Long Preparation Yields Sweet Victory

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The longer you prepare for an event, the sweeter it is to succeed when the time finally comes. Lance Armstrong has been preparing for the Alpe d’Huez individual time trial ever since he learned it was included in the 2004 Tour de France route. This afternoon’s performance in Stage 16 was as spectacular as we hoped it would be, proving Lance is the strongest and most versatile rider in the race, and increasing his lead in the yellow jersey.

We never really expected the Alpe d’Huez time trial to play a critical role in determining the winner of the 2004 Tour de France, and I believe today’s results showed we were correct. While Lance won the stage and gained time on his rivals, it’s hard to blow apart a three-week Tour in just 15.5 kilometers. As I’ve said all along, you can never let down your guard and say you have won the Tour de France before you actually cross the finish line in Paris and the official time clock stops for good. Until then, anything can happen.

Though he spent a lot of time and effort working on an aerodynamic setup for today’s time trial, he ended up removing the clip-on bars from his bike before the stage. It is hard to say whether he would have gone faster with them, but it is clear that the ascent would have been more dangerous for him had he tried to use them. With the massive and intrusive crowds on the lower slopes of the climb, Lance wisely decided it was better to ride with hands out wider on his normal handlebars. He, and any cyclist, has more steering control with his hands on his handlebars as opposed to on aerodynamic extensions.

Even without aero bars, Lance steadily reeled in the man who started two minutes ahead of him, Ivan Basso. Though the leader of the CSC team was the only man capable of matching Armstrong pedal stroke for pedal stroke during the road stages in the mountains, time trials are a different beast. Basso has improved his time trial abilities, but even as recently as the Dauphinée; Libée;rée; in June, Armstrong took considerable time out of the Italian during the time trial up Mont Ventoux.

Ivan Basso didn’t have a bad day today; he actually had a very good ride. The riders around him just had more strength for racing against the clock. With a very long, rolling individual time trial waiting for him on Saturday, Basso should be worried about the two men directly behind him in the overall classification. Andrée;as Klöden and Jan Ullrich are very strong against the clock and could overpower Basso in the final time trial to actually relegate him to fourth place overall. To preserve his position in second place, Basso and the CSC team will need to take advantage of the incredible difficulty of tomorrow’s stage and attack to leave Ullrich and Klöden behind.

For Lance Armstrong, every second he adds to his lead helps reduce the pressure of wearing the yellow jersey. He and the US Postal Service have to be attentive and strong in order to defend the jersey, but having nearly four minutes advantage puts the team in an easier position than being less than a minute ahead. There should be a lot of action tomorrow, but the majority of it will be between the men currently sitting second, third, and fourth overall.