The Second Lance

As anyone who isn’t living on Mars probably knows, Lance Armstrong bowed out of bike racing this weekend with his unprecedented seventh straight in the Tour de France.

Back in 1995, in the Indurain period, the long time cycling journalist Samuel Abt wrote a book about the transition in U.S. cycling as Greg Lemond was getting ready to retire. At the time, Lance was quoted as saying that he was tired of being called “the next Lemond”, and would rather be called “the first Lance.” I think that history will now show that Lance was right about that.

At the time, the statement seemed apt for a different reason. Lance was a very different bike racer than Lemond had been. He won one day races, not the long tours. He had not yet developed the physical skills he now has in the mountains and in the time trials or the mental and tactical skills that he has used to dominate the rest of the race. His first few trips to the Tour had always ended in planned early exits although he did get the occasional stage victory. When he dropped out again in 1996 I remember thinking that this didn’t seem too unusual, although the truth was, of course, much different.

I didn’t follow his progress after that day too closely until July of 1999 when seemingly out of nowhere he won the opening time trial of the Tour de France. This, I thought, was strange. This was a different Lance. And indeed, the last seven years have shown us the second Lance. Meticulous, mature and a master of the details necessary to win the world’s biggest bike race. Part of me still can’t believe he can suddenly climb that well, but there it is.

But some of the old Lance was still in there. That look he gave to Ullrich before riding away from him on Alpe d’Huez in 2001 was a classic example of his attacking style. Here was the first Tour champion in a while who actually won stages in addition to the overall. A perfect mix of the old one day racer and the new stage race champion.

The next few years in the Tour will be interesting ones as all the riders who have been second to Lance all these years fight it out. It will also be interesting to see which, if any of the new crew of American riders, many of whom rode on Lance’s teams, manages to come forward and compete for the top spots. Finally, it will be interesting to see whether Lance’s preparation methods will be adopted by other teams, and whether they will be successful in applying them. I suspect that Lance’s training works so well mostly because it is Lance who is doing the training.

I guess I can go get on my bike now that the race is over. But man, it’s too hot.