto optimize their performances on the bike, and that we do everything possibleto optimize their recoveries when each stage is over.”

And when it comes to guessing who will win this year’s Tour, Spencersaid, “I think that every Tour has its surprises. If you look at the primecontenders — and you look at Lance — I think that anybody who doesn’t pickhim as the absolute favorite will be turning their backs on his prior accomplishments,the unparalleled deliberateness of his preparations, his tenacity as acompetitor, his skills as a team leader, and his ability to formulate andimplement sound strategies that will lead to the ultimate goal in Paris.”

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