Tour de France 2001: Lance’s Threepeat

Alan Coté

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Want to sound like a real Tour de France pundit? After all, with three consecutive wins by American Lance Armstrong, le Tour is now chit-chat at everything from group rides to cocktail parties. As most of us couldn’t watch the live TV coverage each morning or otherwise follow all the subtleties of the world’s biggest bike race, we offer the following instructions for talking the talk about what went down in France this summer.

How the Tour is Won

There’s no need to be confused by the Tour’s scoring system. The winner of the Tour is simply the rider with the lowest accumulated time for the entire 22 days of racing. Officially, this is called General Classification. The race is usually won or lost in the mountains, where the steep climbs produce big time gaps between riders. The race leader wears the coveted yellow jersey.

Winning an individual stage also carries much prestige, so those who don’t have the legs to ride for the overall win (a large majority of the pack) will shoot for a day’s glory instead. Points are awarded for stage finishes, and the rider with the most points earns the green jersey.

A real insider might open the Tour discussion by talking about a different event entirely: the Tour of Switzerland, a ten-day race in June that’s sort of a Tour de France preview. One Swiss stage (it was an individual mountain time trial) mirrored a key Tour stage. Though not gunning for the overall win in Switzerland, Armstrong used the day to check his legs: He was fastest by 1:25— enough to matter-of-factly give him the overall win for the ten-day race. Armstrong flatly told the press the main reason he had come to the race was to practice for the Tour de France. The Swiss win showed Armstrong’s phenomenal fitness, but naysayers wondered if he might be peaking too early.
Next, describe how Tour de France kingpin Jean Marie LeBlanc potentially monkey-wrenched cycling’s biggest race with his team selections. Foreign teams like that of 1998 Tour winner Marco Pantani were passed-over in favor of much lower-ranked French squads. With fewer strong teams to control the pack, breakaway artists might slip away to big leads in the early, flat stages. And that’s just what happened: stage eight saw a group of about a dozen no-names ride away to a enormous 36 minute gap. This put Armstrong back in 24th place, more than half an hour behind the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) of the race leader.

Here, give credit that Armstrong and his US Postal Service teammates knew just how to handle the situation. Once the mountains came, Armstrong would be punching the tickets of those mavericks, but his real competition would be Jan Ullrich, the German who won the 1997 Tour and finished second in each of his three other Tour starts. Indeed, on the first big mountain stage, Armstrong rode at the tail end of the lead pack. He let Ullrich’s Telekom team set the pace and burn their reserves, while the Texan feigned a suffering look to the TV cameras. Other riders— and team directors watching the TV links— thought Armstrong was redlined.

Now, throw up your arms and say that this is where the whole Tour changed. Entering the final climb of the day up the storied Alpe d’Huez, Armstrong stamped his authority on the race, leaving all challengers— namely Ullrich— gasping in his wake. He’d win the stage by two minutes over the German. Once unleashed, Armstrong was unstoppable: he stormed to three more stage wins, never once showing any signs of cracking. He took over the race lead on stage 14— a day in which he waited for Ullrich when the German overshot a turn and crash-landed (unharmed) in a ditch. Armstrong let his rival cross the finish line just in front of him. It was the final day in the mountains, and with a five minute lead on the overall classification, Armstrong had the Tour in the bag. Ullrich knew it, and held out his left hand to the race leader— a gesture of concession.

After 22 days and 2141 miles, Armstrong rode into Paris to wrap-up his third consecutive Tour win. Your pick all along, non?