- OLY - Tour riders keep strategic gears turning

Tour de France 2001
Tuesday, July 24
Tour riders keep strategic gears turning

LAVAUR, France -- Bike racing is a tactical game full of intrigue, and the Tour de France is the ultimate chess-match -- a three-week duel fought out over the steepest mountains of Europe.

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong's performance in the mountains was enough to all but lock up his third straight Tour title.
Lance Armstrong is expected to claim his third straight Tour title when the 2,141-mile race ends Sunday on the Champs Elysees in Paris. The Texan currently leads German rival Jan Ullrich by more than 5 minutes.

Tuesday, Armstrong finished 40th in the 140-mile 15th stage, more than 15 minutes behind stage-winner Rik Verbrugghe, yet easily retained the overall lead. That seeming disparity is a perfect example of the inner workings of Tour strategy.

A bike race is much like a 72-hole golf tournament. Just as a golfer doesn't need to win every hole so long as he eagles the par-5s when his rivals make bogey, Armstrong can let weaker riders gain time on the easiest stages while he zeroes in on the tough ones.

In long flat stages, Armstrong can let lesser riders pull away, knowing they won't challenge the overall lead in the end. The mountains, however, is where the Tour is won and lost. And it is there that Armstrong is at the front of the action.

So how does the Tour unfold? A look at how Armstrong built up his impregnable margin helps tell the story of tactics.

Opening prologue
The opening prologue is the Tour's first test. Typically held on a short course, no more than 5 to 7 miles, the prologue helps reveal to the peloton who's in shape and who's serious about winning the Tour. The time differences don't mean much by the time the Tour ends in Paris some three weeks down the road -- Armstrong finished just 4 seconds behind stage winner Christophe Moreau -- but the psychological impact can be huge. In 1999, Armstrong won the opening prologue in his dramatic return to racing, announcing to the world that the Tour would be his.

The first week on the flats
The first week of the Tour usually is fought out between the sprinters, a special breed of racer whose specialty is to go flat out in the final 400 yards of a stage when the entire bunch comes into the finish together. Some teams, such as SAECO and Domo, build their entire teams around winning these kinds of stages. Teammates will sacrifice their chances for victory to lead out their top sprinter, riding as hard as they can until their captain squirts around them for a final run to the finish.

The sprinters, often built like football halfbacks, fade once the going gets steep. Armstrong and the favorites can sit back and not worry about losing time. By the fourth stage this year, Armstrong had fallen 27 seconds back and into seventh place. Now, though, the six riders ahead of him at the time are more than one hour behind Armstrong.

The team time trial
This is the first important stage of the Tour, and the overall favorites begin to move to the top of the standings. Teams ride together in single file in a race against the clock. Racers like Armstrong are only as strong as their teammates, as the time is taken on the fifth man across the line. This year, two of Armstrong's teammates crashed during the Tour's fifth stage, but the team recovered nicely and finished fourth. Armstrong actually fell to 15th overall as team riders from Credit Agricole and ONCE moved ahead.

Dangerous breakaways
This year's Tour was turned on its head when 14 riders tore away from the main bunch during the eighth stage and finished more than 35 minutes ahead of the favorites. Two dangerous riders were in the break, France's Francois Simon and Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev.

Teams will often work together to cut the margin of breakaways, but on this cold rainy day, everyone was looking to Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team to do the work. Armstrong didn't want to burn out his teammates, and the break held. Armstrong fell to 24th overall at more than 35 minutes back.

The Alps
Once the going gets steep, the slate is wiped clean. The overall contenders shoot to the front of the standings as the sprinters and others can't maintain the pace up the steepest climbs. Armstrong won both stages in the Alps this year, winning at the Tour's most famous climbing stage at Alpe d'Huez and again the next day in a climbing individual time trial to Chamrousse.

Typically, Armstrong would have taken the overall lead at this point, because he finished several minutes ahead of his rivals, but not this year. Thanks to their advantage from the breakaway, Simon took the yellow jersey and Kivilev moved into second overall. Armstrong moved up to third but was still 13 minutes behind Simon. But the Texan didn't panic. Time was on his side.

The Pyrenees
Three difficult climbing stages in the Pyrenees presented the final battleground for this year's Tour. Armstrong rode brilliantly, winning a dramatic stage at Sant-Lary-Soulon and erasing Simon's time gap to move into the overall lead.

German rival Jan Ullrich attacked Armstrong in every mountain stage, but once Armstrong had the lead, all he had to do was make sure he didn't lose time. In Sunday's final climbing stage to Luz-Ardiden, Armstrong even let Ullrich finish ahead of him because he knew the real racing was over.

The home stretch
The mountains presented the final chance for Armstrong's rivals to take serious time away from him. In the final flat stages back to Paris, Armstrong will ride inside the protective cocoon of his teammates to stay out of harm's way. If he avoids crashes or illness, Armstrong will win his third Tour de France. Friday's individual time trial will be one last chance for Armstrong to win a stage, but with his lead of more than 5 minutes, there's almost no chance he can lose the race.

The finale held on the Champs Elysees is a big party. Tens of thousands of fans line the course, and the Tour survivors roll into Paris ready to celebrate. One last stage remains, and a win in the Tour's final stage is an honor for any racer. As the holder of the yellow jersey, Armstrong's team will hit the Champs Elysees first, and then it's 10 laps to the podium.

The race was won in the mountains. Now it's time for some champagne.


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