– By Chris Carmichael –
Today is July 20, two days shy of 12 months to the day since Lance Armstrong committed to making a comeback to professional cycling. We had talked about it before, but that was the day he sent me an email that simply said, “It’s on, I’m in.” Prior to July 20, 2008, Lance rarely rode his bike more than 3 hours at a stretch and hadn’t seriously trained for anything in three years (his marathon training was pretty light compared to being a pro cyclist). Today he’s resting in a hotel room in France, sitting in second place at the Tour de France.
Lance may be second today, but that’s no reason to throw in the towel.
Keep in mind, the last time Lance made a comeback to professional cycling – when he came back after defeating cancer – it was more than a full year between the time he started training and the start of the 1999 Tour de France. And he was in his late 20s then. For a guy who’s 37 (36 at the time he decided to launch his current comeback) to go from a handful of 2- to 3-hour rides a week to second place at the Tour de France with one week of racing to go, in 12-months-flat? That’s improvement on a scale many thought was impossible.
But he’s not in the yellow jersey, and his teammate is. So, now what?
During the final climb to the summit finish of Stage 15, Alberto Contador showed everyone – including Lance Armstrong – that he’s the strongest rider on Astana, and the strongest climber in the 2009 Tour de France. For a lot of cyclists and Lance fans, that leads to one big question: What does Lance do now?
Pretty much the same thing he’s done since the beginning of the Tour. In the mountain stages still left in the final week of the race, it’s important for Lance to defend his second place position and try to maintain or extend his lead over the riders behind him in the standings. Bradley Wiggins, for instance, is only 9 seconds behind Lance and he’s a great time trial rider, so he may prove to be the greatest challenger for Lance’s second place position.
Lance defending second place is not a matter of vanity or ego; it’s a smart team strategy. There are a lot of kilometers left in the 2009 Tour de France, and anything can happen. The Astana team is unified in their support of Contador, but having Lance in second place provides a great contingency plan in case something happens to the Spaniard. Just look at what happened to Levi Leipheimer. He went down in a seemingly benign crash, and was unable to start the following day because of a broken bone in his wrist.
The rider in the yellow jersey is typically given a wide berth in the peloton, but he’s not immune to the dangers faced by every other rider in the race. Eddy Merckx, who I believe will always be considered the greatest rider of all time, was on his way to what would have been his sixth yellow jersey in 1975 when a fan punched him in the back. A few days later he crashed and broke a bone in his cheek. He valiantly continued on and finished second. Luis Ocana was wearing the yellow jersey in 1971 when he crashed on a descent and was unable to continue, and the list goes on. Certainly no one is wishing ill on Contador, but if you have a rider in second place in the final week of the Tour de France, it’s a smart move to do what you can to keep him there, just in case.
Furthermore, simultaneously defending both the yellow jersey and the second place position on the general classification is neither unheard of nor a sign of disrespect to the team leader. Remember back to 2007, when Contador won his first Tour de France. Leipheimer rode in support of Contador, but the team also supported the American rider to help him finish third.
In order for Lance to be an asset for Contador, he has to ride well in the coming mountain stages. From a strategic point of view, having Lance in the front group on a mountain stage means that the other teams have to consider two Astana riders (three, actually, because Andreas Kloden is sitting in 4th overall) as threats to their positions in the final standings in Paris. Yes, Andy Schleck and Bradley Wiggins have to gain time on Alberto Contador if they want to win the 2009 Tour de France, but if they’re not able to accomplish that goal, they’d rather finish second as opposed to third or fourth. That means they need to overtake Armstrong as well. From the data I’ve seen thus far in this year’s Tour, Lance has the power to be a strong team rider for Contador and stay high up in the overall standings himself.
In the end, riding in support of Contador doesn’t change much for Lance, in terms of his mental or physical approach to each upcoming stage. He still has to be prepared to race aggressively on every stage, stay out of trouble, and keep a close eye on the top riders from Saxo Bank, Cervelo, Garmin, and now Liquigas too (Vincenzo Nibali is riding quite well).
Looking Back and Going Forward
Since yesterday’s stage, my Blackberry and email box have been bombarded with questions about my reaction and Lance’s reaction to Stage 15. The truth is, the stage could have gone better for Lance, but looking at the data from the stage – including the rate at which Lance, Contador, and the others rode up the final climb – it’s clear to me that Lance rode very well and Contador had a phenomenal ride.
Data from the climb to Verbier confirms what was apparent to anyone watching the stage: the riders stormed that climb and the pace was very high. Lance’s speed on the climb was close to what he achieved on major summit finishes during the Tours he won, which provides an indication of how powerful and explosive Contador is right now.
Can Lance have better days still within this year’s Tour de France? I think he can. His fitness is very good, his outlook is very positive, he’s relaxed, and confident with his form. Those are the things he can control, and those things are all working in his favor.
The edge that is needed to attack and win the Tour – the one that Lance has had so many times and now recognizes in his teammate, Contador – may be the only thing hasn’t completely returned from his pre-retirement days. That edge comes from racing, particularly from extreme efforts like yesterday’s climb to Verbier, which are nearly impossible to replicate in training. But cycling and human performance aren’t perfectly predictable, and with Lance Armstrong in second place overall in the Tour de France – just 12 months after deciding to return from a three-year hiatus from competition – it’s premature to say he’s through, for this year or possibly next as well.
• Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong’s coach for 20 years and is the founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). Chris’s newest book, “The Time Crunched Cyclist: Fit, Fast, and Powerful in 6 Hours a Week” has just been released and signed copies are available at www.trainright.com. There you can also get information on CTS’ Create Your Own Comeback program, the free Do the Tour…Stay at Home™ training program, and the free CTS Tour de France Newsletter. You should also follow Chris on Twitter.
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