Saturday, July 19, 2003
Could be some surprises left
By Chris Carmichael Associated Press
NANTES, France -- Asking Lance Armstrong to hold himself
back is like asking a bull not to charge at a red cape. But in the
hours prior to Saturday's final individual time trial, I implored
him to be careful.
Winning the Tour de France overall was much more important than
winning the time trial. Even though Armstrong had won the final
time trial in each of his four previous Tour wins, all he needed to
do Saturday was match Ullrich and retain his 1-minute, 7-second
advantage over the German.
When we talked before the time trial, I told Lance to remember
that Ullrich was the one who had to take all the risks. He was the
one who was over a minute behind, and if he wanted Lance's jersey,
he was going to have to take huge risks to get it. I believed
Ullrich would start very fast, in an effort to make Armstrong panic
and ride harder than he could maintain, so I reminded Armstrong to
ride his own race and push himself to his limits, not Ullrich's.
Beyond pushing his limits physically, I knew Ullrich would take
huge risks in the corners and traffic circles that punctuated the
final 10 miles of the time trial course. When you are racing
against the clock and searching for seconds, you try to take
corners as fast and as close to the curb as possible. On a warm and
sunny day with dry pavement, it would have been safe to ride as
fast as possible from start to finish. The steady rain falling
Saturday complicated issues by making the tarmac very slick. Add
plenty of painted crosswalks, some short sections of cobblestone,
and a few rail crossings, and the riders faced a very tricky and
dangerous 30.4-mile ride to the finish line.
Both Ullrich and the winner of the stage, Britain's David
Millar, crashed during the time trial. They were pursuing goals
that required them to push the limits of safety, and they paid the
price. Thankfully, neither man was injured, and they quickly got
back on their machines to continue racing. For Ullrich, though, the
crash stole his momentum and marked the end of his challenge for
the yellow jersey.
Armstrong, on the road 3 minutes behind the German, knew about
the roundabout Ullrich crashed in; he had seen it earlier in the
morning on a reconnaissance trip. The German, on the other hand,
viewed a videotape of the course prepared by his team director.
Knowing how slick the tarmac was in that roundabout, and that
Ullrich had crashed there a few minutes earlier, Armstrong backed
off the throttle and rode gingerly through the area. You lose far
less time slowing down for corners than when you crash and have to
get back on your bike. Once he was back on straight roads,
Armstrong quickly accelerated back to full speed.
Once Ullrich crashed, the pressure was off Armstrong. Starting
with a 1:07 lead over the German, all he had to do was match
Ullrich's speed and keep his lead. A crash in the final 6 miles
could have potentially led Armstrong to lose his lead, and even
worse, sent him home a day early with an injury. Since he and
Ullrich were almost even on time when Ullrich crashed, Armstrong
could afford to slow down slightly and be more cautious in corners
during the final part of the race.
Some may ask why Armstrong didn't slow down out of sportsmanship
for Ullrich, like the German did on the climbing stage to Luz
Ardiden when Armstrong crashed. Races like yesterday's individual
time trial are individual events. The riders start alone, at
3-minute intervals, and the man who records the fastest time to the
finish line wins. Armstrong crashed during a road stage, where all
the competitors start together and ride in a pack. During road
races, riders are competing directly against each other, searching
for weaknesses and exploiting them to ride away and gain time on
one another. Ullrich waited for Armstrong to rejoin the pack
because the right way to win is by being a stronger rider than
another man, not by attacking him while he is lying on the ground.
In a time trial, you are riding against the clock and cannot even
see the other riders. You ride as fast as you can, taking the risks
you deem appropriate, from start to finish.
The final individual time trial was the last major obstacle in
Lance Armstrong's bid for a fifth consecutive Tour de France
victory. With a 1:16 lead going into Sunday's final stage, there
won't be any major challenges coming from Ullrich. Even if the
German were to win both intermediate sprints and the stage, he
would only gain 32 bonus seconds, far fewer than he needs to take
the yellow jersey. The final stage of the Tour de France is
traditionally a processional, the race protagonists concede victory
to the man who starts the stage in the yellow jersey, and the only
heated racing comes from the sprinters as they charge up and down
The Tour de France, however, is not over until the riders cross
the finish line Sunday. In a race where we have already seen
several bizarre occurrences, I won't say Armstrong has won his
fifth Tour de France until I see him raise his hands from the
podium. Until then, anything can happen, and there is bound to be
at least one more surprise before this whole race is over.
Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong's coach since
1990 and has guided him to four consecutive Tour de France titles.
He is writing a twice-weekly
column for The Associated Press during the Tour de France.