By John Wilcockson
A Tour de France contender can do everything right in training, but unless he balances that schedule with the right amount of racing, his chances of success take a nose-dive.
In his first two Tour victory seasons, Lance Armstrong got it just right. In 1999, his last event before the Tour was the low-key Route du Sud, where he won the last stage, a summit finish at Plateau de Beilles. Then, last year he won the time trial stage of his last pre-Tour race, the Dauphiné Libéré, in which he helped teammate Tyler Hamilton take the overall. Both these performances boosted Armstrong’s morale heading into the Tour. So what has the Texan been up to this year? Here are the principal racing milestones that are taking him toward another defense of his title.
March 7-11: Tour of Murcia (Spain)
For once, Armstrong avoided the February races, including the Ruta del Sol, and began his racing season a month later at another Spanish five-day, the Tour of Murcia. Armstrong finished 64th overall, but placed fifth in the closing 12.3km time trial.
March 26-30: Setmana Catalana (Spain)
Two weeks later, Armstrong rode this more demanding race in the northeast part of Spain, taking an unexpected eighth overall, thanks to his eighth place on the difficult summit finish at Passos de Peguera in the Pyrénées.
April 10-13: Circuit de la Sarthe (France)
Just over a week later, following a short trip back home to the Ride for the Roses weekend and a day after holding a press conference in Paris to comment on the French investigation into Postal’s alleged drug use at the 2000 Tour, Armstrong lined up at this four-day in the west of France. It was used as a warm-up for the following one-day Paris-Camembert, so the Postal leader took it easy, finishing 25th overall.
April 17: Paris-Camembert (France)
In this tough French classic, Armstrong was one of the protagonists on the steep hills that precede the finish, but he lacked a little punch in his first single-day event of the year. He placed 13th, in a 12-man chase group, 0:09 behind winner Laurent Brochard of Jean Delatour.
April 18-22: Tour of Aragon (Spain)
After a late-night flight to northeastern Spain’s Aragon region, Armstrong started another demanding five-day. The key stage 3 finished at over 6000 feet at the Valdelinares ski station, where he came in 13th after working hard for teammate Roberto Heras, who was second that day. “Roberto and Lance spoke before the climb and determined Roberto was feeling the best today, so Lance worked for Roberto as long as possible,” said Postal directeur sportif Dirk Demol, who added, “Lance is right on schedule and very focused.” Overall, Armstrong came in 12th.
April 28: Amstel Gold Race (Netherlands)
In his favorite World Cup classic, Armstrong triggered the key break with 40km to go, and ended up second in a two-up sprint with winner Erik Dekker of Rabobank.
May 30-June 3: Bicicleta Vasca (Spain)
After a month dedicated to training road trips in the Alps and Pyrénées, scouting out the most difficult stages of the upcoming Tour, Armstrong returned to racing in his fourth Spanish five-day of the spring in the very hilly Basque Country. The Texan rode into a fairly low-key 20th overall, but showed his growing good form by finishing fourth in the 21km time-trial stage.
June 9: Classique des Alpes (France)
The bad weather in Spain primed Armstrong for his third single-day classic of the year, this time in the wet and misty Chartreuse range of the French Alps. Over the final mountain pass, the Col du Granier, he forced the pace in a solo move, but was 1:12 short of catching winner Iban Mayo of Euskaltel-Euskadi.
June 19-28: Tour of Switzerland
For his last race before the Tour, Armstrong followed his form of recent years by taking his first win of the year, this time in the opening 7.9km time trial. As this issue of VeloNews went to press, the Postal star was lying in fifth place overall, after taking a solid 11th place at Wildhaus on stage 4.
Total days of racing before the Tour de France: 37
Total race distance: 5619.6km