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Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

Lance Armstrong Berry Floor press conference, December 12, 2003

Still a lot to ride fast for - Part 1

Lance Armstrong surprisingly ebullient
Photo ©: Tim Maloney

As European leaders bickered in Brussels over the EU constitutional, a serene, happy Lance Armstrong was also in Brussels for a year-end press conference for his sponsor Berry Floor. With Cyclingnews' European Editor Tim Maloney and other European sports media there, the American five-time Tour de France winner was surprisingly ebullient, telling the assembled media in no uncertain terms that he was in his best mood ever.

With perhaps his most challenging Tour ever looming in 2004 as he goes for an unprecedented sixth consecutive win, the tough Texan wasn't underestimating the competition by any means. In a frank, no punches pulled one-hour session with TV and print media, Armstrong talked about the challenge of the 2004 Tour de France, his keen rivalry with Jan Ullrich, the departure of Roberto Heras from USPS-Berry Floor, life after professional bicycle racing and his eternal love affair with riding fast on his bike.

Cyclingnews: Lance, it's been about two months since the Tour of Hope and your book tour for "Every Second Counts" wrapped up. What have you been up to since then?

Lance Armstrong: Has it already been two months? Not much; a bit of training, still a lot of travel... as you know, these winter months, there is a lot of traveling around; during the season, I'm not required to travel for sponsors that much... So just things like this, spending time with my kids and time with friends; that's about it.

Cyclingnews: Do you feel like you have more obligations this year than in past years?

LA: It feels that way... yeah, but I probably don't. It just feels that way.

"I don't know if it's a good chance, but there's certainly a chance that I'll lose... you can't win forever."

- Lance Armstrong on his chances at the 2004 Tour de France

Jean Yves Donor/Le Figaro: So we are now in the month of December, and are you still looking for your sixth Tour victory next year?

LA: (jokes) No Jean Yves, I've changed my mind (laughs) - I'm thinking I'll do Paris-Roubaix and other things like that...

Of course, it [the Tour] is the only objective that we have and sometimes that's a controversial issue, but it's the biggest and the best and the grandest bike race in the world and continues to be the one and only objective. Perhaps, a little bit next year with the Olympic Games, things have changed... but the Tour is everything.

Danish journalist: Why is it... what exactly makes [the Tour] so special?

LA: Aside from the fact that it's the biggest bike race in the world? (says rhetorically)

Danish journalist: What if you lose?

Jan wants to win again
Photo ©: Jeff Tse

LA: There's a good chance... I don't know if it's a good chance, but there's certainly a chance that I'll lose... you can't win forever. As I've said many times, you get older, the odds that something happens to you increase. Bad luck or old age, or somebody comes along who's better prepared.

The argument could be made that we've already to seen that curve happen; that the differences have shrunk and the difference last year was close. You know, Jan Ullrich can come along and win. He's won before, he wants to win.

Danish journalist: Would it be a defeat for you not to win [the Tour]?

LA: Yeah I would be upset if I lost, very upset.

Danish journalist: And if you win?

LA: Then I would be happy! (laughter)

Danish journalist: What about the others, like Eddy Merckx and Indurain? (alluding to five-time Tour winners) Will you stop like them?

LA: All of these guys, all of the legends, Hinault, Indurain, Merckx... everybody tried to win number six, so it's not as if we can say 'well they stopped' and they respected a tradition, or they respected a record. Everybody tried and I intend to do the same thing.

German journalist: When you look back on your Tour, do you have a better idea about what went wrong?

LA: It was a tough year, it was a complicated year, professionally and personally. It was a challenging year and at the same time, I think I came into a point where I was a little uncomfortable with success... and again, these are things I've said many times and I had that realization last summer... and I still think that. That I, for whatever reason, took what's the hardest sporting event in the world, I took it for granted. And it's just not that easy. You're gonna have problems and you're gonna have rivals and rivals that have improved and are motivated. So we've tried to address some of those issues and make our run at it... again.

German journalist: Do you think, Lance, it's weird somehow that you are losing your first lieutenant, Roberto Heras? What's your opinion of this?

Lance will lose his lieutenant Heras in 2004
Photo ©: Mitchell Clinton

LA: As I said the other day, it's a logical... aside the fact that he had the contract [with USPS], I think it's logical that [Heras] would want to go somewhere and leave our team. Especially if you consider the course that's laid out for next year's Tour, the fact that [his new team] is a Spanish team that really needs a Spanish leader. So we didn't stop him and we didn't try to stop him.

As you know in cycling, there are three parties; you have the two teams and you have the rider and if one of those parties says 'no', then it's a no. Obviously [Heras] wanted that, Liberty Seguros wanted that and we weren't going to stop him. We can't keep a rider that doesn't want to be there. We have no personal hard feelings at all and we wish him well and I think it will be good for the Tour. It will be better for [USPS-Berry Floor] having him as an animated rider making the tempo high in the mountains than perhaps it would be if he was with us.

German journalist: On paper, the new T-Mobile team of Jan Ullrich looks like the toughest competition you've ever had.

LA: I agree; on paper, I could sit here and write down the names of Ullrich and Vinokourov and Savoldelli and the list goes on and on and on. I agree, but the Tour isn't about having nine guys that can win. The Tour is about having one guy who can win and eight guys who can help him win. I guess sometimes I would like to be a fly on the wall in [the T-Mobile] meeting room when Vino is feeling good, Ullrich is feeling good and Zabel wants to do something... what do you do?

But clearly, Godefroot's a smart guy and he's not going to tolerate individual ambitions outside of Jan's. It'll be tough, but I like our team. I wouldn't trade it. If Jan is as good as he wants to be and we anticipate he'll be... Ullrich's a better rider for the Tour than Vinokourov. It's not a knock on Vino, because I'm one of his biggest fans, but Jan's the leader.

De Telegraaf: Lance, they say 'never change a winning program', but you're changing everything next year for the Tour. Can you explain why?

LA: A lot of it has to do with my family. Typically I would leave the States in February and not come home until September, but that's just not possible now because I personally can't be away from my family that long. So I had no choice but to be in Europe a couple of months; train hard and race hard and then go back and be with them for some time and then go back. So you're right - it's a risk but it's a risk I'm certainly willing to take because I'd rather lost the Tour de France than spend six or seven months without my kids. So we have to try it and the only other major change is that we're not doing the Dauphine [Libere]... (looks to Johan Bruyneel) are we doing it?

"It's better that we have clear-cut, sort of intimidating, scary rivals. I've always said that. I think my best Tour was in 2001 when Jan was at his best and we knew he was riding at his best."

- Armstrong on the prospect of having more adversaries at the 2004 Tour

Johan Bruyneel: We don't know yet.

LA: We don't know yet... that has more to do with superstition if we didn't do it.

De Telegraaf: You said that you have more (off-season) obligations than the years before...

LA: No, I think they're equal.

De Telegraaf: It feels like you have more...

LA: I don't know... [says sardonically] everything gets heavier. Or you get older or something... I don't know. Life feels busier.

Spanish journalist: Lance, are the Olympic Games on your program [in 2004]?

LA: (jokes) If they select me... yeah. Especially the time trial. I don't know the courses, so it's tough to... for the road race, you focus on that and whether it's an easy course or not such a difficult course and it's hard to make a selection. So I'll just focus on the time trial. And after the Tour, you have three weeks [until the Olympics] so it's easier to focus the training on the time trial. You don't need long training for a time trial.

Cyclingnews: Have you considered the World Championships in Verona?

LA: I've considered it... (laughs)... I think it's too late. I've said it fifteen million times, I think [the World Championships] is too late in the year. With all due respect to Hein (Verbruggen) and the UCI... I miss [having] the World's in late August or early September. Having said that, I probably wouldn't do it anyway. Especially after this year; the Tour was too demanding - I couldn't find the motivation to even look at a bike.

Big gaps up L'Alpe next year
Photo ©: Jon Devich

German journalist: Lance, do you think the Tour will be decided in the time trial up L'Alpe d'Huez?

LA: Ummm... well... there will be other deciding moments before that. That's a big moment, it could be very big moment but the stages before are very hard. La Mongie, Plateau de Beille... those are typical mountain stages; you'll have selection there... there will be time differences. But L'Alpe d'Huez will clearly be big gaps... I hope.

French journalist: Next year, you will have many more adversaries... Does that motivate you or make you afraid?

LA: That motivates me... I wouldn't say that I'm scared of that. It's better that we have clear-cut, sort of intimidating, scary rivals. I've always said that. I think my best Tour was in 2001 when Jan was at his best and we knew he was riding at his best. So that got me up earlier in the day as we say in English. It's better - arguably 2002 was the year they had the least rivals - so I prefer a deep field. On paper, it's a Tour for climbers. If you look at Roberto [Heras], if you look at Mayo, these guys see only one long time trial, an uphill time trial that's perfect for them. It'll be tough.

German journalist: Will you focus more on time trialling for 2004, knowing that Ullrich is a very good time triallist and there will be two very decisive days?

LA: Well, L'Alpe d'Huez to me, technically is not a time trial. It's a climb. It'll be totally separate training in my book, in my opinion. But the time trials are still 55 kilometers... critical.

German journalist: Lance, I have some further questions on Jan Ullrich. It looks like Jan Ullrich will probably be awarded the title of German Sportsman of the Year. What would you say to him?

LA: Clearly, congratulations. It was a big year for German sport. Schumacher, didn't he break a record when he won his sixth world [driving] title? So to beat a guy like Schumacher is a big accomplishment. But Jan had... he surprised a lot of people this year. To come back like that after being away from cycling for some time catches the hearts and attention of a lot of people. He's proven he's back and he's proven that he's scary and anyway, I congratulate him. Despite what people like to write and think, Jan and I are actually quite close.

German journalist: What impressed you most about Ullrich this year?

LA: He was better than ever this year. He climbed faster than ever, he time-trialled better than ever. Clearly he's back.

German journalist: Until now, Ullrich has always had to be satisfied with second place when racing against you in the Tour. What are his chances of finally beating you?

LA: His chances are good. He has several things going for him. He has, first of all, a great team. He has the motivation of wanting to win again, having had won before and wanting to get it back. And I think he's entering probably his best years. He's thirty and those are the peak years, and those are the best years for an athlete like us. And some would say I'm exiting my peak years. It'll be really tough to beat [him]. We can just start calling him the favorite (jokes), that would be fine with me. From day one... [Ullrich] is the favorite... [T-Mobile] does all the work. Deal? Deal? Deal. Thank you.

A matter of seconds at Tour '04?
Photo ©: Cyclingnews

German journalist: The title of your latest book, will it really be a matter of every second counts?

LA: Haaa... of course, I mean it could be. I didn't expect it this year, but I do expect a close race next year.

German journalist: Liberty (Seguros) had to pay more than one million euros for Heras; it's uncommon in cycling to pay that amount and do you think that cycling will follow the road of football [soccer] to pay those amounts?

LA: I don't know... I mean, our sport is in a bit of a crisis when it comes to sponsorship. We speak about Liberty (Seguros) but Liberty only came along in the last month, and so you look at a country like Spain with the best riders in the world and they lost Banesto and they lost ONCE and they didn't look like they would be replaced.

Only in the last thirty days that Liberty and Baleares are now there and some people say that we have a bit of a problem on our hands, that we shouldn't be starting bidding wars. But Liberty came with a big budget - and they need a big Spanish leader and they lost Beloki, so they really didn't have a choice other than to take Roberto, or to look for a new leader. I don't think it's bad for cycling. The more talk about that, the more interest it creates, I think it's not a bad thing.

JF Bidet/L'Equipe: What do you think about the choice of Beloki to ride for a little French team?

LA: I think [Brioches La Boulangère] may be little in the sense that their budget is small, but I think for [USPS-Berry Floor], they always play a critical role in the Tour. And I've said, I've been outspoken in my respect for them and my respect for [Jean René] Bernaudeau, the way he runs the team, the way he races, the attitude he has.

I've never personally seen a director who tells his guys, 'If you're not in the breaks, you're going to chase... all day. And he makes them do it. Really, in a hard race like [the TdF], that's a hard order to give. And I respect that. He's a man of tactics, he's a man of principles and I don't think it's a strange decision. I don't know how [Beloki] will fit in culturally, but I think they're strong. He has support there; Didier Rous and [Sylvain] Chavanel.

JF Bidet/L'Equipe: Yeah sure, but with a big star like [Beloki], they must change their way to race. To save some power for the mountains.

LA: Well, Bernadeau knows that too and it's not as if he just runs a team that goes in the long breaks. Or hopes for the stage wins. He's a smart guy so he can also run a team that contends for the title.

German journalist: Did you look at the [unintelligible] mistakes from last year's Tour?

LA: These things are easy to say - 'these are mistakes' or 'look what happened', but every time this has happened, we've continued to win the Tour. It's very difficult to say that we've made mistakes. Yes, we've lost riders, and we've lost friends of mine but it's a free-agent market; they're free to go where they want, just like Roberto; Tyler had the opportunity to leave the team and he did very well.

But you also saw that we continued to win the Tour. And you saw that in 2002, we had a team that was what many people would say was one of the best team ever to ride the Tour. Never under pressure, never in crisis, so it's hard to say we're making mistakes.

German journalist: You have lost some friends...

LA: Uhh... it's hard to lose friends, but at the same time they're your friends, they have the opportunity to make a lot of money and lead a team - are you gonna say no?!

You'd never say no, even if... uh, you know, George Hincapie called me at the end of the year and said he wants to go somewhere else to be a leader in the classics and earn more money, I'd say, 'George, you gotta go'. We're athletes; you don't do this until you're sixty. You only get to do it until you're 32, 33, 34 and that's it! So like we say, 'Make hay when the sun shines', right?

German journalist: Going back to Ullrich, with the coalition of Ullrich and Vinokourov, number two and number three last year. Is it more difficult for you ride against two riders in one team?

LA: Of course.

German journalist: Whom do you have to watch, to concentrate on?

Bruyneel's got the brains
Photo ©: Jon Devich

LA: I remember... the [Telekom] tactic from the beginning [of the 2001 Tour] was to put Vino in all the breakaways and we were constantly trying to neutralize him... with Roberto. It's hard to control two threats, but the answer is to control a threat with your own threat like we did with Roberto and I think we're comfortable controlling that threat with a guy like Acevedo or even another rider who's riding well at the time. [T-Mobile] can't take that risk either. 'cuz there's no guarantee that certain guys will have the same performance they had this year. But this guy's (gestures to Johan Bruyneel) a smart guy... there aren't many tactical mistakes.

Cyclingnews: Lance, what about your future? your web site Lancearmstrong.com mentioned that after the Tour this year, you would evaluate your situation in August of 2004 after the outcome of the Tour de France is clear. What are some of the factors that will determine your decision-making process about your future?

LA: Professionally, I have to decide if I'm still strong; you don't want to ride until you're weak and old... I don't at least. That's a big factor. Probably the biggest factor is whether or not the team continues. As you know, the Postal Service, their contract is up in 2004, I don't have a lot of interest going anywhere else unless it was some form of this team. But I don't plan on leaving Johan to ride for somebody else.

The best thing to happen would be to have either Postal renew or have somebody else come in. We keep the structure and keep the staff as it is, 'cuz if I was going to do one more year, I wouldn't want to have a new experience in my last year. Or maybe I would, but no, I don't think I would. It comes down to what the legs say and what the heart says and what the team says, if there is a team.

De Telegraaf: Lance, you it was personally and emotionally a very difficult year. Will it be easier next year?

LA: (smiling) Uhh... yeah!

De Telegraaf: Can you explain?

LA: No... it's just going to be easier. I'm sorry, I don't want to elaborate on that.

Part 2 follows later this week

See also: News - Armstrong focused on Tour 2004; News - Lance Armstrong: "Let's make Ullrich the favourite"; Lance Armstrong September 2003 interview: Soccer Dad & Superstar
Other Talking Cycling Interviews