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Planning a big part of Armstrong’s strategy

Tribune staff reporter

The French call it "le danse,'' the quick flutter of legs and shimmying of hips when a rider comes up out of the saddle to accelerate.

Lance Armstrong's particular Texas two-times-two step is more like a drumroll announcing a grand entrance. And while it may look like an improvisation, it's actually part of a carefully choreographed performance.

No one can control every variable in an event with the size, scope and potential for mayhem of the Tour de France. But Armstrong went as far as he could in the other direction this year, scouting and training for specific stages of the race with almost compulsive precision.

"He's a detail person,'' said Armstrrong's long-time coach Chris Carmichael. "He likes everything laid out: step one, step two. He doesn't like to hear, `We'll figure it out when we get there.'”

Armstrong 's goal this year was not only to win his third straight Tour but to eliminate what he called "that bad last day'' in which his winged feet turned to clay.

In each of his previous two wins, Armstrong's crisis came in the last mountain stage. Spanish rider Fernando Escartin reeled him in on the Piau-Engaly ascent in the Pyrenees in 1999 a week after Armstrong had taken the overall lead. Last year, Armstrong said he made a strategic mistake by not eating before the hike up the Alpine Col de Joux-Plane stage. Realizing he was out of gas, Armstrong reduced his rpms and watched grimly as his chief rival, Germany's Jan Ullrich, motored past him.

Neither letdown cost Armstrong the race, but it could have.

"Joux-Plane last year? That hurt a lot,'' Armstrong said. "I was never on the limit this year, like Joux-Plane. When you're prepared well, it doesn't hurt at all. ''

Last spring, Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team's climbing corps -- Spanish riders Roberto Heras, Jose Luis Rubiera and Victor Hugo Pena and New Englander Tyler Hamilton -- committed several of the Pyrenees stages to memory. By the time they were riding in the Tour, Hamilton said, he felt as if he were equipped with an internal guidance system as sophisticated as any smart car's.

"You're always thinking ahead,'' Hamilton said. For example, when you're going up a certain climb, you know you want to be at the front going over the top because the descent is tricky and technical, maybe a narrow, bumpy road. Those little things make a big difference.''

Armstrong also did homework in the Alps and paid special attention to the uphill time trial ending in Chamrousse, which he won decisively in the Tour. When bad weather altered the team's travel plans, he wound up taking even more test flights than he had planned -- so many that he said he lost count.

His confidence enabled him to travel lighter. Armstrong dispensed with the small-screen digital readout device that many riders fix to their handlebars to keep track of their average speed, distance traveled and other markers.

"I rode Chamrousse a bunch of times,'' Armstrong said. "I don't even use the computer because I know the course that well...I know where 50 K (kilometers) is, where 100 K is, where 50 K to go is, where 25 K to go is.''

Other teams scope out the course as well. But on the whole, Armstrong and his teammates invest more time proportionately in training camps than races, making no bones about the fact that the Tour is the chief emphasis. Armstrong competed sparingly this spring, riding in just one major one-day classic, the Amstel Gold in Holland, and one major multi-stage race, the Tour of Switzerland. Even that was a targeted exercise: the Swiss race included an uphill time trial that closely mimicked the conditions Armstrong would encounter in the Chamrousse stage.

En route: Czech rider Jan Svorada of the Italian-based Lampre-Daikin team threw his front wheel over the finish line first in the 20th and final Tour stage today, spoiling the expected prizefight between Germany's Erik Zabel and Australian Stuart O'Grady. Zabel, of Deutsch Telekom, and O'Grady, of Credit Agricole, were locked into a sprint-to-the-death battle to win the overall points classification but were unable to outmaneuver Svoboda. Zabel donned his record sixth consecutive green jersey on the podium...Laurent Jalabert of France and Oscar Sevilla of Spain held onto the Best Climber and Best Young Rider designations.

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