|"The man needed a swift kick in the butt."||DougSloan|
Jul 22, 2003 1:34 PM
Stage15: A Man in Need of A Kick
The moment Lance Armstrong hit the ground on Luz Ardiden, my heart stopped and time stood still. Was he hurt, was it over, what happened, and what was going to happen? As soon as he was back up and pedaling, I knew we were about to see something spectacular.
Since Friday's time trial, Lance and I have talked a lot, and I've been with him before the stage starts. I saw his legs coming back, but not the emotion that spurs him on to great performances. He was riding intelligently and tactically, but not with the passion and anger that unlock his deepest reserves of power.
This morning I told him that in 13-plus years of working with him, I'd never seen him not attack. If he wanted to win this race, he had to get angry at it, find that fire, and go and get it done. Now. Lance nodded his head and said calmly, "I know, I have to attack." Leaving the team bus, I knew Lance had heard me, but I didn't know if the message had really sunk in. The man needed a swift kick in the butt.
On the climb of the Col du Tourmalet, Jan Ullrich accelerated and decimated the lead group. Lance matched the pace, but third placed rider Alexander Vinokorouv fell behind. It was a smart move by Ullrich because he knew Armstrong had more teammates left in the lead group than he did, and applying pressure eliminated both his and Armstrong's teammates. Ullrich was already feeling isolated, so getting rid of Armstrong's teammates leveled the playing field.
Following the descent from the Tourmalet, the lead group swelled as riders caught up before the start of the final summit finish of the 2003 Tour de France. Luz Ardiden is very similar to Alp d'Huez. The length and average gradient are almost identical, and like Alp d'Huez, the steepest portions of Luz Ardiden are in the first few kilometers. Lance knew he had to attack early on the climb to exploit his power to weight advantage over Jan Ullrich, even though it would mean maintaining a long solo effort all the way to the top. The optimal spot for the attack was chosen beforehand, and as he accelerated, he received the butt kicking he so desperately needed.
If there is anything positive to say about a fan causing a crash in the Tour de France, it may have been the jolt that finally stirred Armstrong back to life. By the time he got back on his bike, his demeanor and body language had completely changed. Here was a Tour de France champion where only a few minutes earlier a mere race leader had ridden. Jan Ullrich showed a true champion's character as well, waiting for Lance to recover from his fall instead of exploiting his misfortune. The German believes, as Armstrong and the rest of the peloton do, that if you are to win the Tour de France, it must be done honorably, by being stronger than your competition, not by taking advantage of them when they fall down.
Once Lance rode back up into the group with Ullrich, the race was on again. Iban Mayo launched an attack, Lance countered, and from there to the finish line, Armstrong rode with the grace and power we are all so accustomed to, and he reaffirmed his position at the top of the leader board. This was, without a doubt, the most exciting day of bike racing I've ever seen, but the fight for the yellow jersey isn't over yet. Stay tuned, it's going to be a fascinating third week at the Tour de France.