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89th Tour de France - Grand Tour
France, July 6-28, 2002
Chris Carmichael on Lance Armstrong
As the final countdown to the 2002 Tour de France began, Lance Armstrong's long time coach Chris Carmichael spoke with journalists about Armstrong's prognostics for a possible fourth straight TDF win. Topics covered included his preparation, chances, rivals, physical and mental capabilities, nutritional requirements, the parcours, and more. Cyclingnews' chief online editor Jeff Jones took part in the discussion.
Q: How would you compare Lance Armstrong's chances with his chances in previous years?
CC: I think there's never an easy Tour de France. I won't say I'm nervous, but there's a little bit more unknown with this year's Tour de France. with some of favourites out. Jan Ullrich is a great champion, and shared same goal. With Pantani also out, now there's this unknown as to who's going to step in as a major challenger. It's Lance Armstrong's race to lose.
Looking at some of his recent test results after the Dauphine, he tested a little lower than expected. A few days later he bounced back and tested above. I think he's ready to go.
Q: Who do you think is the next challenger?
CC: After the Giro, Tyler Hamilton is definitely considered a rival with his second place finish. ONCE with Beloki and some of the other Spanish riders. [Santiago] Botero, who unexpectedly beat Lance Armstrong in a time trial in the Dauphine. Beating Lance Armstrong in any time trial that close to the Tour raises some level of concern. Sevilla could be considered a potential challenger too.
Q: Was he mad about losing the time trial in the Dauphine?
CC: No, because he was winning the war but he lost a battle along the way. The day before the time trial there was the Mont Ventoux stage, Lance Armstrong rode hard up that climb - partly to see how he would go. The guy who won the time trial finished 15 minutes down on the Mt Ventoux stage. He only beat Lance by 42 seconds in the TT. That obviously played into his victory. Then we knew Armstrong still had a little bit more to go. He was not in top condition.
Q: In your estimation, how good was he during the classics?
CC: He was in good shape. In the Tour of Flanders he did a lot of work for George [Hincapie], helped him get up to the break. Liege-Bastogne-Liege didn't play out as he expected, but he bounced back nicely for Amstel and was strong there.
It fits into that philosophy of making sure you're in good shape all year. If your chasing form, that's when you get nervous. The fundamental principal of training applies year round and athletes who I've seen are overtrained are always trying to catch form. We have a rule of thumb that Armstrong is never 50-70 watts out of Tour shape all year round. It's a good benchmark and we know how quickly he can respond to training.
Q: What is his 'Tour shape' wattage?
CC: Well, that's proprietary information. He's strong. A power meter is one of the great features that cycling now has - we can measure power output, kilojoules burned, speed, heartrate - that can make a coach's job much easier. We look at this on a daily basis.
With regard to the power an athlete can put out - you can't look at absolute power. e.g. George can in essence put out more absolute power than Lance, but he weighs more and has a bigger aerodynamic drag. Lance Armstrong is not quite as big and doesn't have to produce as much power to punch through the air. I don't know of anyone that produces the same power-weight ratio that Lance Armstrong does. But I have not worked with any other Tour de France contenders.
Q: Has Armstrong's preparation for the Tour changed this year?
CC: It's pretty much the same, this year's changed slightly. The view that Lance Armstrong, Johan and I have is that you have to be prepare to race the Tour every day. Any one stage can be the one that allows you to win the Tour. You can't expect to ride into form. You have to start in top condition.
With Ullrich exiting the Tour due to injury, our preparation has changed, but not in a major way. Ullrich is always a big threat in a time trial so that means with him out we were able to put a couple more days in the mountains.
Q: Is he at his peak?
CC: I think Lance Armstrong is at a point now in his career where what motivates him is trying to get a little better in any one aspect of his cycling. For example this year he's done lot more core strength work and flexibility than in the past. Has has basically continued this right up until the Tour so he can hold his TT position on false flats and uphill grades. In the past he didn't have this.
It's these small things that he's constantly working at. He's the top time trialist but he keeps looking deeper. Most pro bike racers will do ab work and lower back work. Lance Armstrong continues that program right up until the Tour. I think you can see that he can keep his body a little stiller, whereas before he'd have to pop up and catch a little more air.
That's the motivation for him. There has been discussion about winning six Tours. He says: 'we've got to win the next one.' He understands how incredibly hard to win one.
Q: Is Lance Armstrong at a wholly different level physically?
CC: All of us at CTS look at performance in the same way. We don't separate the mental from the physical. They have to be developed hand in hand. I first started working with him when he was 18. He's taken a lot of time to develop that gift. After cancer he realised he had a second chance and most people don't. He made a conscious decision to make himself not take him for granted. He dedicated himself to be 100% prepared to win the Tour.
The 2003 Tour de France preparation will begin 6 weeks after this year's Tour is over. He'll be talking about what he can do different to this year.
Looking at the physical side of it, Lance has a high VO2 and his lactate threshold is a high percent of his VO2. You look at that with the top five in the Tour de France, they all test very well. I think it's really this approach that Lance Armstrong has really honed down on. 365 days a year, 24/7. That's the way he looks at the sport.
Q: Have Armstrong's nutritional requirements changed since last year?
CC: They haven't changed at all from last year. Typically he has about 1.5 kg to lose starting about the middle of May to get down to optimal weight. The critical thing is power to weight ratio. Lance Armstrong knows exactly how many calories he burns. He knows how many Power Bars to eat during the training ride. It's looking at that detail gives him the razor's edge.
Q: Do you think putting the mountains at the end was an attempt to Lance-proof the Tour?
CC: I think that's not the case. I don't think that the Tour organisers went out and tried to make a race that favours any one athlete. If you look at last year there are some similarities. From the Alps to the Pyrenees, there is no recovery between the two. That's one of the great things about it, every year the course does change. You have to be ready for whatever the design of the course is. That's all you can do. I know that's the way Lance Armstrong looks at it.
He's ridden all the decisive stages of this year's Tour de France, at least once if not more. Mont Ventoux, the two time trial stages, the team time trial, the other mountain stages - Le Deux Alpes and La Plagne.
Lance Armstrong almost lost the Tour in 2000 on the La Plagne climb, and that was an important reason why they went to the Dauphine. In 2000 if Lance Armstrong had bonked 3 km earlier he could have lost the Tour.
There's some pressure on Lance Armstrong's team to keep him in close enough striking distance going into the mountains. His opponents will try and take suicide breaks to gain as much time on him as possible. [Andrei] Kivilev did a remarkable ride last year [he gained 30 minutes in break only to gradually lose it in the mountains]. If you just sit and wait and calculate out how much time you can gain each day - that's fine unless he has a bad day. If for some reason he has a crisis and he can't do it, you start to run out of stages.
Q: The perception, as you mentioned first up, is that the race is Lance Armstrong's to lose. What's the only thing that could keep Lance from winning?
CC: I think that at this stage that the only thing is a crisis situation. e.g. something happens - a crash, illness. Maybe an early break in an early stage that gains a significant amount of time and he loses a chance to pull it back.