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The beauty of tactics: It’s not over ’til it’s over

Stage 17 of the Tour de France saw some great tactics played out in the final kilometers of an extremely hard and hot day in the Alps. The day’s stage finished with a first-category climb followed by a 10km descent to the finish. It was clear that Lance Armstrong wanted his U.S. Postal teammate Floyd Landis, who was pressing the pace for him up the final climb, to win the stage. So over the top of the climb, Landis didn’t so much attack as he just kept the pressure on over the top and rode away. Jan Ullrich jumped across, followed by Armstrong. Once Ullrich caught Landis, he sort of sat up

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By Thomas Prehn

Stage 17 of the Tour de France saw some great tactics played out in the final kilometers of an extremely hard and hot day in the Alps. The day’s stage finished with a first-category climb followed by a 10km descent to the finish.

It was clear that Lance Armstrong wanted his U.S. Postal teammate Floyd Landis, who was pressing the pace for him up the final climb, to win the stage. So over the top of the climb, Landis didn’t so much attack as he just kept the pressure on over the top and rode away. Jan Ullrich jumped across, followed by Armstrong.

Once Ullrich caught Landis, he sort of sat up and looked back at Armstrong, as if expecting him to pull through. Armstrong must have responded with something like, “If you want to move up to second place, you will have to do the work.” The German either didn’t want to attack his teammate Andreas Klöden, who had been dropped, or didn’t want to have anything to do with towing two Postal riders to the finish line, and the leaders regrouped on the descent.

I think everyone there fully expected Landis to attack. It was a tough spot to make a jump, though. The entire run-in was a pretty serious descent until less than a kilometer to go, where the road pitched up just a bit. Landis did everything right by dropping back and attacking the group from behind. I think the real problem was that it was the first attack, and he had to be hurting from all the work he had done so far; in any case, his attack was quickly neutralized.

Next to go was Klöden. After a brief pause, Landis turned around to see that Lance was on his wheel and then started to accelerate, to chase. Normally, a pause like that is really all most riders need – that moment of hesitation allows some daylight between the leader and the chasers, and typically the guys behind start thinking about second place.

I am sure that Klöden thought he had it with 500 meters to go. He was being pursued by a very tired, but still strong Landis, and no one else was helping. At about 400 meters, Armstrong took off in pursuit. When the German rider was at about 100 meters he looked back to see Armstrong bearing down on him. Then he actually veered from the most direct line from the final corner to the center of the road – perhaps thinking of how the photo of his victory would look with the chasers framed neatly behind him.

At maybe 50 meters he must have realized that Armstrong was, remarkably, bearing down on him very quickly and he was not going to be able to throw his arms in the air for the photographers. At 25 meters, he could see the shadow of the American moving fast on the road and knew that if he threw anything, it would have to be his bike. A meter or two before the line, Lance flew past him with a delighted look on his face and his arms spread wide.

Landis and Armstrong never gave up on the race, even with the seemingly insurmountable lead the German rider had with 500 meters. Just the same, Lance Armstrong and U.S. Postal are not toasting the final win in Paris yet. They know that it is not over until it’s over.