Classic Mountain Racing Returns to the Tour de France

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On the first of two critical and difficult days in the Pyrenees, Lance Armstrong’s rivals threw down the gauntlet and provided fans with the most exciting racing we’ve seen in years. Tomorrow is even harder than today, and Armstrong will again come under serious attack. Today he had the firepower to handle every attack, and I believe he has the strength to perform at the top of his game again tomorrow.

No longer content to sit and wait for Armstrong to attack or ride them off his wheel, T-Mobile took matters into their own hands today and attacked on the penultimate climb with all three of their strongest men: Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov, and Andreas Kloden. Their goal was to separate Armstrong from the Discovery Channel teammates, known for setting a blistering pace up big climbs. Without their help, Armstrong would have to fend for himself, and against three T-Mobile riders and a host of other rivals, they hoped to finally make the six-time champion falter.

Some news organizations and pessimistic fans will almost certainly complain that Armstrong’s teammates failed him, but that’s not true. T-Mobile’s attack shelled everyone but the top ten men in the Tour de France. Ullrich may have had two teammates with him, but they aren’t known for their ability to work cohesively. Their attacking style puts pressure on everyone in the group, including their teammates.

The Discovery Channel boys rode well today and were attacked by T-Mobile. They worked during the first three-quarters of the stage to ensure that when the attacks came, Armstrong was as rested and ready as possible. We’re not accustomed to seeing Lance isolated because no one has taken the initiative to attack his team in the past few years. If you look further back, to the beginning of Armstrong’s reign and before it, mountain stages were always like today’s. The team leaders were almost always alone on the second and final climbs of the day, and they attacked back and forth all the way to the finish. Today was classic mountain racing; it just seems new and different because other teams haven’t challenged Lance’s teams over the past few years.

T-Mobile’s strategy today may be a blessing in disguise for the Discovery Channel team. If you look at the results of the stage, most of Lance’s teammates finished 20 minutes or more behind him today. Once it was clear they would not make it back to the lead group, riders like George Hincapie, Jose Azevedo, and Jose Luis Rubiera shut down and rode an easier pace to the finish. For them, there is no difference between finishing five minutes behind and finishing 30 minutes behind; their positions in the General Classification are not important to them or the team at this point.

With the lead group up the road, Lance’s teammates could conserve energy for tomorrow, which promises to be the hardest stage of the entire Tour de France. Yaroslav Popovych was the only rider who really stayed on the gas for the entire stage, because he is the leader of the young rider competition.

Stage 14 was beautiful. Lance rode a smart and strong race and increased his lead over his main rivals. He distanced himself from Mickael Rasmussen, covered the right moves, and managed his energy well. Tomorrow is going to be even harder than today, and with several motivated contenders still in the fight, it’s going to be thrilling to watch as well.

Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong’s personal coach and founder of Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS). His latest book, Chris Carmichael’s Fitness Cookbook, is now available and you can register for a chance to win a ride with the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team at