USA Today – Focus Gives Lance Head Start as Tour de France Nears – Jul 4, 2005 – Sal Ruibal – On Saturday, Lance Armstrong will begin an unprecedented attempt to win a seventh consecutive Tour de France, besting the record he set last year in the world’s biggest cycling race.
Much has been written and said about his prodigious physical skills and ability to generate tremendous speed on his bike. But those who know him best â€? his mother, his coach and his team say the key to Armstrong’s success is not in his well-muscled legs or bellows-like lungs but in the deepest core of his personality, a burning competitive drive that leaves no detail unexamined in the pursuit of a goal.
The physical embodiment of that focus is his intense stare during critical portions of a race. His blue eyes open wide as he directs all of his energy to the task at hand.
“I am focused,” Armstrong says. “I’ve always been that way, even as a kid. That’s because I have a responsibility to perform at my best. … I’m paid to be obsessed. I’m paid to win.”
It is a trait that has served him well in his more than 20 years of athletic competition, a span that began with neighborhood runs and swimming races in Plano, Texas, and will end at the finish of this year’s Tour when he will retire from the sport that has made him a global household name.
For Armstrong the superstar athlete, his slavish attention to minute detail is much more than an amusing or frustrating personality quirk. It is a way of life.
A small detail, such as his daily routine of measuring his bicycle to make sure the finely tuned geometric relationships of saddle, handlebars and pedals are exact, can make a significant difference in his efficiency on the bike. In a race in which, after three weeks and more than 85 hours of high-intensity racing, the gap between winning and losing has been as little as eight seconds, he truly believes every second counts.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that ‘Mr. Millimeter’ stuff,” he says. “This is a natural obsession. Some people are very detail-oriented, and others aren’t. I’m a stickler, a stickler about the facts. In sports, it is easy to compare the facts: You have the same bike, the same power meter, the same course. You can compare year-to-year.”
Lance Armstrong is going for a seventh consecutive Tour title, so interest in what might be cable’s longest-running reality show is still high. What has changed for 2005 is that Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service Team has switched sponsors and is now the Discovery Channel Team. For viewers at home, that means new uniforms to find in the fast-flowing pack of riders (white with bright blue trim instead of Postal’s dark blue and red) and more Armstrong-related programming on the Discovery channels to go with the traditional live coverage on the Outdoor Life Network.
OLN will have all-day coverage from Saturday through the finish July 24 in Paris. Prerace programming runs from 8:30 to 9 a.m., with the race live from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Race repeats are noon-2 p.m., 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. The prerace show will repeat from 8 to 8:30 p.m., followed by prime-time coverage from 8:30 to 11. That show will repeat from midnight-2:30 a.m.
All times are Eastern. Go to OLNTV.com for the detailed schedule.
Lance Week began Monday on Discovery’s multiple channels, but there’s plenty of opportunity to catch repeats of The Science of Lance Armstrong on the Science Channel and the five-part Chasing Lance series on FitTV and Discovery HD Theater.
To stay up-to-date throughout the Tour, go to usatoday.com for live-text coverage of the race, Le Blog de Tour and audio clips.
It won’t be easy to find comparisons with this year’s Tour. No other rider has been in position to win a seventh Tour, and, at 34, Armstrong is almost a senior citizen in the professional cycling world.
He had planned to skip the race to spend more time with his three children Ã¢â‚¬â€? Luke, 5, and twin daughters Grace and Isabelle, 3 Ã¢â‚¬â€? and rock star girlfriend Sheryl Crow. But with his new title sponsor, The Discovery Channel, investing millions in his team, Armstrong changed his mind in April.
The Tour covers a different route every year, and this year’s 21-stage, 2,241-mile course undercuts Armstrong’s strengths by offering shorter individual time-trial stages and just three mountaintop stage finishes. His rivals are younger and have fresh legs, while Armstrong concedes his “acceleration skills” have declined. He has used powerful bursts of speed on mountain ascents to gain an edge.
Armstrong says “there’s not the same sense of urgency that I had last year” and readily reveals he’ll be just as happy “if the race dictates that someone else from Discovery wins.” That could happen. Recent Tour of Italy winner Paolo Savoldelli is on Discovery this year, as is Yaroslav Popovych, a lanky Ukrainian whom Armstrong already has singled out as his likely successor.
But should his rivals Ã¢â‚¬â€? or his teammates Ã¢â‚¬â€? be dreaming of wearing yellow in Paris when the race ends July 24?
“There are many cyclists out there with great genetic gifts,” longtime personal coach Chris Carmichael says. “But none of them have his ability to focus on all the details it takes to win.”
Armstrong’s mother says his analytical obsession began at age 12, when he started logging data from every 6-mile training run onto a desk calendar.
“After a run, he’d come back to the house and start writing down all the details: his split times, his intervals, weather and temperature,” Linda Armstrong Kelly says.
“Before his races, I’d drive our old pickup truck while he ran the course, memorizing every inch.”
Although he was raised on “my home cooking, biscuits and gravy and club sandwiches,” Armstrong Kelly says, he soon adopted the eating habits of European cyclists, especially pasta.
“I made the sauce,” she says, “but Lance would make his own spaghetti for a snack after school or training. He insisted on making it the Italian way, al dente. So he’d boil it, then throw pieces of spaghetti against the wall. When it stuck, it was ready. Lord, we had spaghetti all over the wall.”
Armstrong retains some of that habit in his adult insistence on having his coffee made the same way every time, every day. “Peet’s Major Dickason’s blend, brewed only with Dasani bottled water,” says Mark Higgins, Armstrong’s sidekick and media coordinator. “That’s the winning formula.”
A million parts
Armstrong didn’t set out to obsess over what he now calls the “million parts to the puzzle” that is the Tour de France.
In the early 1990s, he was a one-day race specialist and was considered by his coaches to lack the endurance and climbing skills needed to win a three-week grand tour.
It wasn’t until he emerged from cancer treatment in 1996 that he began to see the bigger picture. Cancer had reduced his muscle mass, and the resulting weight loss now made it easier to climb the steep mountain stages essential to winning the three-week grand tours of Italy, France and Spain.
He also met Johan Bruyneel, a top Belgian racer who in his 12-year career won two Tour stages and wore the race leader’s yellow jersey for one day in the 1995 Tour.
It was a perfect match.
In Bruyneel, Armstrong saw a brilliant, detail-driven strategist with a consuming desire to win.
In Armstrong, Bruyneel saw a rider with tremendous physical gifts, a detail-oriented focus and an all-consuming desire to win.
In 1998, Bruyneel retired from racing and became the director of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team. Armstrong’s streak of Tour wins began in 1999.
“It was not difficult to make the transition from rider to director,” Bruyneel told USA TODAY in a 2002 interview. “As a rider you do what the team wants you to do, but all of that time I was thinking about these things.”
Those “things” were a detailed template for winning the Tour de France. At its simplest level, that plan called for a strategy of staying out of trouble in the flat stages, building a lead in time trials and establishing big margins over rivals in the mountain stages.
The Discovery Team will use that same plan this year with a few changes, most notably the addition of more climbing specialists to assist Armstrong in his efforts to wring out every second of time advantage in the Alps and Pyrenees.
From the start of their relationship, Bruyneel and Armstrong wanted to make sure their plan could survive surprises such as mechanical problems or crashes. They have examined every aspect of the race in search of valuable seconds that could be shaved as a cushion against the unexpected.
That meant annually investing in $5,000-an-hour wind tunnel testing to perfect Armstrong’s position on the bike, pushing bike manufacturer Trek to reduce the weight of the team’s equipment while maintaining structural soundness and developing race uniforms with Nike that would slip through the air while also cooling the rider.
Sometimes there were painful confrontations.
Lance Armstrong begins his quest Saturday for his seventh straight Tour de France win. A look at his winning margins in his six victories:
1999: 7 minutes, 37 seconds
Just before last year’s Tour, Armstrong rejected a new Trek time-trial bike and went back to the previous year’s model because the narrow-framed machine caused him to produce slightly less power.
Tests showed there was potential for greater speed on the new bike, “but the possibility of losing even a few seconds was totally unacceptable to him,” Trek team liaison Scott Daubert says.
Armstrong is riding a new Trek TTX time-trial bike this year, and it has translated into bigger sales for Trek. The TTX is not available to the public, but Daubert says Trek factories are working double shifts to meet consumer demand for the 2005 Lance-inspired Madone road bikes, which cost $2,999 to $7,699.
Armstrong’s obsession also covers seemingly mundane issues, such as his eyewear and saddle.
For the last 10 years, Armstrong has insisted on wearing Oakley M-Frame glasses with a special lens that originally was designed just for golfers. Despite Oakley’s efforts to get Armstrong into a more current model, he won’t budge.
“His attitude is always, ‘Why fix it if it isn’t broken?’ ” Oakley’s Stephanie McIlvain says. “He’s always been a little picky, even when he was younger. But sometimes he’ll reject something, then come back months later and say he wants it. But that’s Lance.”
Armstrong will place his millionaire bottom on a $59.95 Selle San Marco Concor bike saddle, a 20-year-old model that had been discontinued but has been kept alive because of Armstrong’s interest.
Coach Carmichael says Armstrong insists on seeing a map of his daily training workout route before riding it even if he has done it many times. He rides his time-trial bike at least once every week and gets a massage every day during the eight weeks leading up to the Tour.
“You can’t argue with him about it,” Carmichael says. “You’ll never win.”
To those who scoff at his obsession, Armstrong points to the 2003 Tour.
His usual attention to detail failed him when the team established a time-trial warm-up spot under a grove of trees in the south-central France town of Gaillac. The weather was sunny and very hot, but Bruyneel felt the shade of the trees would be an advantage.
In his warm-up ride on a stationary bike, however, Armstrong began to sweat profusely in the stifling 95-degree heat. Team buses and crowds of onlookers blocked a breeze from reaching Armstrong.
His main rival, German Jan Ullrich, had established a warm-up area in an air-conditioned bike shop.
A dehydrated Armstrong wilted on his time-trial ride, finishing second to Ullrich and losing 96 seconds to his archenemy. His lead had shrunk to 34 seconds, and the steep Pyrenees were coming up.
Armstrong later would give the most dramatic performance of his career on the last mountain stage of that Tour, surviving a scary crash, then storming past all of his rivals to win the stage at Luz Ardiden. That 67-second margin lasted into that Tour’s final time trial, where a desperate Ullrich crashed in the rain trying to catch Armstrong.
Armstrong won the overall race by 61 seconds, the closest of his six wins. “Looking back at that first time trial in Gaillac, it was the worst performance in my athletic career,” Armstrong says.
“I gave up lots of time, but I was still ahead. If I had not paid attention to all those little details, I would not have had that cushion and the situation on Luz Ardiden would have been more serious.
“If it hadn’t been for that focus on all of those details over the years, we would be talking about winning only three or four Tours instead of six.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.