The No. 1 question on the minds of many cycling fans is: Is Lance Armstrong ready to win a fifth consecutive Tour de France?
As the man with the raw data in front of me, and more than a decade of baseline data to compare it to, let me assure you: The man is ready.
Looking at the last 12 months, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Lance is entering the 2003 edition of the world’s toughest cycling race in top form.
His work ethic is unparalleled, as is his commitment to doing everything necessary to win. What separates Lance Armstrong from his competitors is his unwavering focus on the Tour de France. We consider every aspect of his training, nutrition, travel, and racing in relation to its effect on his preparation for July.
Lance has to be prepared to race at high intensity, from the first moment of the race on July 5 all the way to its conclusion 23 days later in Paris. There is a separate stage each day, and there are only two days during the whole event that don’t include competition. One bad day or one moment of carelessness can cost you the Tour de France. This means you have to be prepared to compete on flat terrain, in the wind, through the heat, and on major mountain passes.
To make sure Lance is completely prepared, we break his training year into segments and focus specifically on one aspect of his fitness at a time. Aerobic conditioning is the most important factor for success in the Tour, so we spend the greatest amount of time developing his aerobic engine. You might think that at 31 years of age, he has long since reached the pinnacle of his power and potential, but the capacities of endurance athletes increase as they accumulate years of training and racing. Lance is still getting stronger, and his aerobic power has increased 16 percent in the last 10 years.
Soon after the conclusion of the 2002 Tour de France, Lance began the process of building his aerobic foundation for the 2003 Tour.
Through the fall and winter, he trained long hours on the road and in the gym, lifting weights to increase the power his legs can deliver. The winter is the best time for him to lift weights because it is difficult for endurance athletes to weight train and perform high-intensity workouts on the bike at the same time. The intensity of Lance’s cycling workouts is relatively low while he is developing his aerobic foundation, so it is the perfect time to include weight training into his training schedule.
Building a strong aerobic foundation is essential for developing the ability to go all-out in races. If you think of fitness as a pyramid, optimal racing performance is at the top of the pyramid and aerobic conditioning is the wide base that supports everything above it. The stronger the base, the higher you can build the pyramid.
The steps between the base and peak include developing race-specific strengths, such as the ability to climb mountains, win time trials, maintain a lean and healthy body weight, and sustain the mental focus necessary to handle the pressures of leading the Tour de France.
The eight-day stage race, the Criterium du Dauphine Libere in France from June 8-15, was Lance’s final test prior to the Tour.
He sent a strong message to his competition by winning the race for the second consecutive year, and by winning an important time trial by more than a minute. It was an important race for Lance, as well as a confidence-builder for the entire U.S. Postal Service team.
Lance had his first significant crash since 2000 during the Dauphine, but I believe the experience was beneficial for him and for the team. When a team leader crashes, his entire team needs to stop, wait for him to get up, and then pace him back to the main group. Though it has been years since the Postal leader had to call upon his team for this critical task, Lance showed his leadership qualities by quickly remounting his bike, ignoring his bleeding arm and shredded shorts, and getting back into the race.
It’s important to show the men who sacrifice their personal goals for the benefit of the team that their leader will not let them down when the going gets tough. After that crash, Lance told an interviewer, “I immediately got back on my bike again and defended my (race leader’s) jersey, instead of staying on the side of the road and groaning. ... It’s good that my teammates have seen that their leader is ready.”
Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service have the strength and experience to win a fifth consecutive Tour de France, but nothing is ever guaranteed in a three-week stage race.
Winning a race like the Tour de France requires experience, diligence, and most of all, patience. For now, all that is left is the agonizing wait until the start on July 5, when all the talking stops and the racing begins.
Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong’s coach since 1990 and has guided him to four consecutive Tour de France titles. Elected to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame this past May, he is also the author of “The Ultimate Ride” and will be writing a twice-weekly column for The Associated Press during the Tour de France.