Read Every Second Counts Online

Authors: Lance Armstrong

Tags: #Health & Fitness, #Diseases, #Cancer, #Sports & Recreation, #Sports, #Biography & Autobiography, #Cycling

Every Second Counts (6 page)

So I went back. The weather was blustery and I rode the exact route we would take, only there were no spectators and I was alone except for Johan in a follow car. I arrived at the foot of Hautacam, and I began to jog atop the pedals, working my way up the steep hillside. I studied the road as I went, trying to decide where I might attack, and where I’d need to save myself. It was pouring down a mixture of snow and sleet, and my breath streamed out in a white vapor.

After about an hour, I reached the top. Johan pulled up and stuck his head out of the car window. “Okay, good. Get in the car and have some hot tea,” he said. I hesitated. I was unhappy about the way I’d ridden.

“I didn’t get it,” I said.

“What do you mean you didn’t get it?”

“I didn’t get it. I don’t understand the climb.”

A mountain could be a complicated thing. I didn’t feel like I knew Hautacam. I’d climbed it, but I was still uncertain about how to pace myself up it. At the end of a rehearsed climb, I wanted to feel that I knew the mountain so well that it might help me.

“I don’t think I know it,” I said. “It’s not my friend.”

“What’s the problem?” he said. “You got it, let’s go.”

“We’re going to have to go back and do it again.”

It had taken an hour to get up, and it took about 30 minutes to get back down. And then I rode it again, straight up for another hour. This time, at the end of the day, in the driving rain, when I was done, I felt I’d mastered the climb. At the top, Johan met me with a raincoat. “I don’t believe what I just saw,” he said.
“All right.
Now let’s go home.”

That night, I sent my physiological data from the climbs to Chris Carmichael, my coach. After each day’s training session, I studied the readouts from a small computer mounted on my bike, which told me my watts, power, cadence, and heart rate. Those figures showed me where the mountain was hardest for me and where it was easiest. It was my habit to e-mail the figures to Chris, and he would make notes and comments and send them back to me.

That night Chris opened the file I sent and looked like at my figures. The next morning, he called me. “It looked like a tough day, seven hours in that weather, but your power was still impressive,” he said. “One thing, though. I think the file got corrupted, because the numbers are funny.”

“Funny how?”
I asked.

“There are two sets of them,” he said.

“That’s right.”

“You did the climb twice?”

“Yeah.”

Chris was quiet for a moment.

“You sick fuck,” he said.

 

I
started the
2000 Tour with a bull’s-eye on my back. At least, that’s the way I felt.

The Tour field would be one of the strongest in years, and they were all marking me. It was said that I’d been lucky to win the ’99 Tour, because two notable champions had been absent from the field. But now the two former Tour winners, Marco Pantani of
Italy
and Jan Ullrich of
Germany
, who had sat out the ’99 race for their own reasons, would both be on the start line. The field would be full of champions.

Ullrich was probably the most physically gifted cyclist in the world, a large man who rode with a compelling muscularity, churning big gears. He’d missed the ’99 race with injuries and struggled to regain his fitness, but now he was hungry, and a hungry man was dangerous. Pantani, a lean, sharp-featured man with a shaven head over which he liked to wear a piratical scarf, was hungry in a different way. He’d sat out ’99 in the wake of a doping scandal and was fighting to regain his standing in the sport community.

The course would be another opponent: it promised three big mountaintop finishes, sweltering heat, dust, mud, sheets of rain. That wasn’t to mention the cramped hotel rooms in remote villages.

The race began with a prologue, a 10-mile sprint through a theme-park town, Futuroscope. The prologue was essentially a way of seeding the 200 riders, determining who would ride at the front. The result was a surprise: I finished second to David Millar. Millar was a very good friend of mine and an adventurous young British rider who liked to spend every New Year’s Eve in a different country. He beat me by two seconds, with a time of 19 minutes, 3 seconds. When the results were announced over the loudspeaker, David burst into tears. I was disappointed for myself but delighted for him. That night, he slept in the yellow jersey.

We set off on a series of flat, uneventful stages. They were fast-paced and wet; from
Tours
to
Limoges
to Dax, we rode in a relentless downpour almost every day. All I needed to do was stay in contention and out of trouble until we got to the mountains.

In the mountains, the real race would begin for some, and end for many. Everything else, by comparison, was jockeying for small advantages and increments. The mountains, according to the French, were “the essence of bike riding and the essence of tragedy.” They were where the real separations would occur: when you had one last mountain peak to ascend, the strongest guy would propel himself upward faster. I loved the mountains.

The first mountain stage would take me to Hautacam.

On the morning of the stage, I awoke to a freezing rain. I hopped out of bed and threw back the curtains, and I burst out laughing. “Perfect,” I said. It was suffering weather, the kind that could defeat a lot of guys as soon as they got up in the morning. The conditions on Hautacam would be blustery and mist-shrouded, just as they had been when I’d climbed the mountain twice in one day during training. It had been the ideal dress rehearsal.

On the team bus, I told Johan “This is going to be epic.”

At the start line you could feel other riders in the peloton dreading the day. They dreaded the pain, and you could feel the fear beat some of them before they ever pushed off. They murmured and hung their heads in the rain and frowned at the weather. I felt ready. I announced to my teammates, “This is a day at the beach. Bring it on.”

But that didn’t mean it was easy. The terrible rainstorms didn’t relent, and a tough Spanish rider named Javier Otxoa surprised the field with a breakaway just 50 kilometers into the ride. He built a huge lead that would last all day. None of us chased him, conserving our energy for the big climbs.

The long day wore on our legs, and my teammates dropped away, one by one. Up to that point they’d served almost like booster rockets, propelling me to the front. Now they were gone, and I was alone, except for a handful of riders from other teams.

As we approached Hautacam, we’d been on the bike for four hours, ridden 119 miles, and climbed two mountain passes. Ahead was the last steep, monstrous climb, of eight and a half miles. It rose at a 7.9 percent gradient—an average of 7.9 feet up for every 100 feet traveled.

I rode with Ullrich, Pantani, and Alex Zulle of
Switzerland
, who had been the Tour runner-up in ’99 and who might have beaten me, some said, if not for an unlucky crash early in the race. Also just ahead of us were Richard Virenque of France, a wildly popular rider to his countrymen, and Fernando Escartín of
Spain
. All of us were chasing Otxoa.

We reached the foot of Hautacam—and Pantani stood up on his pedals and attacked. He swung to the inside of the road and accelerated. Zulle immediately reacted and went with him . . . and so did I. For a moment I struggled to keep up and thought,
Oh no, I’m toast
. But Zulle tailed off, and I moved in front of him. I settled into a tempo, fast enough to hurt anyone who wanted to keep up.

I checked over my shoulder, and Zulle was gone. Now it was me and Pantani. I had to be careful; it was important to pace myself, because efforts on a mountainside were like gaskets, as Zulle had just proven.

We reached a slope I knew well, Pantani just ahead of me. I thought,
All right, baby, I’m gonna light your ass up right here
. I stood up and drove my feet down on the pedals. My bike leaped ahead of Pantani’s. Johan came on the radio and said, “He’s hurting. He’s coming off your wheel.” I glanced back and saw him sliding away behind me. Another moment, and he lost contact with my bike altogether.

I swept up the hill. I hadn’t just trained my legs for this push up
Hautacam,
I’d also trained my expressions. I wanted the other riders to see strength in my attitude on the bike, because there was something dispiriting about watching another rider move past effortlessly while you suffered. The only giveaway to how hard I was working was the flaring of my nostrils.

By the time I crossed the line, I was the leader of the Tour de France. I’d started the day in 16th place, more than six minutes behind, and now I was in first.

Ullrich, Pantani, Virenque, Zulle, and Escartín were all at least seven minutes behind me at the finish. Pantani, down by
, went to his trailer wordlessly and slammed the door. Virenque shook his head and said, “Armstrong came on us like an airplane.”

There was one rider faster than me that day though: Otxoa. He had hung on to finish 42 seconds ahead, and was the stage winner. I’d managed to wipe out more than ten minutes of road between us, but I couldn’t close the final gap. I wasn’t sorry; it was a great, courageous ride by Otxoa, one I applauded. I had what I wanted, the overall lead and the yellow jersey.

It was a good day, a big day, and a day that had perhaps demoralized the other riders. Some said I had blown the race apart. Walter Goodefrot, Ullrich’s team manager, said, “If Armstrong has no weak days then he will win in
Paris
. No one can fight him.”

 

B
ut the race
wasn’t over. Any of the big mountain stages could crack you, and the others wouldn’t give up until we saw
Paris
. I’d learned not to count on anything, and that night at dinner, I balked when Johan asked if the team wanted some champagne. “If we win in
Paris
there will be champagne,” I said. “
Paris
is a long way off.”

The truth was
,
I didn’t know if I had another solo ride like that in me. Those efforts burned you up inside, and you simply couldn’t do too many of them. The other riders knew as much, and they would try to isolate me and wear me out.

The 12th stage was likely to be a decisive one: it was a 93-mile journey to the top of Mont Ventoux, a desolate summit that loomed over
Provence
about an hour outside of
Marseilles
. Ventoux was the hardest climb of that year’s Tour, or any other: just 14 miles from the finish line we’d be at barely 900 feet above sea level, but by the end we’d be at 16,000 feet. The place didn’t look like anything else. It looked more like a moonscape than the mountains. What’s more, Mont Ventoux could literally kill you.

Some of the greatest climbing legs ever had been ridden to the summit, but it was also the scene of a tragedy. In 1967, British cyclist Tommy Simpson, riding under a broiling sun, had weaved across the rode and fallen off his bike. Spectators urged him to quit, but he said, “No, put me back on my bike.” He got back on, and tried again for the summit, but he collapsed again and died near the peak; later, stimulants were found in his blood. The Ventoux was a dangerous, difficult, haunting climb.

We began the stage by riding into the
mistral
, a powerful north wind that beleaguers the entire region, blowing over our shoulders from the front. We rode for more than three hours until we reached the Ventoux, where the temperature suddenly dropped into the 30s.

The ascent itself would last about 13 miles—through
mistral
gusts of 40 miles per hour to a windswept peak. For the first few miles, Pantani probed, trying to see if he could open a lead. He would surge, and then fall back, and surge, and fall back.

With roughly three miles to go, as we neared a memorial to Tommy Simpson, I stood up and moved past Pantani. As I did, I turned and spoke to him.


Vince!
” I said, in my poor Italian.

Meaning, “Come on, come with me.”

I meant to urge him on, to invite him to ride with me, because I intended to help him to the finish line as the stage winner. Why? At that moment, I felt Pantani deserved the win. He’d had a long, hard year trying to reestablish his confidence after the drug-testing affair. I thought he was one of the sport’s more interesting figures, a swashbuckling sort, in an electric-pink cycling suit, a bandanna, and an earring. That day he’d been behind again and again, and come back. I respected his effort, and it seemed only right that a superb climber like him should win on the Ventoux, especially since I had a ten-minute lead after almost two weeks of racing, and could afford to finish second.

Such a concession is unheard of in other sports, but it wasn’t at the Tour. In fact, there could be a strange honor in it. For me, as the overall leader, to win stages I didn’t need was an affront to other riders, and potentially harmful to their careers and incomes; they all had incentive clauses, and stage wins were prestigious in and of themselves. Sometimes it was the role of the leader to be a
grand seigneur
—that is, generous. This was something I learned from Indurain, winner of five straight
Tours
from 1991 to 1995: it wasn’t good to win every day. There were 200 riders in the field, all working hard, and each deserved recognition for his efforts, and there were no losers at the end of a day when you had climbed the 10 percent grade up Mont Ventoux at the top of Provence, where a rider had once died making the ascent.

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