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August 1, 2004
By: Bill Oetinger

Yellow jersey journalism

 
 

Every year, I have some other topic in mind for my column when August rolls around, and every year, I end up postponing that topic to do a Tour de France wrap-up. It seems I need to indulge in a little bout of Monday morning quarterbacking to bring some closure to what has been a three-week immersion in the manic subculture that is the Tour.

Did I say three weeks? More like several months, if you count the build-up. It starts when the organizers publish the route, or at least when my favorite cycling websites put up the elevation profiles of the stages, so I can mark down on my calendar which days are in the mountains and when the time trials will be. Then there is the steady drip feed of press releases about team rosters for the tour...who’s in and who’s out...and the early season results from other, lesser events, which may or may not present us with any useful clues as to who has good form this time around.

This year, the ramping up...the hyping up...of the tour was so over the top my eyes glazed over by about mid-May. While I certainly do not want to bite the hand that feeds me my daily stages of the Tour, I do have to confess the Outdoor Life Network was guilty this year of giving us way too much of a good thing, with their incessant Lance Chronicles, Road to the Tour, and lord knows what all. Had you told me ten years ago that there would be more bike race air time on TV than I would care to watch, I would have called you daft or something. But a large portion of the monster bike smorgasbörd they threw at us this year just went right by me. Sorry dudes: I gotta get outside and ride my bike!

But I’m not really complaining. I’d rather have too much bike race coverage than not enough or none at all, as it so painfully used to be. Think of it like the Super Bowl: if you have nothing better to do with your time than sit there for hours on end watching pre-game hype while scarfing Cheetos and beer, then fine, the networks will be happy to accommodate you. Ditto for the Lance Chronicles. For the moment at least, cycling has gone mainstream, with all that mainstream fluff and puff.

Given all the mainstream, front page press of the Tour, there is little point in my attempting to cover that same ground...the epic sixth Tour victory, and its place in the pantheon of bike racing or sports or life or whatever. We have all watched and read as much of that as we can absorb at this point. Instead, I’m just going to do my usual bit as the average race fan--who just happens to get to write a bike column--picking over a few crumbs left behind after the big banquet...looking for an interesting back story here or there. So here, in no particular order, are a few ruminations on the Tour just past...

• So much for predictions

For me, one of the most remarkable aspects of the 2004 Tour de France was the disappearance of so many of the riders who had been touted as major players beforehand. If you go back and reread some of the crystal ball gazing of a month or two ago, it looks awfully feeble and laughable in the high beams of 20-20 hindsight. Who can now recall the frisson of fuss and bother when Iban Mayo trounced Armstong in the Mt Ventoux time trial at the Dauphiné? And if you can recall that little tempest in a teapot, you can also recall Armstrong and his handlers calmly saying, “Wait until the third week of July...”

Or how about the buzz when Roberto Heras left Postal and went to Liberty? And the Postals brought in Jose Azevedo. Jose who? Okay, okay...we did know who he was, and we knew he would be helpful. But how good do the Posties look now, when they said (then), “We think he’ll do a very good job for us in the mountains...maybe even better than Heras”? (For the record, Azevedo supported his team leader admirably throughout the tour, finished 4th on the Alpe d’Huez mountain time trial and 5th overall, while Heras--that paragon of climbers, and riding as a team leader, not a domestique--finished 61st on l’Alpe and abandoned the next day, in 45th place on GC.) If Heras gave any explanation for his total collapse, it was never mentioned in any of the reports I read.

Joseba Beloki never got back to Tour form after his crash last year. Alexandre Vinokourov didn’t start the Tour, thanks to a crash in the Tour de Suisse. Tyler Hamilton abandoned the Tour, thanks to a crash on an early stage. Iban Mayo abandoned after losing time in a crucial crash, then performing poorly (for whatever reason). Haimar Zubeldia also abandoned after a lackluster performance. Right there, you have 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th place from last year’s Tour (plus Beloki, who was 2nd when he crashed out). That’s a big chunk of last year’s top ten, up in smoke, before we ever got to the Alps this year.

Jan Ullrich, as usual, let himself get out of shape (fat) over the winter and tried to ride himself into fighting trim at the last minute, but it was too little, too late. Sure, he won the Tour de Suisse (by one second), but then Mayo won the Dauphiné. Woohoo... So much for pre-Tour form.

And how about the total disappearance of the two great sprinters, Petacchi and Cipollini? Excuse me? Did you see them? Pfffft...up in smoke. See ya...

One way or another, all the pre-Tour favorites either self-destructed or were victims of bad luck. Of all the likely candidates who were mentioned before the Tour as possible stars, only Ivan Basso rose to the occasion. Nobody, except possibly his mother, picked Andreas Klöden to do big things.

(All of those unfulfilled expectations and frustrated ambitions lend an interesting cast to the prospects for the last Grand Tour of the year, the Vuelta a España, way off there on the far side of the Olympics. Mayo, Hamilton, Beloki, Heras, plus Landis, Leipheimer...a lot of people with a lot of pent-up energy and a lot to prove. Stay tuned....)

• Second place

Speaking of Klöden, who finished second...didn’t you get the impression that everyone in the peloton was resigned to Armstrong’s win before the tour even started? Didn’t it look as if all the other contenders were content to simply battle for second place?

Danish Rabobank rider Michael Rasmussen had an interesting quote, post-Tour: “I’m happy with the way I rode my Tour...because I came close to winning a few times, but looking back, I could have ridden my Tour in a different, less aggressive way and I would have been in the top 10. I can easily find those seven, eight minutes somewhere along the road; to Plateau de Beille or La Mongie...but I’m happy with the way I did the Tour because I tried to win. And not too many riders did that actually.”

He may be a bit delusional about the seven or eight minutes, but he’s right about the other folks not trying to win. It’s as if they were all intimidated by Armstrong and the USPS team. And quite rightly so: he is certainly the most dominant rider of his era, and the team is the most dominant, best organized, etc. Sort of like Michael Schumacher and Ferrari in Formula 1 right now: too unfair that the best all around talent is on the best organized, most powerful team. But then that’s no accident, is it? Success breeds success and the rich get richer.

Anyway, case in point on the settling-for-second deal was team CSC pulling Jens Voigt out of the break to chase Ullrich down when he attacked on Stage 16. (Full marks to Ullrich for trying--at least once--to attack Armstrong.) Voigt not only supported his team leaders Sastre and Basso, he pretty much single-handedly pulled the entire USPS team back up to Ullrich. It’s as if CSC DS Bjarne Riis had already decided that reining in Ullrich for second was more important than attacking Armstrong for first. We armchair quarterbacks might have figured the better strategy would have been to send Basso on the attack too and see what the Posties would do about it.

Speaking in the most pragmatic terms, it made sense for CSC and USPS to work together to neutralize the T-Mobile attack. It made especially good sense to USPS, of course. They were protecting their lead. For CSC, it looked a lot more like a capitulation to the reality of the vastly superior strength of Armstrong and his lieutenants. And in fact, even without CSC’s help, the Posties would no doubt have reeled in the break. Jan’s little bout of sturm und drang didn’t ruffle their feathers in the least. But at least they (CSC or someone) could have tried. True, Sastre was sent up the road a couple of times on different stages, but their main man Basso never once made a move. Nor did anyone else who really mattered, except for Ullrich’s one, brief flurry.

It’s easy for me--a mid-pack club rider--to say someone should have attacked. But how else can you expect to beat Armstrong if you don’t try? You know he’s going to be tough in the time trials--including the team time trial--so you’ll gain nothing there. You have to go after him somewhere, even if it means blowing up a little bit, as Rasmussen did. Otherwise, what’s the point?

• The team

This one’s a no-brainer, and if you’re read more than about five column-inches of copy about the TdF, you will have come across some reference to the mighty USPS team. But I just have to mention it once again because it is so overwhelmingly impressive, and on so many fronts.

First of all, they have a great eye for talent. They know when to pick up riders who are on an upward spiral, and they seem to also have knack for letting riders go who are headed in the other direction (Azevedo vs Heras, for one glaring example). Then they have an organization in place that wrings the absolute best out of their riders. Not just Directeur Sportif Johan Bruyneel and not just a bunch of swell chefs and soigneurs and wrenches, but a huge, corporate dynasty that works year ’round on equipment, training, bike position, you-name-it. How many other teams have dozens of manufacturers working with them so closely to perfect their equipment...frames, wheels, bars, helmets, clothes, on and on? How many have folks like Chris Carmichael and his team of sports physiologists tracking watts and calories and god knows what all? I suppose if I had watched more of those never-ending Lance Chronicles I would have learned even more about this corporate juggernaut, but even the few bits I did see revealed a massive commitment to winning...a tour de force for the Tour de France.

A couple of years ago they were calling Armstrong’s win the Year of the Team. Well, the team is back, and stronger than ever. Time after time on the long climbs, we saw the front group getting whittled down to an elite few. But time after time, that elite few always contained a large sampling of Posties, and they were almost always the ones on the front, doing the work...whittling away at the boys going off the back in ones and twos. Levi Leipheimer marvelled at their strength one day. He said he took a head count when the “peloton” was down to around 20 guys, and nine of them were the entire USPS team! At that point, typically, a few teams had no one left in the lead group, and the others had one or two or at the most three.

On the day after the Alpe d’Huez time trial, on the mountain stage that most agreed was the hardest of the tour, with Glandon and Madeleine and all those other nasty cols, Armstrong never even worked his way through all of his leadout men. Floyd Landis rode so strongly all the way to the end that he was still pulling what was left of the group--five guys--over the final summit. Armstrong never even had to take a pull. And it was no coincidence that Landis had conceded 3:35 the day before on the mountain time trial. That was team orders, to have him take it easy and keep him fresh for exactly the job he had to do on this tough stage the next day.

And what I find intriguing is where all this energy will be going in the next couple of years: with their new Pro Team commitment to field teams for all three Grand Tours beginning next year, who will be the team leaders at each of those events? For that matter, who will be the team leader at the Vuelta this fall? I suppose it will be Azevedo, but might it be Landis?

• The man

Without going back over the past six years and closely examining those results, I would have to say this was the most dominant, most crushingly overwhelming of Armstrong’s victories. No, he did not once ride away from the competition on a mountain stage, unless you want to count Alpe d’Huez in that department. Someone always stayed with him, even if only one or a very few riders. But his storming sprints away from his rivals at the ends of those stages seemed to me to be more impressive than just setting a killer tempo and dropping them mid-climb. He--or his team--did do that to most of the riders, but then he had the legs--and the attitude--to whack the survivors in the finishing sprints. His sprint around Klöden was especially impressive...a savage move worthy of a Merckx or Hinault.

But I have to confess, now that the dust is settling, I’m a little disappointed in Lance Armstrong in this, his moment of greatest glory.

No question he’s one of the greatest riders to ever throw a leg over the top tube...so good, he’s almost a freak of nature. But the man himself? Hmmmm...my jury is still out, but we’re not quite as enthusiastic as we used to be.

For years I have defended Lance against the accusations that he is an arrogant Texas hotshot...the embodiment of the Ugly American. I have excused away and explained away his assorted, alleged failures of deportment, wherever his many critics have found them. And for the most part, I still stand by my conviction that he is a true champion...good for the sport and good for the world in general. He makes an effort to be accessible to the press and to his fans. He has learned French to be more available and sympathetic to the French populace (and generally, they appreciate this). His answers to most intelligent questions are thoughtful and diplomatic. His etiquette in the peloton is usally everything it should be.

But this year, he blotted his copybook just a bit. First there was the attack of Mayo when he crashed. Now, that was a small matter--to everyone except Mayo anyway--and it wasn’t Lance alone who attacked, but the whole front group. And it was a complicated moment in the stage, what with the pavé sections and all. And frankly, I don’t think any of us outside the actual race can be any judges of when it’s appropriate to sit up and wait and when it’s okay to put the hammer down in those situations. But anyway, that one left more than a few people a bit puzzled.

Then there was the interview after La Mongie when Armstrong was quoted as saying, “It was a pleasure to let him (Basso) win.” I was inclined to attribute that to a misquote or a mis-translation from the French or something, because Armstrong had just said so many complimentary things about Basso. But if the quote was accurate and not mangled, then it did show a certain lack of finesse on his part...shades of Pantani on Ventoux...the gift that keeps on giving you grief. I disagree with those who say he couldn’t have given it to Basso because Basso was stronger. I think Armstrong’s subsequent wins in three different sprint finishes over the next few days showed that, had he wanted to, he could have come around Basso to take the stage. So yes, he probably was pleased to give it to him. But don’t tell the world that!

But even that I could forgive. What finally turned the milk sour for me was the Simeoni affair. This was one of the most astonishing and embarrassing bits of spiteful behavior I have ever seen. It was schoolyard, bullyboy antics, unworthy of a champion. Armstrong tried to claim after the fact that he had done it for the peloton...a sort of class-action suit, if you will. Sorry...it was nothing but personal and petty, and I think his spin on it for the press was just damage control, after he cooled down and realized what a jerk he had been. (I’m not going to retail the entire, sorry incident here. If you follow the sport, you already know all about it. And for what it’s worth, Pippo Simeoni probably is an irritating little twerp, but slapping him around should be beneath the dignity of a six-time maillot jaune.)

I suppose you might say that the same take-no-prisoners killer instinct that provides Armstrong with his driving force animates his actions when he chooses to humiliate a little domestique like Simeoni, but it wasn’t nice to see...sort of like watching someone pulling the wings off a fly. I guess we want our heroes to be larger than life and more perfect than perfect can ever hope to be, and it’s always a disappointment when they turn out to be merely human, at least some of the time.

It doesn’t alter the fact that Lance is a great cyclist and that he has done a world of good for the sport and has been a force for good in all sorts of other ways as well--not least all of his work with cancer survivors--but it does make me a little sad to see him stooping to the lowest common denominator instead of rising to the heights, as he ought to be doing in such a moment of unparalleled triumph.

Ah well... I suppose time will eventually erase the details of this very minor incident on an otherwise uneventful day of the Tour, and that we will be left with the larger image of the Tour as a whole, and of a man in full command of his world, as few others have ever been before.

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