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89th Tour de France - Grand Tour
France, July 6-28, 2002
Lance Armstrong's pre-Tour press conference
Luxembourg, July 4, 2002
By Christopher Henry, Cyclingnews.com correspondent
The U.S. Postal Service Team was in Luxembourg today for its scheduled pre-Tour medical exam, after which defending champion and three-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong held a press conference to field questions about the upcoming race from an array of international media. Armstrong appeared relaxed and confident as he discussed race preparation, the strength of his team, and the likely contenders for the Tour title.
Q: What is new this time in terms of your preparation for the race?
Lance Armstrong: Well of course the race is always new, and the course changes and the difficulties change, but probably the most evident is the difference in the team. We have six riders from last year, we brought three new riders, which I think have added strength to the team.
Perhaps the preparation in the last six weeks is different, doing Midi Libre and the Dauphiné instead of Pais Vasco and the Tour of Switzerland. But other than that, everything is pretty similar.
Q: How would you characterize your former teammate Tyler Hamilton's strength for this year's Tour?
LA: He has great potential. He's under tremendous pressure. He has both skills that are needed to ride a good tour. He can time trial and he can climb. He has the experience of having been here and having done the Tour several times. He has a great team leader in Bjarne Riis. He has experience, he knows what he's doing, and I think you see he's taken Tyler to another level with his direction. Tyler's a threat. In my opinion he's one of the favorites.
Q: Johan Bruyneel has said that this is the best team you have ever had. What are your thoughts on this year's team?
LA: Well there's two ways to look at it: number one, the team we select, and number two, how those guys are riding on an individual basis. Obviously we had a surprise when Eki decided to come back, it was a great surprise for us. And not only did he come back, but he came back stronger than before. But also we have another surprise in Floyd Landis, who we didn't have last year and we have now, who's turned out to be a very good rider. And then, individually people like Peña, Chechu [Rubiera] is in much better shape because he doesn't have injury or any other problems, George is strong. The guys seem to be in good form right now, whereas last year we had issues from the start.
Q: Virenque predicted this morning an all-American podium. Isn't that a compliment to American cyclists?
LA: I think it's definitely a compliment. But also he probably looked around at recent results and realized Tyler was second in the Giro, Levi's just won Route du Sud, and he knows that perhaps we're all riding well right now, in good form. I never thought about that, but that would be a pretty spectacular achievement. But, there are a lot of guys in the race who want to get on the podium. It's very competitive.
Q: What is your impression of your teammate Benoît Joachim, and what do you think about him and what do you expect of him during the Tour?
LA: Well we obviously think highly of him, because we selected him to ride the Tour, and we didn't select him because we're starting here in Luxembourg. Benoît did the Tour with us in 2000, as a young guy, as a new pro. And it showed that he was very strong. He had injuries the whole time, and also showed that he could ride through the injuries, and was somebody who was not a quitter.
In the Dauphiné three weeks ago, he was very good. He climbed very well, hung tough when he was dropped on the climbs, and really sacrificed for the team. For us he's a strong young guy, and the most important thing is that he's always committed to working for the team, as opposed to being an individual or being selfish. A true team player.
Q: The last four years you've been here in Europe on the 4th of July. Any thoughts about that?
LA: It's easy to lose sight of the holiday, because I'm not in Austin, there's not fireworks everywhere, and there's a different feel being in Luxembourg or in France as opposed to being at home. I suppose it would be similar to Bastille Day if you're a Frenchman. Today and the significance of the holiday takes on a new meaning this year as opposed to years past because of what happened in the last year.
If you look at the name of the holiday, Independence Day, you realize that perhaps that's been challenged in the last year, and it makes people appreciate the day more. It takes sad events like that to wake people up sometimes. It's difficult to say what's going on in the streets of Austin or New York or Miami or L.A., but I imagine that we all feel a little more American today than we did last 4th of July.
Q: Have you heard about the new problems for Jan Ullrich? What do you think about that, and about him?
LA: It's unfortunate for him and for his team, but the process has not been finished. The B sample has not been tested, and I prefer to not say much, other than it's unfortunate for him, unfortunate for his team, and unfortunate for cycling, but we have to wait and see."
Q: You said that Tyler Hamilton is one of the favorites. How far do you expect him to follow you this year?
LA: We know each other well. He can follow a long time. I heard in the last week that he's been riding very well because we live close to each other and you hear stories from people. I heard he was in great shape. It's part of the reason that I say I expect him to be one of the favorites. He knows us, he knows the team, and he knows my style of riding. He's a tough guy as well, as we saw in the Giro. A lot of physical problems and he was able to hang in there.
Q: But not all the way?
LA: I'm not guaranteed to be at the front, there could be somebody better than me. There could be ten people better, and I know that. That's why I work hard, and that's why I train hard and prepare hard, and that's why I still get nervous before the Tour de France. The day I show up and say "you're right, I'll be in front, I'm not nervous, I'm relaxed, big deal- that's the day that you lose." Anybody can win. Well, not anybody - but almost anybody.
Q: Do you think that the organizers were thinking of you when they designed this year's course? What's your approach to this course?
LA: I think every year they try to make the course more challenging for the past winner, and that's what their responsibility is, to keep it exciting and keep some suspense in the event by pushing the mountains later into the three week race, or by adding a mountain time trial or a team time trial or a long individual one.
It's their right to choose what they feel is most exciting. I didn't take it personally that the mountains were late. Everybody talks about how late they are, but they're really only a few days later than they have been every other year. It's the Tour de France. It's two long time trials, the Alps and the Pyrenees, and it always finishes in Paris. Hopefully at the end of it all the best man wins.
Q: What do you think about the Spanish teams in the race, Kelme, ONCE and Banesto?
LA: Those three teams could be the biggest problem, because they all have good climbers They could have four or five guys in the front in the mountains when it starts to get difficult, and when it's very difficult they could still have two or three guys from each team. Particularly ONCE, with the riders they have (Gonzalez de Galdeano, Olano, Beloki, Azevedo), but also Kelme with Seville and Botero. They're scary.
Q: You spoke with Jean-Marie LeBlanc in April about security during the Tour. Did discuss anything specific about your security during the Tour?
LA: I have to correct you in that I've never asked about my security. I've asked about the security of this race. That means your security, my security, the teams' security, the sponsors' security, our families' security, everybody's security. I never walked in and said, "OK Jean-Marie, I'm worried about my security, what are you going to do about it?" That was never the question.
It's a huge sporting event contested on a global stage. If you compare it to World Cup soccer or the Olympic Games or the Super Bowl or anything else, there's tremendous security at those events. So it would be logical to me, that with all this money and all this attention involved, that we have security. I simply asked if there was anything in place, if anything was anything being considered, and the answer was yes. And I think we feel, between what Jean-Marie has done in conjunction with the French police and the French authorities, also in conjunction with what we know from the State Department and what we know from our own side, we feel safe.
Now, it's still the Tour de France. If you go up the Mont Ventoux they're not going to fence it off and it's not without people. It's a public event and it's an event for the people, so it has to stay that way. But, there is a way to be aware and to be sharp for potential hazards.
Q: Do you consider the measures against doping in place during the Tour de France sufficient? Or do you think they could be more severe?
LA: Very good question. You, like everybody else in this room, can go and compare, what this event and what this sport does compared to Wimbledon, compared to World Cup soccer, compared to American professional sports, compared to any other professional sport. You go do the comparison, and tell me what's fair and not fair, and what's been done and not been done. I think I'll let the sport and the UCI and the authorities speak for themselves. After a while there's not much more you can do, but I think we all have the responsibility to recognize that we're doing more than anybody else. And I'm proud of the organizations and the governing bodies that are doing that.
Q: During the Dauphiné you had revenge to take against the Joux-Plane. During the Tour will it be the same with the Ventoux?
LA: The Ventoux is a lot harder than the Joux-Plane. I prefer just to survive on the Ventoux. It's true that there's a little bit of history there, but it's too early to talk about getting a revenge there or planning on winning that stage. True, it's a beautiful stage, but it's too early to make any predictions.
Q: Without Pantani or Ullrich, will the race still be exciting?
LA: I think so. It's up to us to make the race exciting. Despite the absence of people like Pantani and Ullrich and Simoni, it's still a thrilling, exciting event. It still has difficulty, it still has pain and suffering, and the things people like to see. At least I think they like to see that. I think it will be exciting. I think that there are plenty of good riders that can make the race.
Q: You have been elected as one of the advisors to the president for the fight against cancer. What does it mean to you and what is your task in this group?
LA: It's a tremendous honor to be asked to sit on the president's cancer council. That was quite a surprise. When I first received the phone call from the White House, I thought it was a joke. In the end I was selected, and I'm honored. My role on the board is unclear because we have yet to have our first board meeting, we have yet to meet face to face. I will have a clearer understanding when we have our first meeting in the middle of September.
For now, obviously I'm very excited. There's a lot of work to do. It's a difficult position, a difficult objective, because people expect a cure, but it's not so easy. It's a complicated issue and an old issue. But I won't be a passive participant.