In search of six

2004-07-01 14:04
Cape Town - In the 1992 Tour de France, the unpredictable Italian star Claudio Chiappucci attacked early in Stage 13 in what many thought was a suicide move in the mountains. As Chiappucci stormed off the front in madcap glory, breaking the peloton apart, I found myself contemplating abandonment. It was my first Tour, and I was in way over my head.

The race was excruciatingly hot, and although I'd somehow survived the three large mountain passes we'd already climbed that day, I'd become so overcooked I could barely feel my legs, let alone pedal. On a nameless, 5km climb, I faded backwards until I ended up in the very last group. I knew that if I lost contact with these riders and had to suffer through the rest of the stage alone - including the upcoming 15km Col de Sestriéres - I'd finish so far behind the winner that I'd miss the time cut and be eliminated from the Tour. As I swayed back and forth across the road, pleading with my legs to keep turning, my team car appeared, like a mirage.

Our doctor, Max Testa, reached through the open window and gave me two aspirins. Then he held out a Coke. I grabbed it, but Testa didn't let go. At that instant Jim Ochowicz, our team director and driver of the car, punched the accelerator. The Coke tugged me forward. I held on for five seconds, regained contact with the group and let go. Again I got dropped. And, again, the Coke came out of the window to save me.

I managed to finish the stage without any more help from the car. But the experience of suffering magnificently merely to finish the Tour de France - and I ended up completing nine of them during my career, including helping Lance Armstrong win in 1999 and 2000 - led me to understand what an amazing, inexplicable combination of sacrifice, training, strategy, health, circumstance and luck must click into place for a rider to win. Once.

The Tour takes its victims in so many ways. The fittest, most prepared, most ambitious and most steely-eyed racer can be taken out with shocking randomness. In the 1997 Tour, racing for Cofidis, I was surfing the peloton at 60km/h in Stage 3 when, for no reason at all, the entire left side of the group suddenly disappeared. Tony Rominger - our team's leader, one of the strongest racers of that season and a favourite to win that year - broke his collarbone in the crash and was eliminated. I happened to be on the right side of the road.

For those of us who have ridden the Tour, the idea of winning six consecutive times literally approaches incomprehension. In a single Tour, the number of close calls that do not become accidents is infinite. And each day is dominated by uncontrollable circumstances. To avoid being out-trained, out-ridden and outsmarted is one thing. Then try never getting sick, injured, crashed out or even puncturing a tube at the wrong instant.

Forget about his formidable human challengers for a minute; Lance Armstrong faces two punishing opponents: Tradition and age. In 100 years, only four riders besides Armstrong have won five Tours; all tried for a sixth, and all failed. You can argue all you want about differing eras, and how mental focus can overcome bad luck (as Armstrong seemed to demonstrate last year), but the inarguable fact is that not one of cycling's great champions achieved six. This doesn't mean it can't be done. But it shows that you can't ignore history.

Read the complete article plus all that you need to know about the Tour de France and lots more in the July/August issue of Bicycling. On sale now!


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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