Paris 23 July 2000 Lance Armstrong the joker in the pack
In 2003, Lance Armstrong will take on one of the most significant challenges of his career: to win a fifth Tour of France, as only the great champions have done in the past .One obviously speaks about Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain, with the Spanish rider being the only one to have won the event five times in a row . Considering the mental brittleness of some of his adversaries (Ullrich, Pantani, Garzelli) or the (relative) average physiques of the majority of the others (Botero, Beloki, Simoni, Casagrande, Sevilla, Casero, Gonzales de Galdeano, Leipheimer, Hamilton, etc), Armstrong is looking an odds on bet not only to equal Indurains record but also to become the only rider to achieve 6 successive victories .
Throughout this run of success Armstrong’s right hand man has been his Directeur Sportif Johan Bruyneel . In cycling, as in any other sport (and generally speaking in life ), it is important not to sell the skin of the bear before having killed it , and during the last four years Armstrong has learnt to kill any form of competition quickly. There has been a shift of attitude by journalists reporting Armstrongs successive successes .
The first two were considered a “miracle by a cancer survivor “ , more recently Armstrong tends to be judged as a “normal” rider” .Articles are more likely to concentrate on his willpower, his physical characteristics and his capacity to motivate his team-members .The European press has made much play on the fact that two of the greatest Americans in the last 35 years have shared the same surname - Neil and Lance Armstrong ( “next stop Mars “ declared one Spanish paper after his fourth Tour Victory ) . Indeed in Europe the Texan is receiving the sort of Press that only Eddy Merckx had received in the past . Like Bruyneel , Armstrong can count on Merckx as being on of his best friends and supporters in Europe .
Eddy Merckx and Lance Armstrong at the 1996 Tour de Gruene
Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx, who claimed five Tour de France and Giro d'Italia titles, has known Armstrong for many years
"the two of us enjoy a special friendship. I have known Lance since the Barcelona Games, and we have remained friends ever since”
Merckx, who now works as a press consultant and runs the bicycle factory that bears his name, has admitted that he never thought Lance Armstrong could one day win the Tour de France.
"Before his illness, Lance was talented, he'd won the world championship at the age of 21, but as a climber he struggled,"
When Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer Merckx was at hand to help his friend
"I went to Texas to see Lance. He went out on his bike for the first time since his illness, and I was there with him," Merckx recalled. "His head was shaved, and he had two big scars at the back of his neck. It was only three weeks after his operation, and you could see he was still exhausted, but he wanted so much to get back on his bike."
"I'm not afraid to say it, but back then, and seeing his state of health, I never thought he would one day win the Tour.
"Then he lost about five kilos due to his cancer. It was down to his illness that he turned into a great climber," Merckx noted. "Cancer made him much stronger physically, and, more importantly, stronger mentally. He saw death staring him right in the face."
Merckx also realises that the biggest threat to his (equal Tour ) record is Armstrong - “ Of course Armstrong can equal and then overtake my own Tour de France record , that is life - the records are there to be broken .
Merckx was a more complete rider, winning many of the one-day classics - Liege-Bastogne-Liege (five), the Milan-San Remo (seven), Paris-Roubaix (three), Ghent-Wevelgem (three), Amstel Gold (two) and the Fleche Wallonne (three) - among others. However, he refuses to compare his success with that of Armstrong.
Cycling has changed, he says.
"You can't compare our success. I rode the Tour with a 10-speed bike and today a pair of wheels weighs a kilo less than in my time. In general, the material is much more sophisticated," said Merckx.
"Armstrong is the champion of a new era, which is more professional. I for example raced 150 days of the year. Armstrong focuses on the Tour and arrived this year with only 21 days of racing in his legs.
"I couldn't even imagine missing a one-day classic," Merckx said. "Lance is going to last a very long time. He doesn't need to do all the races I did. I worked myself to the bone. Now, looking back, I realize I was made to do so."
Friendship, it is also what links Armstrong and Bruyneel. From a timid alliance, started on the basis of two fourth placings in the Time Trial Championships of the World of Valkenburg 98, just after Armstrong had finished fourth in the Vuelta, the two men have forged a very strong link, a welded seal of confidence and intelligence exists between them .
“I will never forget that it was Lance himself that offered me the opportunity to join him within the Postal US Team , remembers Bruyneel.
I expected a job in the PR department but Armstrong had recommended to me to the manager Mark Gorski to become the Directeur Sportif. From this moment, I put myself under strict personal analysis . I started by questioning my new colleagues, in order to be up to date with all the facets of this profession, and then I added my own ingredients.
With Armstrong , it was not only the fact that he wanted to improve in the mountains , it was also the fact that he wanted to alter his style .We trained in particular so that his cadence increased as the road started rising , exactly as Miguel Indurain did .”
“Lance is an incredible perfectionist and the Americans understood this well since, this year, he has won the title of Sportsman of the Year . This is extraordinary in a country where baseball, tennis and football dominate sporting passions. Lance Armstrongs passion for the bicycle, and the Tour in particular remains his true motivation. I remain flabbergasted each time I see him train for 6, 7 or 8 hours per day,in all weathers , months before the start of the Tour .
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