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89th Tour de France - Grand Tour
France, July 6-28, 2002
The Year of the Team: Armstrong & USPS Dominate Tour De France
Stage set for 5th consecutive win in 2003 Centenary Tour
By Tim Maloney, Cyclingnews European Editor in Paris
"The first (win) was the comeback, the second one confirmation, the third a really good time, and this year was the year of the team," said Lance Armstrong after his 4th straight Tour De France win. Armstrong exited the 2002 Tour De France the way he entered: right on top. After all the media speculation and scuttlebutt, three time defending Armstrong simply dominated this year's Tour from start to finish, with a prologue win and three other stage victories to once again arrive on the Champs-Elysees in Paris clad in his favorite Paris couture garment, the Maillot Jaune.
The fourth time around, the cheers for the American more than drowned out any ugly doping rumours and innuendo pervaded by the cynical European sports media or boos and catcalls from the roadside rabble. More than ever, despite the tragic events of last September 11, his fellow Americans came in record numbers to support the man who had become a favourite son of not only the Lone Star State of Texas, but the Stars and Stripes.
Lance and his Merry Men
Armstrong didn't win his fourth consecutive Tour by himself. Although cycling is ultimately an individual sport, a strong team is essential for any rider who is seeking to win a modern Grand Tour. USPS team director sportif Johan Bruyneel and his adjoint Dirk DeMol have assembled what knowledgeable observers like former Tour De France winner Pedro Delgado called "a super-strong team, much stronger than other years."
Phillippe Brunel of L'Equipe wrote that "The US Postal Service team this year was on the same level as the Molteni squad of Eddy Merckx or the La Vie Claire squad of Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond."
Armstrong confirmed this by saying "I wanted to remember that cycling is a team sport. You need protection in the flats, and in the mountains. That security blanket makes a big difference. Some people talked about this team being the best in the history of cycling - I was lucky...On paper, give me these nine guys on the start line next year."
Lance was backed by key right hand man George Hincapie, who is the only rider to be at Lance's side during all four of his Tour wins. This year, the former USPRO champion Hincapie showed optimal form and an unprecedented depth of experience in Le Tour.
Despite some ups and downs, the third American on the USPS Tour squad, rockin' rookie Floyd Landis showed that he deserved to be selected for the USPS Tour team and has what it takes to ride on the #1 outfit on two wheels (occasionally one).
Armstrong had some key new additions on board this year that brought a lot to the table. Czech Pavel Padrnos proved to be a surprise to many for his tremendous strength on the flats, coupled with excellent climbing skills that enabled him to control the race tempo for Armstrong even on tough mountain ascents.
Without forgetting 36 year old powerhouse Viatcheslav Ekimov and model worker Benoît Joachim, Armstrong's key support came from a terrific trio of climbers, Roberto Heras, José Luis "Chechu" Rubiera and Colombian Victor Hugo Peña.
Were he not Armstrong's most important teammate, Heras would certainly be one of his top rivals in the Tour De France. An explosive climber and former Grand Tour winner, the 26 year old is seen as a potential Tour De France champion in the future.
Chechu Rubiera is Armstrong's key set up man in the mountains, keeping the tempo high so no one can attack. And Peña plays a key role since he's not only a solid climber but can ride hard tempo on the flats all day thanks to his excellent time trial abilities.
Supporting all of the riders efforts on the road are the key behind the scenes people on what is considered the number one team staff in the sport, led by Belgians Jean-Marc Vandenberghe (chief mechanic) and Freddy Vianen (chief soigneur), who make it possible for Lance and his USPS boys to rock day in and day out.
Merci Jaja and the Cocorico countdown
This year, the informal count of who had the most roadside signs on the Tour De France had decidedly tipped in favour of Laurent Jalabert. Although he narrowly missed taking the Maillot Jaune several times, Jaja became a key part of the story of the '02 Tour De France. In his last Tour De France the Frenchman wanted to "make the Tour De France a spectacle."
Jaja decided that he wouldn't go quietly into retirement and gave sports fans world-wide a demonstration of power, guts and world class bike riding that has earned him the nickname of "Le Petit Merckx" as well as the Maillot Pois of Best Climber for the 2nd consecutive year and the Most Combative Rider prize.
Although a Frenchman has not won the Tour De France since Bernard Hinault almost two decades ago, les Bleus had a good Tour. Two stage wins were the count this time 'round, with a solo win in Pau for Halgand and four days later, a dramatic win by Richard Virenque, in his first Tour in two years, on Le Mont Ventoux, were positive signs for French cycling.
The first French rider was only 13th on GC (David Moncoutié, Cofidis at 21'08"), there were five French riders in the top 30, including young French champion Nico Vogondy (FDJ.com; 19th at 32'44") who finished runner up in the Best Young Rider competition. Another up and coming Frenchman is Miguel Martinez, the diminutive mountain bike and cyclo-cross star who is making a solid transition to road racing. Martinez was 44th, 1h18'42" behind. He had a tough start in what was eventually the fourth fastest Tour in history, but Martinez improved and gained experience every day and is now determined to come back to the Tour next year with the Maillot Pois as his goal, just like his father Mariano won over 20 years ago.
Raimondas Rumsas and Joseba Beloki were noble in defeat, as though the Tour was enlivened by a last-minute struggle between them for the crumbs of second place. Beloki, third in the Tour the last two years moved up to 2nd this year, 7'17" behind Armstrong, but only just. Supported by super-strong ONCE-Eroski outfit, the talented little Basque and his team came to the Tour to try mightily to unseat Armstrong from top slot. Try they did, but the American was just too strong for Beloki and ONCE, who also made some process errors along the way like defending the Maillot Jaune of Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano for too long in the first third of the Tour and not sending highly placed riders like Jose Azevedo on the attack more often.
ONCE-Eroski and their ambitious team director Manolo Saiz will certainly come back next year to Le Tour with greater focus on preventing the Texan from gaining his fifth consecutive Tour De France.
Another pretender to Armstrong's throne should be back next year. Third place Raimondas Rumsas, a 30 year old Lithuanian was almost unknown prior to this Tour De France, except by cycling insiders. Armstrong himself even tried to hire the Baltic blond himself in 1999 from the tiny Polish Mroz squad as a support rider, but Tuscany resident Rumsas preferred to go to an Italian squad. Armstrong said of Rumsas that "he didn't have a bad day at the Tour" and Lance should know, as the Lampre man was there by the American's side, day by day, climb by climb.
But Rumsas' Lampre team wasn't their top squad, which had just finished the Giro d'Italia last month. (In the Tour, Lampre-Daikin finished 20th on Team GC, 4h1'41" behind winners ONCE-Eroski). Unlike Lance and Beloki, Rumsas had no team to escort him to the final climbs and fight for his peloton position, and this took its toll on the tough towhead. Lack of team support, coupled with mechanical problems with defective handlebars, probably lost Rumsas 1'30" and second spot on GC, according to his diesse Pietro Algeri.
The determined Lithuanian, who started the Tour De France this year convinced he could be on the podium, may be a real contender next year. Should Lampre boss Galbusera chose to send riders like Pavel Tonkov and Juan Manuel Garate to the '03 TDF to support an in-form Rumsas, he might give Armstrong more of a run for his money than Beloki ever will.
Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi
G'day Robbie, Stuey, Bradley, Baden - the Aussie boys came from Down Under with a bike and a dream; to make their mark on Le Grand Boucle. That they did, mate. This year's Tour had a decidedly Aussie flair, led by 30 year old Robbie McEwen, who can now be called the World's Best Sprinter. Why? The Brisbane rider showed that he could school Mario Cipollini at the Giro last month and came into this Tour determined to prove that he was the best in the business. Not only did McEwen accomplish that, winning two stages along the way including the final Champs-Elysees bouquet, but he came out on top in a ding-dong battle around France with Telekom's Erik Zabel to finally wrest the Maillot Vert of Best Sprinter from the German's grasp. Already winner of the green tunic six times, the 32 year old Zabel has promised to return next year.
When asked the question, McEwen replied "Am I now the greatest sprinter? No, the smallest I think," he chuckled.
Stuart O'Grady had a respectable Tour De France, finishing third overall in the points chase and earning several top-ten placings, just missing that elusive stage win in Pau on what proved to be the fastest stage of this year's Tour. "I suppose I shouldn't be too unhappy with my performance," said O'Grady after it was all over. "I had two months off and only three weeks to prepare. And you can't have a super year like last year every time."
Young guns Brad McGee and Baden Cook both gained valuable experience at the 2002 Tour. McGee rode to a magnificent stage win on Stage 7 in Avranches, but a bad crash on the first day in the Pyrenees probably compromised the rest of his Tour. Baden Cooke, McGee's team-mate on FDJ.com showed that Aussie competitive spirit by finishing 4th in the points, with a close 2nd on the final stage in Paris to Maillot Vert McEwen. "I was terribly disappointed because I really thought I could win. But in hindsight I'm pretty happy with my first Tour de France," said Cooke.
Speaking of Australia, waiting in the wings for his Tour debut next year is Cadel Evans, the phenomenal young man from Melbourne who not only wore the Maglia Rosa in this years Giro, but has just been crowned Commonwealth Games time trial champion.
The (Other) Yanks Are Coming
Apart from the domination of Armstrong and his USPS team, there were other Americans riding in the 2002 Tour De France. Most notably, Levi Leipheimer of Team Rabobank made his Tour De France debut and finished in a very good 8th place, 17'11" behind. Leipheimer was mostly consistent throughout the 89th edition of Le Tour, with good rides in the mountains, but when the Tour rookie had the chance to move up in the final time test as he had during last year's Tour of Spain, Leipheimer did so, but didn't advance as far as many had expected. Still, the determined and ambitious Yank from Santa Rosa, California is still improving as a rider and will certainly come back to the centenary Tour with an urge to move closer to Armstrong.
"I probably could have been a couple places higher, looking back, but I could have also have been fifteen places lower," said Leipheimer. "I can be content with this. It's difficult to finish third in my first (three week) tour in the Vuelta, and everybody expects a lot. To come and get 8th in the Tour de France, I think that's a pretty good confirmation. I know that I have the potential to be higher.
After a super runner-up spot in this year's Giro d'Italia by Tyler Hamilton, a race he most certainly would have won had an early crash or two not compromised his climbing ability, the Marblehead, Mass native came in 15th, just under a half-hour behind his friend and former teammate Lance, but could have been top 10 had the Giro strain not slowed his Tour progress.
"The team was very supportive," said Hamilton. "Anything I could do here in the Tour was icing on the cake. I did a good Giro, and I've never done back to back Tours. So it was really a question mark whether I could handle both. It's hard doing GC for both tours back to back, because that means you have to have six weeks without a bad day. Who's done that recently? I think the last guy to do it was Pantani. I got sick during the most crucial part of the race, last week, which in this year's Tour de France was by far the most difficult."
Bobby Julich and Kevin Livingston were part of Team Telekom's Jan Ullrich-less Tour. Julich finished 37th, 1h13'11" behind Armstrong and had hoped for much more, but the Philadelphia, PA. resident has simply never come back to the level of 1997, when he was 3rd in the Tour De France. Climber Kevin Livingston was 56th, 1h44'51" behind. The tremendous talent of Livingston seemed lost after he left the US Postal squad several years ago and the likeable Austin, TX resident announced his retirement at the end of the season during the final stages of this year's Tour De France.
Scot David Millar held up the flag for Scotland and the United Kingdom (and Hong Kong and Malta) at this year's Tour with a classy stage win in Beziers, achieving his goal of a stage win and riding very well in the time trial stages. The stylish 24 year old Millar, perhaps the greatest natural talent in the sport of cycling today, continues to show he has the potential to be a future Tour De France contender and is pointing to a top 10 Vuelta a España finish in September as his next goal.
Best Boy Basso
Speaking of class, Ivan Basso more than confirmed his talent and class in this year's Tour De France. The quiet, handsome Italian was good in all but one day and won the Maillot Blanc of Best Young Rider by almost 15'00. The 1998 World U23 champ, Basso had up until now been a rider with a lot of potential and came to the Tour looking for a decent performance and a stage win after crashing out with a broken collarbone last year. But no one expected that Basso could stay with the top guys all Tour long and with his performance this year, the 25 year old from Cassano Magnano, near Milano could be an potential inheritor of Armstrong's throne when the American retires.
As the strains of the Star Spangled Banner wafted yet again across the Champs Elysées on a late July Sunday afternoon, Lance Armstrong had shown once again that he's not only a cancer survivor, but the greatest Grand Tour Rider of his generation, joining giants of cycling Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain as a quadruple winner of the Tour De France.
With all the elements in place already for an assault on his 5th straight win in next year's prestigious Tour De France 100th Anniversary edition, Armstrong could join Indurain as the only winner of five straight. Who can stop Armstrong? His coach Chris Carmichael says "The fact is, Lance is so strong that he doesn't have a real adversary. He doesn't have to give his maximum. And you've never seen the real Lance."