Thursday, December 9, 2004

Lance Armstrong on the Galibier
A season without mountains for Armstrong in 2005?

Paris -- Will Lance Armstrong ride the 2005 Tour de France?  That's the question everyone has been asking for weeks.

Lance was not present at the October presentation in Paris of the 2005 Tour route.  In its coverage of this event the very next day, French sports daily l'Equipe left no doubt from page one as to what was on the minds of many:

L'Equipe cover:  A Tour without Armstrong?

Lance certainly has a lot of people believing he will focus on the spring classics in 2005 and skip the Tour.

I don't buy it.

It's inconceivable, to me anyway, that Lance in 2005 will skip the mountains and the time trials (individual and team) of the Tour, where he shines the most, and compete exclusively in one-day events such as the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.  (Team officials have said that if Lance rides a Grand Tour, it will be the Tour de France, not the Giro d'Italia or Vuelta a Espana.)

Still, Samuel Abt of the International Herald Tribune reported in October that Lance told Tour officials last summer that he would not be back in 2005 to defend his title.  To me, that is the most convincing indication that Lance Armstrong will not ride the Tour in 2005.

I still don't buy it.

Abt reported that Lance would announce his plans in December.  Then there was talk elsewhere that he'd make an announcement in February or March.  The latest, reported this week in the Austin American-Statesman, is that Lance will make a decision about the Tour in May, after racing for six weeks in Europe from mid-March.  Decision or announcement?

Perhaps Lance really doesn't yet know what he wants to do beyond the spring.  If that's the case, then that would indeed be quite a departure from the past six seasons in which the Tour was the focus and things like reconnaissance of Tour time trial or other key stages was sometimes done as early as March/April.  (Snow-covered mountain passes such as the Galibier don't open until later in May.)

So where might Lance Armstrong race in 2005?

If he doesn't race in early March, that would rule out Spain's Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia (March 2-6), a race he has favored in recent years on his way to victory in the Tour.  But that would also rule out the Paris-Nice stage race (March 6-13) often favored by riders preparing for the spring classics.

The plot thickens.

The Critérium International (March 26-27) is a possibility.  This mini stage race features three stages, including a time trial, run over two days.  That time trial might be of interest to Lance for trying out a new time trial bike, setup or position especially if he is targeting the Tour.  There are relatively few opportunities to compete in time trials before the Tour.  The Critérium International is also a good race timing-wise because it comes just one week before the Tour of Flanders, which Lance reportedly will be targeting.  But if Lance is seriously targeting the Tour of Flanders, he may skip the Critérium International and instead train on the cobblestones further north.

Also, unlike in 2004, the 2005 Critérium International won't present a particularly good opportunity, geography-wise, for Lance and the team to scout out any Tour stages.

Another possibility is the Three Days of De Panne race (March 29-31), where teammate George Hincapie surely will look to defend his 2004 title.  Perhaps Lance will join George in this race as a nice team warm-up for Flanders (April 3) just a few days later.  De Panne also offers another time trial opportunity for Lance

The major spring races Lance is considering, according to the Statesman, include the Tour of Flanders, the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Lance very well may be motivated to train for and attempt to win one or more of these big spring races.  The attempt alone will help to make these great races better known to more fans in the U.S.  Surely the challenge appeals to him.

But the ultimate challenge these days would be winning a spring classic AND the Tour in the same year.  That would seem just like the type of challenge Lance could get excited about; take out a spring win or two on the turf of riders like Van Petegem, Rebellin, Bettini, then defend his own turf in July.

Peter Van Petegem

Davide Rebellin

Paolo Bettini

That of course is easier said than done.  Riders like Van Petegem, Rebellin and Bettini target these spring races, are nearly always in great form and are very strong tactically.

Seriously targeting the spring classics wasn't something Lance was going to do while attempting to match, then better the record for Tour wins.  But now that he has his record 6th Tour win, especially in such dominant fashion overall, it would seem that he could take calculated risks with regard to Tour form.

Even if Lance won, for example, the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as great as those races are is that enough for a guy that won stages climbing, sprinting and time-trialing in addition to the overall at the 2004 Tour?  Is it enough for new sponsor Discovery Channel?

But what if Lance lost the 2005 Tour?  Would that hurt his legacy?  I don't think so.  The great Bernard Hinault was beaten outright by Laurent Fignon in the 1984 Tour before bouncing back to get his 5th Tour win in 1985.  If Lance lost the 2005 Tour, he could then focus exclusively on the 2006 Tour and perhaps retire on top again.  This is a risk, and challenge, that I think the 6-time Tour winner can take.  Even in overall defeat, it would seem that a possible 2005 Tour stage win and certainly plenty of exposure would be better for the sponsor than not competing at all.  And I wouldn't bet against Lance for the overall.

If Lance races at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he'd have several weeks back stateside before returning to Europe to do reconnaissance of the Tour mountain stages, compete in the Dauphiné Libéré and the new ProTour Team Time Trial event in the Netherlands just two weeks before the start of the Tour.

That sounds like quite a busy racing schedule, spring through July, and it is.  But isn't that precisely what many have been wanting from Lance Armstrong?  It may also be wishful thinking on my part.

But what does Lance have to lose?


IHT: Cycling: Armstrong question hangs over 2005 Tour

Armstrong to decide in May on Tour de France

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Vélo d’or to Armstrong

Paris -- The news got out a week or two ago, before it was supposed to:  Lance Armstrong has been awarded the prestigious Vélo d’or trophy for the fifth time.  The Vélo Magazine issue officially announcing the award hit newsstands today.

Vélo Magazine created the Vélo d’or (literally "bike of gold") in 1992.  Armstrong and Miguel Indurain (twice) are the only multi-year recipients of this award.  Italy's Mario Cipollini won in 2002.

The gold trophy will look good next to the gold helmet Armstrong wore during the final stage of the 2004 Tour de France.

Votes for the award were cast by an international jury of 17 journalists from 17 countries.  Damiano Cunego of Italy finished second in the voting with Oscar Freire of Spain third.

Mountain biker Julien Absalon, 2004 Olympic and World Champion, was awarded the Vélo d’or for top French rider.  Thomas Voeckler and Richard Virenque finished second and third, respectively, in that category.

When you win the Vélo d’or for a fourth time, as Armstrong did in 2003, they show you on the cover of the magazine holding the trophy:

When you win for the fifth time, you become a part of the trophy itself, at least in the cover image:

Cover of the issue that hit newsstands today

Vincent Lavenu

L'Equipe TV interviewed AG2R team manager, Vincent Lavenu, for his reaction to being barred from the ProTour.  Lavenu, though obviously disappointed, is determined to prove during the 2005 season that the UCI was wrong to exclude AG2R for not being competitive enough.  Lavenu pointed out that with just 19 teams in the ProTour in 2005, becoming the 20th ProTour team in 2006 is a possibility.  But with four French teams (Bouygues Telecom (formerly Brioches la Boulangere), Credit Agricole, Cofidis, FdJeux.com) already in the ProTour, AG2R has a tough road ahead.  Lavenu has faced adversity before and he has the knowledge and experience to get results.  (He brought along Jaan Kirsipuu and Alexandre Vinokourov afterall.)  AG2R will get  into the Tour de France via wild card and no doubt will race most of the ProTour races in France despite not being a ProTour team.  They may yet sign another good rider or two for 2005 (from Phonak?) now that the ProTour teams are known and with few ProTour roster spots available.


The Daily Peloton has a good summary of yesterday's ProTour announcements and statements:

The Nineteen ProTour Teams for 2005 - Updated

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Phonak out of ProTour

Phonak riders were occasionally seen wearing Phonak hearing aids

Paris -- This is not the news Phonak wanted to hear.

The Phonak Cycling Team , mired in doping controversy, has failed in its attempt to secure a ProTour license for 2005.  The UCI Licenses Commission also announced today they have rejected the candidatures of the AG2R and MrBookmaker.com teams, presumably on sporting grounds.

Phonak sacked embattled rider Tyler Hamilton in a last-minute attempt to get into the new ProTour, but it was not enough.

The UCI ProTour is the new "super league" of professional cycling and is meant to include the sport's top stage races as well as one-day classics.

The UCI's message is clear, at least as far as securing ProTour licenses is concerned:  If your house isn't clean, you don't get in the ProTour.  Recall that the Cofidis team, mired in its own doping scandal earlier this year, immediately moved to suspend or fire some riders, doctors and team management.  Cofidis is among the 19 teams now officially selected for the ProTour.

What is less clear at this time is what happens when doping cases emerge on a ProTour team once the season begins, though surely there will be pressure to immediately fire those involved.

The future of the Phonak team, which had its riders occasionally wear Phonak hearing aids to help fight the stigma of doing so, is uncertain.  Team officials had previously said the team needed to be in the ProTour in order to continue racing at all.  Phonak is also a sponsor of races including the Tour de Romandie , won the past two years by Hamilton.

Teams without ProTour licenses can nonetheless compete in ProTour races if invited by race organizers.

American Floyd Landis , who transferred this off season to Phonak from the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, is expected to now depart to sign with a ProTour team.  Numerous other Phonak riders will have a tough time doing that this late in the game.

American Floyd Landis on Mont Ventoux in June, 2004

For more:
19 UCI ProTour Team Licenses for 2005

Hamilton fired, team banned from Tour de France

Hamilton fired by Phonak after positive drug tests

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