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It's almost over.
Cyclingnews joined a small press conference of international cycling journalists Thursday evening at the USPS team hotel high above Sallanches in the French Alps. Maillot Jaune Lance Armstrong spoke about his 2002 Tour up to this point, his USPS team, and a variety of other topics:
Question: What has been the difference between this Tour and the previous three?
Lance Armstrong: The team. The team's better than ever. More complete, more consistent, and certainly much stronger.
Q: You had your first crash, you didn't win the first time trial, and the first climb you didn't have the legs to attack. Did you start to think that something wasn't there?
LA: After the crash, no. After the time trial, a little bit, and after the first day in the mountains... I was still happy with that because we took the jersey and Galdeano was dropped. It was certainly not a failure of a day. I would like to have ridden better, but I wasn't too stressed. I was sure that the Tour was going to be very long this year, and there would be plenty of opportunities.
Q: How difficult is this Tour relative to other years?
LA: The team has made it a lot easier for me. Not a lot easier, but easier for me. To have guys always there, in multiples. For example, most of the day today we kept nine guys. And then when it was really really hard, down to ten or fifteen guys, we had three guys. That makes life a lot easier.
Q: Is it merely the strength of individual riders, or has the strategy of the team evolved over the years?
LA: We definitely have more experience. I do, Johan does, a rider like George Hincapie does. He's the sole person to be here for all of the last four years. And then a pillar like Ekimov, an explosive person like Roberto. And then additions like Padrnos... you never know when you hire somebody how they're going to work out in the team- personally, professionally, on the bike, off the bike. We just got really lucky with those additions. A guy like Pena, who as he himself would tell you was not very good last year, is back much stronger than he was before. This is a good group. Not to say the other years we didn't have a good group and we all fought and didn't get along. This group really gets along well.
Q: Aren't you getting better as well every year?
LA: (laughs) They say I'm getting worse.
Q: Do you think you're better than last year?
LA: We'll see on Saturday. (Stage 19 Time Trial)
Q: Is it fair to say that you've been pushed by the race but not any one individual rider?
LA: It's fair to say that there have not been many attacks. We can all see that when we watch the race. But the event is challenging, and putting the mountains in the later stages of the race is hard. More hard mentally than anything. But I always worry about others. Riders like Beloki, riders like Rumsas. Any of them. Today a lot of guys from the first ten were attacking. You can't let them go up the road. Three or four of those guys, that's a threat.
Q: Was the Tour more difficult with Jan Ullrich? The Telekom would control and have more influence in the race.
LA: Their presence was more difficult, because Jan is somebody that everybody speaks about as a potential winner, and as a former winner. I read that as well, but aside from Alpe d'Huez, I don't know where they ever shared the responsibility of the race. Alpe d'Huez, yes, but nowhere else did they do that. I don't consider this year any different than the others in terms of us having to work or carry the race, or chase down breakaways and be in control.
Q: You saw all spring and early summer that the Spanish were going to attack and that they thought you were weaker this year. What were your expectations of the Spanish? Now that they really haven't done as much as expected, what are your thoughts on that?
LA: I heard that more before the Tour. What I just can't figure out is, I rode a good spring classics campaign, I was second in the Criterium International by less than one half of a second. I won the Midi Libre, I won the Daupine Libere, I rode better than I'd ever ridden in the spring. So at what point do you say to yourself, "he's weaker than he's ever been?" They're free to say that, but if I were a journalist I'd say, wait a minute, let me just read you the results from this year... and you're telling us he's weak?
It's nice to read those things... and they continued. They continued in the start of the Tour. Certain teams and directors were saying, "he's vulnerable, he can't time trial, he can't climb, his team's weak." On and on and on. So those things help.
Q: Who was your biggest rival this year?
LA: I think ONCE was our biggest rival, especially in the first half.
Q: A lot of people say you were your biggest rival...
LA: I've been here before. I think I know what I'm doing. I have great people around me to help me, to remind me how to do it. How to get on the bike, and how to eat right. It helps a lot. An individual can make a silly mistake, but when he's got a great team around him- the directors, the mechanics, the soigneurs - it's very hard to make a mistake.
Q: Do you think that ONCE made a mistake in defending the yellow jersey in the first half of the race?
LA: In hindsight? They had the jersey for a long time, they won the team time trial. That does a lot for them, that does a lot for their sponsors. But every day they kept saying that they weren't going to defend, but every day they did defend. It was a little ironic, but I think in hindsight is was a good thing.
Q: Have you had any bad days this year?
LA: The time trial. It was not a good day. I don't know why, but I didn't feel great.
Q: How about the heckling? I understand there was some of that last year in the Alps...
LA: I think it got a little blown out of proportion. It was bad on Ventoux, but 20% of the people? It's much better now; people, maybe in this region or this area are different. They look at cycling or look at me in a different way. But there's still a few people every day who jump out in the road and say something. But that's sport. Nobody can ride down the road and have 100% of the people love you and say you're a great guy. But it's not as bad as I think it got made out to be.
Q: Earlier this week there was were some stories that you and Robbie McEwen had exchanged a few words. Can you elaborate on that?
LA: No elaboration.
Q: Any preferences who you have on the podium with you? (for the green jersey)
LA: Whoever wins. I think McEwen's faster. You can see nine times out of ten he wins in the sprint. But it's unfortunate because the last day everybody wants to take it easy and take pictures and put on the wigs and do all those crazy things. But last year they were still competing for the green jersey and it's going to be the same thing this year. The final day is going to be a race. Especially for those guys and those teams. I read what Robbie said, but whatever... I'm not going to go there. Robbie McEwen is the last of my worries.
Q: What motivates you now? What are the things that drive you to keep doing what you do?
LA: I like what I do for a job/hobby. Because I treat it like a hobby. I'm passionate of the bike and I get a lot of enjoyment about winning the Tour de France. And trying to win the Tour de France. It's not just that you show up for three weeks and that's the fun part where you win. The whole process year-round is fun for me. Being in a good group of guys is fun. So it's continued to be fulfilling, personally, professionally, athletically. And that makes it easier.
Q: You've said this is the best team you've had so far. How would you improve it if you had to?
LA: I don't know, that's a tough one. I don't want to be unrealistic and say we would have all spots on the podium and have the green jersey. The team has had bad days, and they've had super days, but overall in balance it's been perfect. For the first time we really felt like the team was selected perfectly.
Q: In the Dauphine you were saying maybe this was your last Tour de France. How are you thinking about it now?
LA: I think what I meant was that it's harder and harder to be away from home. Away from my wife and three children. And children that are at an age where they really change a lot, and you miss monumental events. My girls started crawling when I was away, at the Tour de France. Those are things that you start thinking about. But, it's not my last Tour de France.
Q: At what point do you sit down and think about your plan for the next year? Are the changes you envision subtle or big?
LA: Subtle. I wouldn't want to make big changes. For example, with the guys on the team. There are guys that have a contract that's up, there are guys that only have a one year contract, so we already have to start thinking about keeping them, negotiating with them, signing them. Thinking about training, training camps, what races we do. I didn't go to the wind tunnel last winter, which I think was a mistake. I think I need to go back.
I don't know why I didn't go. When I lost that time trial, I had to blame it on something... My cadence was too high. I'm going to ride a computer with a cadence sensor.
Q: What cadence were you riding?
LA: 110, maybe 115. No, 110.
Q: Assuming you make it to Paris with the yellow jersey, I think it's about your 40th day in yellow since 1999. Bearing in mind the investigation in France and all the medical controls you've gone through since that time, do you feel vindicated about that whole affair?
LA: I feel vindicated. I think that the case was a joke from the beginning. Nowhere would you have a case started on those grounds, but they did. Immediately they knew the evidence was clean but they kept the case open. Am I vindicated? I don't know that our sport will ever be vindicated. It's much bigger than me. It's a question of cycling, it's a question of endurance sports, Olympic sports, professional sports. You'll see, it's an epidemic and it's going spread.
They're going to question when somebody breaks the 5000m on the track, they're going to question when somebody does something in the swimming pool. It's just going to grow and grow and grow, and you're going to have this room of cynics and people that say it's not possible. In that sense, the champions and the record-breakers and the best will never be vindicated. There will always be somebody who says, "no, I don't believe it." And you see it every day.
The Tour de France is special. And the press room... I hear every day about some rumor that's running around there. It's unbelievable the stuff that gets started there. It's so ridiculous. I don't know if other sporting events are like that. If you go to the World Series, if you go to the Olympic Games, I don't know what it's like. It's like this little game that gets played, and it's very damaging to people and to sponsors and to reputations. But it never stops and I don't think it ever will.
I might be gone before they close the investigation. As I said six weeks ago, it's not an issue any more. They can keep it open. There's nothing there.
Q: Is the world hour record something you'd still like to do?
LA: I would. Ask me on Saturday. Based on the first time trial, I would not have said I was going to do the record. It's definitely something I would like to do, but it gets complicated. When do you do it? Where do you do it? How do you do it? The more I started thinking about it, the more I realized it's a really serious undertaking. I don't think it can be done before the Tour de France; it has to be done after the Tour. You do the Tour and you're tired, and you want to be on the beach with your family, and you're not in right frame.
Q: What's your program going to be after the Tour de France this year?
LA: I don't know. Two criteriums. I suspect I do the world cups- San Sebastian, Zurich, and San Francisco and the race in New York.
Q: Can you talk about cancer and how often you think about that in your racing?
LA: I think about it a lot. Maybe not on a daily basis, but 90% of the time. It's a big part of my life, and a big part of who I am and why I'm here and why I almost wasn't here.
Q: How much are you thinking about the Tour de France record? Five? Six? That's something that you haven't really publicly addressed that.
LA: And I never will. I would never say that I'm going to do that. That's my business, and if that's a goal of mine that would be suicide. I think I'll be around a couple more years. I'm still strong; I don't think I'm getting stronger, but I don't think I'm getting weaker. It's hard to win this race year in and year out. So many things can happen, and I know that.
Q: How important is it to be popular among the other riders and the press?
LA: I think it's important to be understood, to be honest, to be hard working, and ultimately the press, the public, the organizers... they'll decide. But I can only be myself. I can't be the guy that goes out and puts on a show... I can only be myself.
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