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TDF Wrap: Armstrong Sets Record, Win’s Best Tour In Years

This story was originally written for the Japanese sports weekly newspaper “Sports Zone” – Going into this 100th Anniversary edition of the Tour de France, the 4 time winner Lance Armstrong acknowledged how special the 90th running of the world’s biggest and most important bike race would be. He hoped for a race worthy of the Centennary. Little did he expect what would, or could, await, or what most race fans were hoping for, that this would be a race worthy of its status in the elite category of world sporting events. Little did Lance know he’d have to work harder, fend of more challengers, and hope for the best luck of his career to step into the record books as only the second man in history to win 5 consecutive Tours de France.

The race produced the drama excitement and surprises that kept everyone – including the racers on their toes the entire 3 weeks as they pedaled their way around the 3425km of France in record heatwave temperatures. Starting in Stage 1, a huge crash brought down half the field inside the last kilometer of the stage, sending American challenger Levi Leipheimer home with a broken pelvis, and sending the other American challenger – Tyler Hamilton of the Danish CSC team – to hospital with 2 cracks in his collarbone. Lance too, hit the deck, but got through unscathed. Even though the first decisive stage -the Team Time Trial, was 3 days away, the race was already shaping itself.

The Stage 4 Team Time Trial provided the first glimpse of the strength of Armstrong’s team. The US Postal Service boys won their first ever victory in the specialized discipline in which each team rides together over a set course, and tries to go quicker than the other squads. Lance picked up a 30 second advantage over his nearest rivals, including TTT favorites Team ONCE and their leader and Tour podium favorite Joseba Beloki, Team Bianchi’s former Tour winner Jan Ullrich (Lance’s self-confessed chief rival), and the rest. The biggest surprise of the day, and the first week, was the presence of Tyler Hamilton. Upon seeing his x-rays after the stage 1 pile-up, he chose to stay in the race – day by day – to help team mate Carlos Sastre. CSC lost 1’45”, to finish 10/ 22 teams, but were still in the hunt.

The flat stages, high speeds, and traditional first week crashes continued for another couple of days until the fist big mountain showdown – the 230km run from Lyon to Morzine in the Alps. In searing 37degrees Celsius heat, Frenchman Richard Virenque won the day and pulled on the overall race leader’s yellow jersey, much to the delight of French housewives everywhere.

Fireworks on Alpe d’Huez
The real fireworks in the Alps didn’t come until the next day, the much anticipated Stage 8 of 219 km from Sallanches, over the 2645 meter high Col du Galibier, and finally climbing the 22 switchbacks to the ski station at Alpe d’Huez. Lance has won here before, and has shown in the past that he loves the first mountaintop finish to break his rival’s with a morale crushing victory. Estimates had the fan-count between 400,000 – 900,000 – packed like screaming sardines along every inch of the 15km ascent. I rode the climb this day, hours before the race arrived, and have seen nothing like it… Imagine a tailgate party, volume set to 11, sweltering summer heat, and the anticipation of the biggest showdown in bike racing getting closer by the minute.

True to form for this Tour, the day played out as no one expected. Instead of destroying his rivals, Lance was put on the defensive, under constant hard attacks by Beloki, Team Telekom leader Alexandre Vinokourov, Euskaltel-Euskadi team leader Iban Mayo and his lieutenant Haimar Zubeldia, and the rider with the bandaged collarbone – Tyler Hamilton! The showdown was unbelievable, as was the heat – which was too much for the German Ullrich who could not maintain contact with the leaders and wisely chose to ride within his limits – and live to fight another day. Mayo won the day, but while Lance pulled on the leader’s yellow jersey – 6 of his main rivals all were within 2 minutes of – striking distance in a race that was not even half over yet.

Tour Fate Strikes Again
The luck of the Tour showed it’s head again on stage 9, another mountain stage of 185 km including summit passes of the 2058 meter Col du Lautaret and 2360 moon-scaped Izoard. Although the race leaders stayed together over the high passes, Beloki put in some serious attacking over the smaller climbs near the end. It was here that after a few tense and dramatic seconds, Lance emerged one step closer to his goal, while Beloki did not. As Beloki led Armstrong down one of the twisting descents, within 15km of the finish, he lost control of his rear wheel in a turn, the bike skidded sideways several inches, then jumped back in the opposite direction before body-slamming Beloki like a ragdoll to the blistering tarmac. With nowhere to go, Lance was forced off the road down a steep grassy pitch. Unable to run back to the road, he pointed his bike downhill in the direction of the next switchback – for a few breathless seconds becoming a downhill mountain bike rider. He dismounted and jumped with his bike across a ditch to rejoin the race.

It was here you could see the fire in Armstrong – how much we wanted this win, and how he was not about to let anything stand in his way. There’s no way he should have survived the ride across that field – his tires are 23 millimeters wide with no tread – how did he not get a flat, how did he not crash? Then he jumped across the ditch like a steeple-chase runner – except he was wearing carbon soled cycling shoes with no tread – ! This was something we’ve not seen in a modern Tour de France. Beloki was not so lucky, we was left on the roadside in agony, a bloodied broken hip, wrist and elbow putting an end to his race.

Lance Can Be Beaten
The next date with fate was Stage 12, the first individual time trial – a 47 km race of truth. It was here that a new rival rose from the bunch – and we saw another chink in Lance’s armor. Traditionally Lance wins the time trials, but today it was Jan Ullrich, the man we thought had cracked on Alpe d’Huez, who was back, winning the day and stealing 1’36” seconds back from Lance. Armstrong still wore the maillot jaune, but now Ullrich was only 35 seconds behind. And 3 days of Pyrenean climbs were waiting.

The Gloves Come Off
The heat seemed to intensify, as did the pressure on Amrstrong. In the Stage 13 finishing ascent to Ax 3 Domaines, Lance’s rivals attacked and attacked, until Lance seemed to crack. As his challengers road away from him, Lance dropped to almost a minute behind, before pulling himself back at the finish line. He still wore yellow, but his lead was down to 15 seconds over Ullrich, and 1 minute over Vinokourov – who could be seen at the front every day, slipping away before the finish and closing in…

Then Stage 14: 6 huge passes, sweltering heat, and more surprises. In a day won by opportunists no threat to the overall, it was Kazak rider Vinokourov who again stole back seconds and closed to within 18 seconds of Lance – the race lead was now a free-for-all heading into the epic Stage 15 to the ski station of Luz Ardiden.

The race had not been this close in years, so it was right to expect a battle royale on this day that would take riders another 160 km over the mighty Col du Tourmalet (2114 meters) and then up the switchbacked 1715 meter climb to Luz Ardiden. The attacks came as expected on the slopes of the 20km long Tourmalet, but by the base of Luz, the lead group had come back together, setting the stage for an epic showdown over the last 17 km. All the contenders were together as they started the last climb of the day.

It took only a few kilometers and the attacks began firing. Mayo, Zubeldia, Vinokourov – all tried to get away as Ullrich sat back with Armstrong – who was forced to chase down each acceleration. At 4 km in, Armstrong had enough. He stood out of the saddle and stormed past the leading Mayo. Ullrich saw this move and flew out of the chase group in time to catch the Amrstrong train. The pace was high as Armstrong led Mayo and Jan up the slope and away from the rest of the chasers. Then in a Tour that was not yet done adding its own spice to the race – Lance’s handlebars caught hold of a fan’s small musette bag. In a split second he was down, on the deck, and Mayo too. Ullrich swerved sharply to miss crashing himself. Race watchers were stunned – ! Mayo picked up and continued, Lance seemed to have bike troubles and took valuable seconds remounting.

Amidst the chaos, we also witnessed the high level of respect and sportsmanship these riders have for each other. Ullrich, now at the front, immediately slowed and looked back to see if Armstrong was coming. Two years ago Lance did the same when Jan crashed on a mountain descent. The leading chasers caught up and there was Tyler Hamilton, Lance’s ex-leiutenant, collecting the group and telling everyone to wait … It was incredible to see.

Now Lance was back on is bike and on fire. He was down, but far from out. The crash had the opposite effect – if his fuse was lit when he attacked, the dynamite had now exploded – he was flying up the mountain, closing in on the lead group. So furious was his pedaling, that he blew both feet out of the pedals and almost crashed again. It was reported that his chainstay had cracked in the crash – could his bike withstand the beating he was now delivering?

Lance soon caught the leaders and didn’t even look twice. He rode through the group, who now all lifted their pace to resume racing, but never stood a chance. Lance was gone. Ignited. Exploded. On fire and gone. By the top, Lance had put 40 seconds into everyone, and now led by 1:07 over Ullrich, his closest rival.

A Day For A Hero
What more could this Tour give us? It was already the best racing in years. Then the riders started Stage 16 – the last day in the Pyrenees. On a day when the main contenders chose to stay together and save their energy for the final time trial in 3 days, it was Tyler Hamilton, the man with the cracked collarbone who had struggled to stay in the race, taking it day to day, who was winning more fans, respect and time with each passing stage. On this day Tyler broke away with 80 km to go and rode on to an epic win. Riding alone and off the front, he built a lead of 5:00 minutes on the road, the pain of his efforts so severe on his face that he looked to be struggling off the back, not gaining time at the front. Tyler hung on for a huge solo win, eventually gaining back 2 minutes on overall time, and holding his face in disbelief as he crossed the finish line. This guy had proven above and beyond that he had more guts and courage than anyone in the race.

The Final Showdown
Stages 18 and 19 were days for the sprinters – those that had made it through the mountains. Then came the final showdown – the Stage 20 individual Time Trial of 49 km from Pornic to Nantes. It was down to Lance vs Jan for the overall win. Lance led by 1:05 after Jan had picked up a 2 second time bonus in a field sprint. Jan had beaten Lance by 1:36 in the first TT over about the same distance – but Lance wanted this win more than anyone in the race. The stage was set.

The weather had finally turned cooler, and rain fell across the entire course, making the roads slippery and treacherous. Pressure back to Jan – he needed to take the risks to make up the time, but one crash and it would all be over. Starting in reverse order, Jan left the start house, then 3 minutes later went Lance. The riders were exactly tied over the first 15km of the course, and the rain continued to fall. Reports from earlier riders said the roads were even more slick in the last 15km. Then it happened. Tour fate. Too much speed. Poor judgement – call it what you want – Jan went down. His front wheel slid out in a roundabout corner, and he skidded sprawling across the road. He quickly remounted, but his confidence had been shaken, and his rhythm broken. His Tour was lost. Over his radio, Lance received the news and was able to throttle back enough to still finish 3rd on the day and secure his 5th Tour win, and place in the record books.

Sunday’s final “parade” to Paris was the usual celebration, with riders drinking champagne on the ride in, and enjoying the much welcomed site of the City of Lights. On the podium, Armstrong was different this year. Of course he acknowledged how much tougher this race had been – he said the toughest yet. But he was now more relaxed, and smiling more genuinely then we’ve ever seen.

Given all this race had in store for the riders and the fans, unexpected twists and turns, new heros everyday, historic battles – it will be remembered as epic for years to come. The most deserving rider won, and he promises t be back next year to go for 6.

Tour de France 2003 Final General Classification

1 Lance Armstrong (USA) US Postal-Berry Floor 83.41.12 (40.956 km/h)
2 Jan Ullrich (Ger) Team Bianchi + 1.01
3 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Team Telekom + 4.14
4 Tyler Hamilton (USA) Team CSC + 6.17
5 Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi + 6.51
6 Iban Mayo (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi + 7.06
7 Ivan Basso (Ita) Fassa Bortolo + 10.12
8 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Credit Agricole + 12.28
9 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Team CSC + 18.49
10 Francisco Mancebo (Spa) iBanesto.com + 19.15

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