Lance Armstrong Returns to the Tour de France
Pro cycling’s most famous ex- (and exiled) athlete will again take vigorous aim at the Tour de France—with a daily podcast and a blog on Outside
Lance Armstrong is laser-locked on another Tour de France. But the 45-year-old ex-pro rider, who won seven consecutive Tours between 1999 and 2005 before those wins were voided for doping offenses, won’t race the 2017 edition. Instead, Armstrong will analyze, editorialize, and prognosticate via his new daily Stages podcast, addressing both the details and daily highlights of pro cycling’s iconic, three-week, mid-summer clash.
The Stages PodcastLance Armstrong shares his perspective on the 2017 TdF with a new daily podcast
“I’m approaching this as if I were in the race. I want to know every stage profile, every weather report, where the wind is coming from, even how far away the teams’ hotels are from the stage starts,” says Armstrong. “Just a couple things go wrong for you, and the Tour becomes a lot harder.”
Throughout the Tour, which runs from July 1 to 23, Armstrong will also share his thoughts on the Tour’s hyperbolic ups and downs here at Outside.
Stage 21: Until Next Year
A surprise winner for the Tour’s final stage. And we try to get inside Froome’s head. For the full story, listen to today's podcast. For Armstrong's highlights, read on:
Nobody got the prediction right. Dylan Groenewegen, a 24-year old sprinter, ended up winning today. Nobody called it. Looking back, he’s always been right there. Always in the top 10. And man, what a day to win. It’s the most hyped. It has the biggest crowd. For a sprinter, there’s no better day.
Chris Froome says he’s on to the Vuelta. Why? I don’t know. Is the ASO driving up the Brink’s truck and leaving money on his backdoor? I wouldn’t race the Vuelta if I were him. No way. Maybe he has ambitions to do the World Championship. If that is his goal, it could work. But the thought of getting on the road for another three weeks? I could never do that.
Going into next year, Froome is losing some guys. It’s interesting. Sky has the cash and resources to replace them. But he’s losing some strong guys. It gets to the question: How do they do when they leave Sky? To me, it’s never materialized—at least not enough.
We don’t know what’s going on in Froome’s head. But he has to be thinking about winning a fifth Tour. It’s hard for me to discuss, I have to be honest, but there’s this club of five-time Tour winners. He’s thinking about adding his name to that list. Everyone is talking about it already.
For cycling fans, especially American fans, who are asking What’s next there’s the Velorama Colorado Classic. They’ve got some good teams there. And it’s an interesting take on a bike race. They’re selling tickets for music. And it’s just a four-stage event. So it’s out of the box. But what have we got to lose? We haven’t had a big race that’s survived in this country—ever. These guys are trying to twist it up a bit. Good on them.
What’s next for the Stages podcast? We’ll just have to see. It’s been a fun ride.
Stage 20: Bardet's Nearly Very Bad Day
Froome seals the deal. Bardet nearly slips off the podium. And why you should (always, maybe, never?) ride with your head down. Tomorrow: It’s all over. For the full story, listen to today's podcast. For Armstrong's highlights and predictions, read on:
I don’t know. We expected some drama today: a mechanical, technical issue, or crash. But it was fairly uneventful. The highlight of the whole thing had to be the stadium start-finish. I’ve never seen anything like it. Those crowds were intense. I think the organizers are onto something. It’s a way to make the race exciting.
If there’s a headline from the day, it has to be Bardet. He’s on that start ramp. He’s a Frenchman and he’s in second place—technically has a shot to win the race. The whole stadium, hell, the whole country’s on his side. Most people would have fed off that. But he didn’t have a good day. I think it was nerves. He was losing momentum in and out of the corners all day. Now he’s maybe going to finish off the podium. He’s one second up on Landa. And one second is… one second. I don’t think Landa is going to make things difficult tomorrow. But he’ll create some nerves.
Let’s talk a bit more about Bardet. He’s a big story at this year’s Tour. First of all, he looks like he’s 12 (he’s actually 26 years old, but still). He has years to develop. But to win this race, he has to work on his time trial. I really don’t think it’s a position or a tech issue. I just don’t think he has the power yet. He has to develop that. Look, he’s never going to time trial like Chris Froome. But guys figure the TT out. And all the while, he can get stronger in the mountains so he can steal a minute. Then he just needs to hang on in the TTs—which is what he tried to do today.
I think Bardet—and the other guys, too—are going to come out of the Tour with a lot more hope than last year. Froome wasn’t as dominant as he once was. But they gave Bardet a perfect route this year. And they won’t do that two years running. It won’t be custom-made for him again.
Chris Froome deserves a minute though, today. He went up that climb and the whole time he was in the aero bars and spinning. It had to be that small pizza cog on the back. It was impressive. Everyone else we saw was in a bigger gear, out of the saddle, and fighting it. As an aside, he’s always got his head down, Chris Froome. He’s always looking right down. The theory—and you’re going to laugh, but here it is: if you’re in your standard riding position and looking ahead, you’re looking down and your windpipe is a little kinked. If you look straight down, it’s not. Look, you can laugh. George laughed when I brought this up. But I’ve played with it. You can take these massive gulps of air. But enough with that.
Thomas De Gendt is the most competitive rider in this year’s Tour. It’s bullshit that the award is going to Warren Barguil. I read it this morning and I had to check my eyes and walk around the room. De Gendt has been off the front or in breakaways for over 1,000km of this race. That’s over a third of the entire race. Are you fucking kidding me? That fact that I’m even writing about this is pissing me off. There’s some real bullshit right there.
Tomorrow: nothing is going to happen. Bouhanni is going to win. That said, it will not be an easy day. The Champs-Élysées isn’t as easy as you think it should be. Sure, it’s the last day and nothing big typically happens. But the course isn’t easy. As you go through the start-finish and up to the Arc de Triomphe it’s a false flat and cobbled. It’s rough. Then you hit a hog dog turn. So if you’re 70 back, you’re on the brakes. And the boys in the front are already doing 40 mph. It gets really strung out. Gaps can happen. But I’m not expecting anything crazy tomorrow.
Stage 19: You Need to Know Your Way Round the Roundabout
Edvald Boasson Hagen drops the hammer and BMC wishes the race were over already. Tomorrow: The final test. For the full story, listen to today's podcast. For Armstrong's highlights and predictions, read on:
Let's be honest: Today was boring. Long. Predictable. Not much to watch. Boring. Save for the finish. Boasson Hagen had been painfully close twice before this Tour. He wins today. And it's maybe the most impressive thing we've seen the entire race.
About two kilometers from the finish, Nikias Arndt and Boasson Hagen are near the back of a 20-man break. They go right around the roundabout. The rest go left. And instantly they have a 20-yard gap. They look back. Arndt puts down the hammer. And then Boasson Hagen comes around and just floors it. And he rides Arndt off his wheel—when it's flat. That acceleration. At the pro level? Dude! I was impressed by that.
But you have to ask what happened to the others. Why didn't they go right? Most roundabouts are straight. You go left or you go right and you end up in the same place. This one wasn't. How did they not know that? In our day, Johan would have been on the radio saying Stay to the right, know where the shortcut is. Take it.
I've written a lot about this already, but I need to come back to BMC. Yes, they've had bad luck. But a $20 million team that cannot put a guy in the break? That's terrible. Missing the move is inexcusable, no matter your budget. And when the break went, they didn't even go to the front to reel them back. In my day, had we missed the break, we would have had to pull. That's what the director would have said. And here's the thing: it means their morale is zero. They're walking around with their heads down. The director doesn't even care about winning. He's like, Let’s just drive around France today.
But enough with BMC. Tomorrow is a very critical day. It's a short time trial, which means the gaps shouldn't huge. Nobody is going to catch Froome. But someone—and I mean one of the top-three guys—could have a mechanical issue. Barring that though, Froome has this. Bardet is not going to catch him. Uran? He can test, as the Brits say. He's the only one who can threaten Froome. But I still think it's a very long shot.
That's not to say it will be easy. The details are going to matter a lot, particularly the warm up. When it's a short race, you do a long warmup. When it's a long race, you do a short warmup. Tomorrow will be a long warm up, and they'll have to time it just right. You go right from the warm up to the starting house to the ramp. But you end up sitting around for three or four minutes. It sucks. And my point is: as soon as you roll down the ramp tomorrow, it's a green light. There's no time to ride into this. You need to be ready.
My prediction: Froome has this. But say something goes wrong and it's close going in Paris. Let's say there's a 10 second gap. Do they race? Hell, yeah. They'll race.
Stage 18: Le Comeback
France’s Warren Barguil takes Col d’Izoard, redeeming himself and his dejected nation. How $20 million sometimes buys a team director nothing but heartburn, and why Chris Froome has never thought more about a flat tire. Tomorrow: A mad dash to say you won…something. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
I think cycling fans in France should look at this Tour and go, Oh my God. They should ask: Are we really back? All these years of French riders just being total and complete pack-fill, and now: Are we back? I would say, Yeah, you all very well might be. Okay, France still needs to find someone who can time trial. But French riders have won five of this year’s 18 Tour stages.
The French definitely found someone who can climb. While we all agree that today—180 kilometers (112 miles) from Briancon to Izoard—was, generally speaking, kind of a snoozer for the final climbing test, we didn’t predict Warren Barguil for the win.
This kid! In the polka-dot jersey, he rode away from all the best guys. This was Barguil’s second Tour stage win, and he was about a centimeter short of a third (stage nine). He held off GC leaders like Froome, who’s still in yellow by 23 seconds, as well as fellow Frenchman Romain Bardet (second overall), and Rigoberto Uran (third; 29 seconds back). Those riders were all trying today. My feeling has long been that the polka-dot jersey was reserved for attackers and opportunists just waiting for their moments to take the points. Not this year. Barguil earned it. That contest is over.
Let’s not forget that this really is their race—the French, that is. We don’t get to pick which teams go to the Tour, and neither does the UCI. Tour organizers show favoritism toward French teams, and that’s fine (Barguil, just so you know, actually rides for Germany’s Sunweb). Personally, I think that there are some better teams than some of the French ones that get invited to the Tour.
That said, some of the better teams that do get here don’t always get a stage win or someone in a leader’s jersey. Like BMC, which is from the U.S. Budget of like $20 million or more, and they haven’t done squa-dooch at this year’s Tour. They’ve had some bad luck. But guess what? When a big team has no Tour wins or jerseys to show for all that money, and a sponsor calls the team manager saying, What’s going on here, why are you not in this race? You don’t answer, Bad luck.
Which brings us to tomorrow: Mayhem. Running from Embrun to Salon-de-Provence, this is the Tour’s longest stage (223 kilometers, or 138 miles). Stage 19 will also be hot, and it’s never going to be flat, with three category 3 climbs. Because Saturday is a time trial and Sunday is the Paris finish, this is the last chance at victory for many teams and riders who haven’t yet won anything. Watch for a lot of directors to bark at their riders to get to the front and make something happen. For a lot of riders, the race will be miserable, hectic, and hard.
Stage 17: These Aren’t the Same Guys
GC contender Fabio Aru looks like he’s been racing for three weeks, and suddenly that ain’t pretty. A Slovenian ex-ski jumper vaults to an incredible win, and Kittel slips out of his broken shoes before he sadly takes off a green jersey. Tomorrow: A brutal uphill finish, which is hard on the legs—and the psyche. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
In week three of the Tour de France, Fabio Aru is a different rider. Forget about whether or not he had punch in today’s mountainous, 183-kilometer (113-mile) stage that ended in Serre-Chevalier. Punch? As Froome and the other GC leaders neared the summit of the tough Galibier, Aru couldn’t even follow. This is a three-week race. Back in week one Aru was super explosive and strong. He was the rider taking time out of other guys. But some riders adapt, and some get tired. Fabio Aru is not the same guy that he was in week one. Probably didn’t help much that he was the rider who kept getting gapped in yesterday’s crosswinds. Now he’s not only lost second place, he’s off the podium.
I don’t know anything about ski jumping, but the LottoNL-Jumbo rider who won the stage today—Primoz Roglic—was once a ski jumper who crashed so badly on a jump that you thought he died. Today he’s the first Slovenian to win a Tour stage, and the first former junior World Champion ski jumper to win a Tour stage. Clearly this kid is a great athlete, and one of the best time-trialists in the world. He got away from Alberto Contador when they were partway up the Galibier, and then soloed for over 20 miles to the downhill finish. Hey, hats off to Contador, too. He tried, and then was pretty cooked after his incredible ride to bridge up on the Croix de Fer. But if you’re not at the top of your game? You can’t expect a huge effort out of yourself, and then hope to get over the monstrous Galibier, too. Plus the Galibier puts you at elevation, and if you dig a hole for yourself up there it’s hard to dig back out. Like I said: three weeks.
You shouldn’t be surprised that the directors for Froome, Uran, and Bardet were probably screaming over race radio into their ears after they summited the Galibier. Third week or not, you don’t coast on a descent if you can pedal, especially if it’s away from Aru. Remember, Aru is still going uphill while they’re now going downhill. You want to turn a small gap into something that Aru can’t get back. Five seconds goes to ten, to 20. The coverage of that descent via the helicopters was fun. I mean the average fan sees the risks these guys are taking. Blow out a front tire, miss a turn, no guardrails… there’s no telling what happens to somebody. Oh man.
BTW, Aru ended up finishing 30 seconds back of Froome, Uran, and Bardet. And then there was the grupetto, which today consisted of 98 riders that finished almost 34 minutes down. You think this Tour field isn’t tired?
We saw more mechanicals at critical moments today. Marcel Kittel, who was still in green, crashed in a pile-up only about 20 kilometers into the stage. Seems like he hurt his shoulder—whatever it was, I thought he crashed pretty hard. Then he had to wait for a new bike. And then he needed spare shoes, which are also kept in the team car. You can’t ride without the right shoes, and if you crash and a cleat shifts or a buckle breaks, you rely on that spare pair. Kittel did get them. But the crash obviously did real damage because then Kittel abandoned the race, and there went his hopes for eight stage wins in a Tour, as well as the green jersey. Meanwhile in the mountains, Contador needed a bike swap. I don’t think that had much to do with him getting knocked out on the Galibier. But I’m starting to wonder if the gear is becoming so sensitive and specialized that it’s more prone to breaking. They can only cut so much weight, because there’s a weight minimum of just under 15 pounds for a Tour bike. That’s super-light. I just find all these mechanicals peculiar.
We’ve had 4th of July, Bastille Day, and tomorrow is Colombian Independence Day. Rigoberto Uran is Colombian, and my buddy George Hincapie thinks that Uran has been kind of following all along but will put everything into tomorrow’s mountain stage—on a day when his whole nation will be on holiday and watching the Tour. It’s Uran’s last chance to climb away from Froome and Bardet, and tomorrow’s ride from Briancon to Izoard has the category 1 Col de Vars ahead of the hors catégorie Col d’Izoard. Izoard is hard, and the uphill finish brings you to a true wasteland. What could be a harsher end to the stage for a bunch of tired riders who still have many miles to go?
Stage 16: Top Tour Dogs Shouldn’t Bark—or Bite
Sky manager Dave Brailsford goes off on a reporter. Michael Matthews sprints intriguingly close to green, and a rising body count is further proof that the Tour is inhumane. Tomorrow: The mountains, and Romain Bardet can’t wait. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
It’s tough to be on top. I don’t care if you’re playing for the Super Bowl, a green jacket in golf, trying to get the checkered flag, or attempting to win your team the yellow jersey. The tallest tree catches all the wind. So yesterday, during the second rest day, when the most powerful man in cycling went up to a group of journalists, singled out one from Cycling News, and started to berate him—You’re an asshole, you write shit about me—well, I don’t know about that. Actually, I do. Personally, I’ve seen that movie and the ending is awful. Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford needs to put down the shovel. He needs to stop.
When my story unfolded in 2012, and the reaction by most people was to take a very staunch position toward clean cycling, that was fine. But Brailsford and Team Sky tried way too hard. Their no-needle policy came back to bite them in the ass when they broke their own rule with the controversy over Bradley Wiggins’s use of cortisone and kenacort. Then the Sky policy of firing anyone on the team who had a doping past? If you went through the peloton and the cars driving behind it, and fired everybody who had a “past,” there’d be like three cars rolling along. And Brailsford’s number-one critic nowadays is David Walsh, the same journalist who Brailsford embedded in the team. None of this has worked for Brailsford, and now he has this rest day confrontation? Like I said, I’ve seen this dynamic, and it has a bad ending.
By the way, today’s race was hard—nervous and hard, and I have to make a confession: I’ve never in my life cared about the green jersey. Until now. Sunweb’s Michael Matthews held off the late, blinding speed of Dimension Data’s Edvald Boasson Hagen to win the sprint into Roman-sur-Isère. Now only 29 points separates today’s victorious Australian from Marcel Kittel, who was dropped on the first climb of the day’s super-windy, lumpy, technical ride. The 165-kilometer (102-mile) stage ultimately exposed a lot of people, and forced groups to split and to snap. Froome and his closest competition didn’t gain on one another, but Matthews is getting close enough to Kittel that the green jersey may be tightly contested. Matthews can time-trial his ass off, which means he can get some points at Friday’s TT in Marseille. The green-jersey competition could make Sunday in Paris really exciting.
Today, George Bennett, the young Kiwi I was pulling for who was riding impressively in this Tour, pulled out. I hope I didn’t jinx him. In the Tour you never know why or how someone gets sick, but considering what the riders put their bodies through, it’s easy to get sick. When someone like Bennett or Belgium’s highly accomplished Philippe Gilbert (stomach problems) have to drop out of this race, you’re reminded that the Tour is unlike anything else that the sports world knows. It’s an inhumane event. I’m still long on George Bennett stock. He has an exciting future.
I will be up earlier tomorrow than I have been for any stage of this year’s Tour. The 183-kilometer (113-mile) race to Serre-Chevalier is a true mountain day, and it is effing hard. Forget about the first category 2 climb (unless you’re a struggling Marcel Kittel). There’s the hors catégorie Col de la Croix de Fer, then a big downhill ahead of the double-whammy that is the Col du Telégraph and the Galibier. It could be an epic battle, and Frenchman Romain Bardet, who is in third and only 23 seconds out of the lead, is licking his chops. If he gets away in the mountains, he’s got to hope that the wind is blowing the right way on the fast straight downhill to the finish. If there’s a tailwind, Bardet is thinking yellow.
Finally: Rigoberto Uran may be in fourth place, but he can descend, and he can definitely win this bike race. Sky’s Mikel Landa? I would not rule him out, either. Right now Landa is a beast. He’s also Froome’s teammate, but remember that Landa is leaving Sky after this year. The question is, will Landa follow team orders? Not to keep beating up on Dave Brailsford, but you don’t take a guy to the Tour who’s leaving. Come on. That’s like strike four.
Stage 15: When It’s You Against the World (Including Fans, Mechanicals, and Maybe a Teammate)
Chris Froome gets little love from the French, or for that matter his bike or top lieutenant. An unexpected and brave, solo victory. Tomorrow: Rest, followed by Kittel’s day of reckoning. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
You could clearly hear Chris Froome getting booed today, and that sucks. I lived with that for years, and you can try and go all Zen about it, but it still sucks. So the perception is that the French hate Froome. Maybe I’m the last person who should say anything here, and this is delicate: the fans do have suspicion, around issues with Team Sky, Dave Brailsford, Bradley Wiggins, and Chris Froome. But trust me on this: Chris Froome is not unpopular. He walks around and people kiss his ass all day long. The truth is, the French have a homeboy in contention to win. You could have anybody in the yellow jersey today—it could be an Italian or Colombian or whatever. They’d be booing him, too.
The day, however, really didn’t belong to Froome (who still leads) or the local favorite, Romain Bardet. Bardet’s AG2R team did set a hard pace in the last stretch, and give them credit for animating the 190-kilometer (118-mile) race into Le-Puy-en-Velay. They also put pressure on Froome. But really, hats off to Dutchman Bauke Mollema from Team Trek Segafredo. What a ride! What a stage win! Early on he was stuck behind a wall of Sky riders. He was seriously stuck. Then to make it into the front group of what started out as 28 guys, and then send that solo attack so far out from the finish? Like 27 kilometers? What a gutsy ride for a guy who has never before won a stage in the Tour. Cool to see.
Froome has too many mechanicals. Today it was a flat, and while he got a quick change, he still had to fight his way back, and do it while AG2R was pushing the others. Froome could have an issue with his mechanics, or the equipment itself. Some riders are said to be especially hard on their equipment, and we’ve talked about Froome’s odd riding style. I was known for being hard on gear. I also had great mechanics, and I got very lucky: I think the lone setback was one flat tire in my seven Tour wins. But this is Froome’s second mechanical in the 2017 Tour, and he had an issue last year. Sometimes it takes only one of those problems to lose an entire race.
When it comes to Froome teammate Mikel Landa—if I’m Froome, I don’t trust that guy as far as I can throw him. I’m not saying that Landa is a good guy or a bad guy, but still, Landa looks so strong right now on the climbs. He makes them look effortless. I know that Sky is hedging its bets, with Landa sitting top seven in the GC just in case Froome falters. And at the last minute Landa did drop back to help bring up Froome after his mechanical. But with Landa leaving the team next year, you just have different interests. And by the way, what is Nairo Quintana thinking of Landa coming to his team? Movistar has designated Quintana to win the Tour de France, and yet they just went and hired another guy who wants to win the Tour. Let’s see how all this drama plays out.
Tomorrow is a rest day, and the day after that Marcel Kittel will have to win the stage if he’s going to get eight stage wins in one Tour. Kittel gets eight and he ties Eddy Merckx (did it twice) and Freddy Maertens. I think tying that record would be pretty awesome, but maybe that’s not nearly as important to Kittel as he thinks more about winning the green jersey. He also has to watch Michael Matthews. Matthews again got points today. The competition for the green jersey could heat up. The first stretch of Tuesday’s 165-kilometer stage 16, which ends in Romans-sur-Isère, is about 20 kilometers of climbing. The ending is sprinter-flat. But how much of that first part is going to take the quickness out of Kittel’s legs?
Stage 14: Who Wants a Yellow Jersey?
Fabio Aru and Team Astana do all the right things to blow a lead, and a shrewd Froome is back in yellow. Plus, why the finish line sucks for every Tour rider. Tomorrow: Sky decides who will win a hilly stage, and it ain’t even one of their own. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
I didn’t think there’d be carnage in the GC landscape today. But there was. A day like this on paper—182 kilometers (113 miles) with a short but steep, uphill finish—and you don’t believe that the yellow jersey will change hands. But Aru lost 24 seconds to Froome, and I’m baffled. I don’t think it’s an issue of his legs. Where’s Astana? Aru has no team. They interviewed his Danish teammate at the finish. I forget the kid’s name. He says, Oh did we lose the jersey, and the reporter says Yeah, Froome has the jersey back. And the rider says, Oh, good. Good?! Like, whoa. Maybe Astana has tricks up its sleeve?
I know that Chris Froome rode a great race. He’s riding heads-up, and this again is his bike race to lose. Despite what I suggested in my previous posts, Froome clearly has a team that’s riding for him. They know who the boss is. Technically speaking, Froome had perfect positioning. Aru was, almost mysteriously, terribly positioned, and way too far back on that last climb. Which, by the way, was won by Sunweb’s Michael Matthews, who passed and then held off Greg Van Avermaet.
This all said, there is stress associated with having the yellow jersey, and I’m not even talking about when you’re on the bike. You have all these things to do. Like: You’ve got to go to doping control after the stage, and if you’re dehydrated and can’t go to the bathroom, you have to sit there and drink, and it can be hours before you leave. You’ve also got all that protocol around the podium presentation. The yellow jersey is what you want, yes. But it adds hours to your day. After today’s stage, Aru didn’t have anything to do. After he was long gone from the race, Froome was still standing there.
On the subject of the price paid for winning, or even finishing: ASO, which owns the Tour, will apparently whore out anything for sponsorship. I mean, a lot of these riders are so tired when they finish that they fall down and lay on the ground. And that’s when those guys in the Vittel jumpsuits are suddenly right there. They have logos on their white pants all the way down to the ankle, so even when the riders are laying on the ground, the TV audience sees the logo. I guess you could say that Vittel has it figured out. But the whole scenario is completely annoying.
Really, I’ve never understood why there are so many people at the finish. It’s like, what are you doing here, get out! Soigneurs with towels and water are of course there. But also journalists, sponsors… and at the less locked-down Tour of Italy or Spain, the corner butcher seems to be standing there. Complete mayhem. How’s this area not more locked down and sanitized? Riders sometimes literally fight for space. Totally janky.
Tomorrow I think a breakaway goes away, and stays away. The 190-kilometer (118-mile), hilly stage to Le-Puy-en-Velay will be classic in the sense that Team Sky will control and select that breakaway group. It’s pretty much, you go, and you, and you. Sky doesn’t literally tell the riders, but they do curate that group. Anyone within 20 minutes or whatever of Froome, and Sky doesn’t let them into that breakaway. Those guys that are in the breakaway don’t want someone who’s maybe only seven minutes down anyway, because the breakaway will have no chance of succeeding if someone in it is a threat to the yellow jersey. For Froome and Sky, the upside of a breakaway like this is that it completely neutralizes the race. No risks, no chances, no time bonuses lost. Done properly, the intensity for the main peloton in this kind of finish is about 10 percent of what a Tour stage can possibly be.
A couple more thoughts on tomorrow: You have a category 1 climb very early on, then another category 1 climb toward the end. Very difficult for those at the back of the peloton, like the sprinters who have to make the time cut. If they don’t stay within a certain time tomorrow, they’ll be eliminated. Take Marcel Kittel. He was dropped today. Elimination is something he truly must think about, and you know that he doesn’t want to lose that green jersey. Really for all of these guys, we’re getting deeper and deeper into France’s Massif Central, which is famous for roads that are rough and never flat, and conditions that can be windy, exposed, and hot. I think that we’re seeing a peloton that’s starting to look tired.
Stage 13: Take it to Vegas
Chris Froome is harder to read than a poker player, and how Sky maybe made a bad bet on a tough Spaniard who could win the Tour and walk out the door. Plus, why thirsty riders really can’t drink the local water. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
I faked it once. Back in the 2001 Tour, I pretended to be hurting, and it worked perfectly. I fooled the competition. So as I watched Chris Froome today, I thought, Does he have a real problem? He looked bad, or should I say he never looks very good, because his motions and positioning are very unorthodox. But when I looked away from the screen and looked back, there he was attacking, and guys were dropping. He’s still only six seconds out of the yellow jersey. And I don’t think Froome bluffed yesterday—in fact I confirmed that he bonked before reaching the finish. Still, maybe someday the guy will be a card player. He’s very hard to read.
Redemption today for the French kid Warren Barguil. The six-foot, 130-pound, 25-year-old finished ahead of the four-man breakaway in Foix, winning for his country on Bastille Day. Must’ve felt good after losing to Rigoberto Uran five days ago in a photo finish, where Barguil only discovered that he was second after doing interviews with French TV. Ouch. Contador animated today’s race and finished an admirable third. As a fan, I loved this whole day—amazing racing over the three category 1 climbs. Why don’t we have more short, intense days like this? And that’s me asking the question, a big-time Tour veteran.
I’d never bet that a pro team would take a rider to the Tour who’s leaving the squad at season’s end. This year I’d lose that bet, as everyone knows Sky’s Mikel Landa already signed to ride next year with Movistar. Well if I’m Froome, and I’m picking my guys to ride around France with me, Landa is not among them. Now we’re at the Tour, and the Spaniard is not only strong but—even with his fourth-place finish today arguably being a part of team tactics—just a little over a minute out of the lead. Potentially you have two Sky teammates who want to win. That happened with me and Contador back in 2009, amid a lot of tension. Landa and Sky team director insist that they’re now singing Kumbaya, and that this is Froome’s team. But when the riders are all sitting at a nine-top having dinner together, or in the bus and driving to the hotel? There’s gotta be tension.
Another bad gamble: Yesterday George Bennett and Romain Bardet took water bottles from a spectator within 20 kilometers of the stage 12 finish. That’s a rulebook no-no, and there was temporary controversy over the issuance and retraction of 20-second penalties, which also involved Uran (long, uninteresting story—more about this sport and its inconsistencies).
The bigger issue: Who knows what’s in the bottles. People can put some shit in there. Vodka, piss, poison. I mean, they’re very thirsty, and it’s a dumb rule. But you have to be so careful. I say the only place you can pour the fluid in a bottle that’s ever been opened? Over your head. People have handed up alcohol to riders before. When your body is undergoing such intense effort and you drink that, it’s devastating. Don’t drink that water, kids.
Fabio Aru still has the yellow jersey, but he has no team. Jakob Fuglsang tried to go today, but he has two fractures in his left arm and ended up abandoning. On the final climb, two UAE riders set tempo. I don’t know what kind of deal, if any deal at all, was made. But there could be a favor later. As for Aru, as they said on the Aussie broadcast feed, he enjoyed Christmas gifts under the tree on Bastille day, because he really didn’t have to work much. Lucky him.
Tomorrow yet another Christmas gift awaits Aru, and BMC team director Jim Ochowicz will deliver it all day during the 182-kilometer stage into Rodez. BMC has to win a stage like this, since Richie Porte crashed out and Greg Van Avermaet won a stage with this same short but steep (about 10 percent) finish two years ago. Team BMC will do the work. Van Avermaet is the real deal and will win. Aru could stay in yellow, unless he’s out of position and gets stuck behind guys on that final climb. But really, whatever. There’s still lots of racing and climbing left. If people wanted an open race, they got it. Five guys basically within a minute, and I don’t care if this is the Tour de France or the Tour de Pharmacy. It’s anybody’s bike race. Take it to Vegas.
Stage 12: They’ve Got Stress
Chris Froome loses the yellow jersey, and maybe the confidence of his Sky team. Why challengers to the Tour throne sometimes should listen more than look. Bastille Day lurks, and every French rider wants to be a hero. Plus, why tomorrow is short but spicy. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
I would love to know what Chris Froome is thinking right now. Losing 22 seconds in the last 300 meters? He totally cracked. That’s a big crack. Bardet wins the stage, Aru takes the yellow jersey. I think Froome cracking like that…he has questions, Sky has questions. I was in that position a few times. No matter how many people sit around you and say It’s okay, just a bad day, you still think about it. Those people sitting around you? They’re thinking about it, too. I’d say the hand isn’t on the fire alarm, but somebody is walking toward that side of the room. They’ve got stress. Oh yeah, they do.
To see Froome falter like that shocked me. It was a rough transition, going from short, fast downhill back into a super-steep—like 16-, sometimes 20-percent—climb to the finish. Tough in terms of rhythm. The second that Froome started to struggle, you can bet that the team directors for AG2R and Astana grabbed their radios and yelled every bad word, every bit of Vince Lombardi-type encouragement they knew, respectively, at Bardet and Aru. Those directors are watching the Tour live while they’re driving in their team cars. The riders didn’t even have to look back to assess Froome. Everything they needed to know was blaring right into their ears.
What really got me up out of my chair today was the late coverage of Quintana and Contador. What the heck? No offense, but they are not in this bike race. They’re not in it in the overall, and they weren’t in it today. We don’t need to see them broadcast, and if somebody launches some great attack off the front and we miss it? We’re all going to be like, “Oh my God!” French television sends NBC the signal. What’s going on? Is there some closet Contador fan on the production team?
I’ve seen the Sky movie over and over. They’re in control. Today, there are 12 guys left and four are Sky. Down to 11 and three are Sky. In the final 10 minutes, Mikel Landa was pacing Froome, looking emotionless and pain-free. Was Froome in trouble? From what I could see, he never asked Landa to ease up. He looked fine. I think that maybe the other GC contenders were scared of the pace and tempo set by Sky, so they held off on attacking. But tomorrow is a different deal. Eyes will be on Aru’s Astana team. Too bad that Aru lieutenant Jakob Fuglsang is out. That’s a big blow. And if you rank the popularity of all the teams in the peloton, the Kazakh squad isn’t exactly near the top. Tomorrow it’s going to be hard for any team to manage the race.
More on tomorrow, which will be a spicy day. You never see a 63-mile stage in the Tour de France. Guys can make mistakes on short days—like, “It’s only 100k, I don’t need to put food in my pocket.” But the route from Saint-Girons to Foix has three category 1 climbs, and the roads are horribly slow—chip seal. Plus the top four, including veteran Colombian Rigoberto Uran, are within a minute of each other. It’s also Bastille Day, which is France’s Fourth of July. For a Frenchman that’s a big deal, so look for French riders to go from the gun. My gut says Froome missed something today. Tomorrow he’ll be listening a lot to himself, and his legs, and I still think he wins this Tour. As for Aru, it’s maybe one sip of the champagne tonight for ending the day in yellow. Then: What do we do now?
Stage 11: The Sport That’s Consistently Inconsistent
Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni takes up boxing in the peloton, while Marcel Kittel takes nail-biting out of the Tour’s crazy sprint finishes. Plus, why easy days turn into nightmares, and how Sky might lose control in tomorrow’s big mountains. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
We know that this sport is inconsistent. Why, for instance, is Peter Sagan out of the race for holding his elbow wide, but Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni remains in the Tour after taking a swing at Kiwi Jack Bauer? The action was in the closing kilometers of yesterday’s stage 10, and, of course, it was caught on video. Bouhanni was fined nothing, like a couple hundred bucks. He was also docked one minute for the stupid move. Bauer is my hero: he shrugged it all off, saying the Tour is no charity ride. (I also must mention that Bauer plays a serious bass guitar.) I don’t know what Sagan thinks of it all, and his scenario involved a significant crash. This one did not. Still, the judgements seem inconsistent.
Meanwhile, today was boring. Stage 11 was a 204-kilometer, flat affair, from Eymet to Pau, and guess who won. Marcel Kittel is incredible to the point that he seems to be racing guys half as fast as him. I’ll say that he’ll win eight stages in this Tour, which would be huge. But the most exciting thing about today was that one of the breakaway guys was still in it at the sprint (and then he was swallowed up). Now you know why I led off with Bouhanni and Bauer.
I’m not done yet with Bouhanni. The other riders stay away from him for a reason. At another point yesterday he completely veered to the left. Just veers. It’s a real problem. The way he took a swing makes me think that there should be a rule: if your hands comes off the bars late in the race, you’re done. Out of the race. Gone.
They predicted significant wind that didn’t materialize, but there were still crashes. Crashes on an “easy” day? Well, you’re not the only one who’s bored. Nobody in this year’s Tour is fresh anymore, and when riders get bored their minds wander. All it takes is a split-second of distraction—while you’re thinking about your girl or watching the goofball running alongside the peloton—and you’re done. Dario Cataldo’s crashed forced him to abandon the race. Contador went down again, and let me tell you: El Pistolero is out of bullets in the 2017 Tour.
Mountains tomorrow, and believe it or not you must start at the front. If you’re 50 guys back at the beginning of a significant climb, maybe it’s easier to move up, because the pack does thin out. But closing those gaps is another story. The truth is, even when you climb, you have to have what I call “the NASCAR.” You have to be able to rub and bump your way to the front. I remember this American cyclist, Michael Carter. Probably the greatest climber in the world, but he found it too crazy getting to the front. If Carter could’ve gotten out front on the climbs, he could’ve hung.
Chris Froome has the NASCAR, and with all his Tour wins he’s probably earned himself a little elbow room. I think he’ll win tomorrow’s 215-kilometer stage from Pau to Peyragudes. Even though it’s a category 1, that first climb, the Col de Menté, is very hard. If it were me and I was trying to win the race and I wasn’t in the yellow jersey? I would use my team on the Col de Menté to see if I could open up the race early, and make it so Sky wasn’t in control. If nobody else nails it tomorrow on the next climb, the Port de Balés, it’s simply because they don’t have the legs. But if they can, as my kids say, they gotta send it. Throw something out there, and hold on as best you can to the summit finish near the top of the Col de Peyresourde. We’ll see if any alliances form—the riders make that stuff happen as they go along. But even when it looks like Froome is about to get dropped, suddenly he doesn’t. Then he says it’s been nice hanging with you, and I’m going up the road now.
Stage 10: How to Keep the Tour Epic
Marcel Kittel resembles Superman, and a mystery man lurks in the top 10. Froome pulls a disappearing act. Plus: The Armstrong Guide to Sleep (whether you’re a competitor or a viewer), and tomorrow beware the scrappy sprinter. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
Today was the day for André Greipel to win a stage of the Tour de France. Entering the final run-in of the flat race between Périgueux and Bergerac, the rider known as the Gorilla was perfectly positioned. Greipel’s Lotto-Soudal team was in the right spot and Kittel was way back. I thought Kittel was maybe going to take the day off. But then it was like, Here we go again. I’ve remarked earlier on Kittel’s acceleration, and Greipel is a veteran Tour racer, with—what?—11 previous victories. But it wasn’t even a contest. Greipel even sat up. Kittel wins his fourth stage of the 2017 Tour. Right now, he’s the guy.
Today was 178 kilometers (110 miles), and people ask me why not just make this stage, which really wasn’t that interesting until the end, just 50 miles? Yes, the race would’ve been more explosive at 50 miles. But the Tour is still about distance, about being epic in nature and crossing great stretches of France. So these stages remain epic. Honestly, on Tour days like today? Sleep in. Or ride a little longer into the morning, or do something else before you tune into the Tour.
On the topic of sleep: Tour riders need to do whatever it takes to get rest. If they’re stressed out about the next day, maybe they need a light sleeping pill. When I raced, I had to have earplugs. I didn’t want to be woken up by the trash guy pulling up outside the hotel, or the scooters raging down the roads, deep into the night, after the kids came out of the discos. Cyclists traditionally hate to sleep with the air conditioning on because of the long-held European belief that the AC will make you sick. But if it’s a hot night and you leave the windows open instead, you might sweat all night, which affects your hydration. Instead of AC, I always had a fan. I made the soigneurs carry it from place to place—a janky little fan. It provided the perfect breeze.
Froome bucked tradition yesterday by not having a press conference. Traditionally on the rest day, the yellow jersey hosts a press conference, but instead Sky supplied the media with quotes. I support that decision. No, not just because I had contentious relationships with a lot of people in that room. But the rest day is about maybe riding, and definitely eating and massage and other recovery therapies. The press conference is just another thing. If it’s truly a rest day? Then Froome should rest.
So far, 27-year-old George Bennett is the sneaky kid of the 2017 Tour. The Kiwi won the Tour of California a couple months ago, and on the stage 9 Mont du Chat climb he was right there—he looked really good to me. Coincidentally, Bennett was, years ago, on a Livestrong development team that I started. Now he’s less than four minutes back of the yellow jersey. That is not a lot of time. Anything can happen.
I love yet more great insight from my buddy, Greg Henderson. Tomorrow—204 flat kilometers into Pau—is another sprinter’s race, and Henderson says beware the scrappy sprinters. What he means is that guys are now turning to each other and saying, Wait a minute, three or four big sprinters are out of the Tour. I’m going to get up there and see what happens. That said, when it comes to rubbing elbows or touching wheels at 75 kilometers per hour (47 mph), someone may come up without a lot of experience. But I gotta admit—I don’t like the sound of a scrappy sprint. I’d rather not be touched in a really tight finish. What does scrappy exactly mean, anyway? How was your date last night with your wife? Really scrappy. That can’t be good. BTW, let’s not forget about Kittel.
Stage 9: Bad Crashes + Worse Strategizing = A Fortunate Froome
GC contender Richie Porte crashes hard, and becomes the latest star to exit the Tour. Fabio Aru insists he has manners, while the peloton disagrees. Chris Froome finds help in teammates that aren’t on his team. Tomorrow: rest (and that’s complicated). For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
Knowing a route like the back of your hand comes into play in the Tour de France. While I thought today’s 182-kilometer course into Chambéry was really stupid—a supposed “queen stage” that doesn’t end with an epic climb—the GC contenders still needed to know it like they do their home terrain. A twisty-turny descent as critical as today’s demands that you and your team ride it in training three to four times. I mean, you really need to know it. Not to say Porte didn’t know the downhill, but today either an overcorrection or a bad line sent him to the ground, and then straight across the road and into both Dan Martin and the rocky hillside. No way for Martin to save that crash, and Porte goes to the hospital, reportedly breaking a collarbone and his pelvis. I totally disagree with this kind of dark, moist, dangerous downhill before a queen-stage finish. Because of it, the 2017 Tour has lost another one of its big names.
As an unscathed Chris Froome raced with several riders to the finish line, my phone lit up with texts from George Hincapie: What, he asked, is Astana doing? Astana riders Jakob Fuglsang and Fabio Aru were practically escorting Froome, along with eventual stage winner Rigoberto Uran, ever-closer to race-leader Romain Bardet. It’s like Froome, the Sky rider who’s also the defending champion, the wearer of the yellow jersey, and the race favorite, had two teammates. And they weren’t even wearing his jersey. How about those two say to Froome: Hey bud, you’re the strongest, go for it—and then sit on his wheel? Let Froome take control, let him care about Bardet. Instead, Froome finishes in the same time as Fuglsang, Uran, Bardet, and two other riders in the lead group. But because Froome finishes the stage in third place, he gets a time bonus. I just don’t get it.
Maybe the Astana blunder was destiny. Earlier in the race, when Froome raised his hand to signal to his team car that he needed a replacement bike because of an apparent mechanical, Aru literally attacked from right under Froome’s armpit. I don’t know if I would’ve done that. Sure enough, opinions about proper group etiquette around Aru making that move were quickly apparent. Dan Martin pulled up beside the Astana rider and his hand gestures clearly said, What are you doing? Porte was on Aru’s wheel, and probably refused to pull through because he didn’t think it was a proper move. Pro bike racing actually has a lot of etiquette. For instance, in the 2003 Tour, I was leading but fell after getting tangled up with a fan. Jan Ullrich literally waited for me to get back on my bike, refusing to try and take advantage of my crappy luck. Today Aru insisted that, when attacking, he was unaware of Froome’s troubles. Ultimately Aru did ease up, and the racers regrouped. All kinds of drama today.
The Tour de France is hardly over, but it does seem like Froome’s race to lose. He has things under control, and the best team. But I can’t lie. He’s hard to watch. What’s he looking at when he always looks down? That bike he rode after the bike change? Was it his? I kept thinking that his seat is too low. Today Froome rode with a 38-tooth chain ring in front and a 32-tooth gear in the back. That’s crazy, like mountain-bike gearing—or what heavy, slow, old men would ride. If you would’ve rolled up with a 38-32 when the Tour last went over the Mont du Chat in 1974, they would’ve laughed you right out of the peloton. But Froome absolutely used that gear.
Tomorrow is a rest day, and the rest day is one of the trickiest things to navigate in the Tour de France. There are two schools of thought: Take it very easy, in fact almost do nothing. Or go out and ride hard. I was always of the belief, and my teammates hated me for it, on a rest day you hammer hard. I’d tell them we don’t ride for five hours, but for two, and it’s not going to be easy. Our bodies were in the mode of the Tour de France. Meanwhile a body at rest stays at rest. Whatever. I thought it worked.
Stage 8: Welcome to the Days of Digging Deep
A young French rider cramps, and somehow still wins. BMC’s weird team tactics. Why tomorrow will be much harder than today’s brutal ride (repeat after me: “queen stage”). For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
Anyone who has cramped knows it’s a miserable experience. Today, Direct Energie’s Lilian Calmejane cramped after breaking away on the stage’s final climb, but still several kilometers short of the finish line in Station des Rousses. I got so worried for Calmejane because rarely do you cramp just once. Cramps always come back. The young Frenchman immediately lost a quarter of his lead of about 38 seconds when he stood up on the pedals to stretch. Then he rode easier to try and get through the cramping. From there, somehow Calmejane got back on it quickly, and I was waiting for that second wave to hit. Back in the day I’d race against guys so desperate to stop their mid-race cramping that they’d unpin one of the safety pins holding their bib numbers and poke themselves to try and stimulate their muscles. No pins in the Tour—bib numbers are stuck on. Miraculously, no more cramps for Calmejane, who resumed to solo for a gutsy win.
This was a hard day for everyone. Hot weather, a lot of climbing, and crazy-fast speeds. I think the peloton averaged 52 kilometers per hour, or about 32 mph, for the first 20 miles. And 46 kph for the first hour—on a day with 10,000 feet of climbing. I have to admit that I was scratching my head over BMC’s strategy. You had a stage that wasn’t hard or steep enough for GC contender Richie Porte to attack, yet the team had Nicolas Roche and Greg Van Avermaet up the road, as if they might at some point help escort Porte. But in my opinion Roche and Van Avermaet will be a little crispy tomorrow. Meanwhile Sky was all together, and riding tempo—really, riding a perfect race. Who’s calling the shots at BMC?
Tomorrow’s race starts straight uphill, and you’re going to see the grupetto form about five minutes after the race starts. What I mean: On mountain stages, a sizable cluster of riders at bigger races like the Tour de France will collect behind the main peloton. This grupetto, also known as the bus or the laughing group, consists of sprinters and other guys who can’t easily climb over the big mountains—but need to ride just fast enough to make the time cut so that they can remain in the race. For all the regulation imposed on the front end of the group, the back end is a different story. The riders will give each other pushes (officially disallowed). Team cars will hand slow riders “sticky bottles,” which means, let’s just say, that both the team member in the moving car and the rider receiving the full water bottle hold on a little longer than they need to. And when both parties are holding onto that bottle, that’s when the director driving the car floors it. Yeah, less regulation at the back of the race.
Tomorrow, if GC contenders like Porte and Nairo Quintana truly want to win this Tour, they can’t let the day go by without taking some chances. Tomorrow’s 182-kilometer ride into Chambéry is brutal: all up and down, and it’s been tagged the “queen stage,” which means there’s consensus that this is the race’s hardest stage of all. Starts pretty much immediately with that category 2 climb, and you can’t imagine how much the riders hate that. People will be dropped right away. Also: three HC, or “above category,” climbs. Tomorrow Porte and Quintana have to either succeed, or go down trying.
Speaking of going down. The Chambéry stage ends with a nasty downhill, and a flat run-in. I say channel your inner Valentino Rossi, because you’re going to have to ride like a MotoGP world champion on that descent. You’ll immediately notice the rider who’s comfortable and fluid, as well as the guy who looks like every corner is a 10-point turn. If it rains (and I hate to say it, but thunderstorms are predicted), look out. That can change the bike race for everyone. I always fancied myself a good downhiller, but the second rain hit the pavement, I went from one of the best to one of the worst. I just hated it.
Stage 7: Why Tour Riders Love the Word “Suffer”
A thoroughly heartbreaking loss for Edvald Boasson Hagen, and some math revealing the piss-poor money to be won in this race. Plus: Tomorrow’s stage could be a nail-biter (if there’s enough suffering). For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
I love the word “suffer,” and in his own weird way everyone in this bike race loves that word, too. Norwegian Dimension Data rider Edval Boasson Hagen knows the feeling, after finishing second to super-sprinter Marcel Kittel in today’s flat, 214-kilometer horse race into Nuits-Saint-Georges. It looked like a dead tie. What a heartbreaker.
There was more wind today, and while it wasn’t a huge factor, we could soon see it become one. Cross tailwinds can absolutely destroy a race. They force riders into echelons, and you can easily be caught out of position, like when you’re directly behind the rider in front of you. Ride in the wrong place and you’re suffering. You’re working much harder than those who are correctly staggered. If a team knows that high cross-tailwinds are expected, they’ll spend hours studying maps, and looking at Google Earth, for where the wind might wreak havoc. Like where there are no trees. With cross-tailwinds, the minutiae of the course comes into play.
I woke up to another message from my Kiwi friend and ex-pro Greg Henderson, this time on the subject of watts. He told me Andre Greipel’s power file from yesterday showed him generating 1,790 watts at 74 kilometers per hour in the sprint. I mean 1,800 watts…46 miles per hour? Hello? And Kittel came around Greipel like he was standing still. Joe Average Rider cannot hold 300 watts for any extended period of time. Mind boggling power, and efforts.
Speaking of Kittel, you could see the mask on his face today after he barely won, I mean tied, today’s bike race. He was hurting. Late in the race he was deep in that peloton, in part because teams at the front were escorting their GC riders in case of, among other factors, crosswinds. Kittel had to find his way to the front. I think it took him a lot of work.
Beyond the race report, I wanted to write about something that super-pisses me off: the sport’s twisted up economics. There are several big events going on just about now. Let’s compare them to the Tour. Prize money for winning the U.S. Open golf tournament is $1.8 million. Wimbledon’s male and female winners will each take home 2.2 million pounds. Win the Tour de France and the take-home is 500,000 Euros. What’s worse: Since 2011, Wimbledon’s prize money has doubled. When I won the Tour, the prize was 500,000 Euros. What? The money has not changed in all those years. And the Tour is the hardest and longest event of them all. Yes, more suffering. Meanwhile, the winner of the Tour gets zero percent of that prize money—it goes to the team and staff. Then the Tour winner also gives his team some of his own bonus. What about sponsor money? Maybe, as a team leader, you have a sunglasses deal, or a shoe deal. But you can’t get a bike or helmet deal. Those are all under the umbrella of the team. It’s not right.
Tomorrow is interesting, as we’re back up in the mountains. The 188-kilometer stage ends at Station des Rousses, and while there’s an 11.7-kilometer, category 1 climb near the end, the flat section at the finish could neuter things. I want to make two predictions (I know, you’re not supposed to get two): If the group stays together, my favorite is Dan Martin. He’s climbing well enough to be the fastest of whoever is left when they reach the flat. My other prediction: A breakaway stays away to the finish. But it has to be the perfect mix—guys that are 20 minutes down, that Chris Froome and Team Sky are comfortable letting go.
And from all of us here in Colorado, a shout out to Italian pro Claudia Cretti. She crashed today in the Giro Rosa while reportedly descending at 90 kilometers per hour. She’s in an induced coma. We don’t know what caused the crash.
Stage 6: The Heat Cometh
Ridiculously high temperatures today could wreak Tour havoc tomorrow (and for days and weeks to come). England and Slovakia declare war (via social media) over Sagan getting tossed. Tour coverage doesn’t do a white-hot Marcel Kittel justice. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
The most remarkable thing about today was the temperature. Stupid-hot conditions in sunny, northeastern France—highs well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the usual 75. The ice packs you saw on the backs of some riders’ necks are a good idea. Anything to help cool your core is a good idea, really, because when it comes to performance, heat is a huge determinant. Heat also brings dehydration. Lag in hydration and nutrition now, and you’ll start digging yourself a hole in these early days. It can add up. Tomorrow’s flat, 214-kilometer ride into Nuits-Saint-Georges? Over 90 again. The day after: everyone needs their climbing legs.
Marcel Kittel is aflame, and the live Tour coverage doesn’t do him justice. The most remarkable part of today’s 216-kilometer stage was the hectic sprint finish, and the speed with which Kittel came. Watch from head-on and it looks so close. But then later you see an overhead angle from the helicopter: not close at all. Best I could calculate, Kittel was two bike lengths behind with 100 meters to go. He then won by two bike lengths. This guy in blue, he comes from nowhere. Tomorrow it’s basically straight into the finish. I don’t see how Kittel loses.
Peter Sagan’s team won’t let his DQ go. There are the standard attempts to appeal to race commissars, and then there’s Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe team taking the disqualification to the highest court in sport—the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The hope, I think, is that CAS decides that Peter gets back into the bike race. Much as I disagree with the disqualification, you can’t skip a couple days then come back in. What does Sagan say on return, “Hey boys, how y’all been?” Time to move on.
Ditto with regards to the riled-up Cavendish and Sagan fans. All the social media generated around Sagan getting tossed, by people with aliases and handles, it’s such a chicken-shit thing to do. On Twitter, all of England seems livid. Cav posted a picture of his kid yesterday, and the horrible responses from Peter Sagan fans are so uncalled for. Because Sagan and Cavendish are two of the biggest fans and champions in the sport, we’re just getting all of this needless polarization.
Personally, I think our sport could do more to make these flat days more interesting. How about a sneak listen-in of teams’ race-radios? Hear the riders communicate with the directors, or what the directors are saying to their riders. I’m a big fan of NASCAR, and you can listen in on a crew chief’s conversation. Even the guys in the broadcast booth call the drivers. It’d be fascinating to listen to some similar stuff.
Stage 5: If You Want to Win the Tour Don’t Race the Giro
Celebrated climber Nairo Quintana delivers a clinic on why Tour de France contenders should focus exclusively on the Tour. Plus, how riders can be completely tunnel visioned and remorseless. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
To me, Nairo Quintana’s Tour de France is in trouble. That’s going out on a limb, but the Colombian climber for Movistar didn’t look good on today’s 160-kilometer stage. He was punchless, which makes sense. Not long ago, he finished the three-week, 2,200-mile Giro. All these riders in the Tour who finished May’s Giro d’Italia—they’re not sharp. Sharp is what you had to be today. I was super-impressed with Fabio Aru, who broke away on that last climb, kept going, won, and is now just 14 seconds back of leader Chris Froome. Aru is absolutely an overall threat.
Back to Quintana and the Giro: Why would any rider of this generation try for a Giro-Tour double? I know there are sponsor obligations, but the Tour is so much bigger than the rest. The global exposure for the Tour is like 100 times more than anything else. It’s all we cared about when I raced. People in the United States—hell, they don’t even know what the Tour of Italy is. Quintana finishes second at the Giro, and we’re now seeing who is going to contest for the yellow jersey. Not looking good for Quintana.
The other day I wondered aloud if sprinters get scared, and then ex-pro and sprinter Greg Henderson direct-messaged me. He said that 5k to 2k from the finish is freaking scary. He also said that in the end you don’t think consciously, it’s all adrenaline. That got me thinking again about Sagan. I’m still mad. Go back and look at it in slow motion. He didn’t knock down Cav with his elbow. Sprinters, adrenaline, obliviousness, mayhem. Did I mention that I disagree with Sagan getting kicked out of the Tour?
Meanwhile yesterday, Démare completely chops Bouhanni. Bouhanni has to stop his sprint. Go back and look at that. Nobody did, because everyone was too busy looking at the Cavendish yard sale. No apologies asked of Démare.
Tomorrow, 216 flat kilometers into Troyes. Kittel. Again.
Stage Four: I Can’t Believe They Kicked Him Out of the Tour
Cycling mega-star Peter Sagan gets tossed from the Tour for his part in a controversial crash at the end of the 207 km race into Vittel. Plus: Why pro cyclists need to tell the sport what they need—or just stop riding. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on.
Let me just say that I don’t agree with Sagan getting disqualified. I totally don’t agree with it. The race has lost its biggest star. Sagan is the wheelies, he’s the hair. He’s the biggest name in this sport by a factor of…a lot.
What went down? Watch it yourself here (overhead shot; from the front). But basically, with maybe 300 meters to go, the sprint was on. While Frenchman Arnaud Démare clearly was positioned to win, about five other riders were also right there. Mark Cavendish thought his best line was up the right, between Sagan and the barriers. Something happened between him, the barriers, and Sagan, and Cav went down, causing two riders behind him to endo. The big wreck had everyone quickly asking two questions: Did Sagan hold his line? Once the sprint starts you have to hold your line, and go straight. Second, and really more importantly: Did Sagan throw an elbow—an elbow that caused Cavendish to crash? The elbow is what gets you kicked out of the Tour.
I’ve watched the replay over and over, and from every angle. And I’ve been reading all the Tweets. Hincapie thought it was dirty. Other insiders called it an act of violence, while some took the position that this is bike racing, shit happens. What I see? The elbow came after Cavendish was already on his way to the ground. When you’re sprinting you want space, and if you don’t keep it someone will take it—so riders’ elbows are often out. And it’s Sagan’s style to sprint elbows out, anyway. I’m 100 percent sure that the elbow did not cause the crash, and after the race Sagan even went straight to Cavendish’s bus to check on him. There are guys in the peloton who would take a foot out of the pedal and kick you if they could. My sense is Sagan is not a nasty rider. Yes, his team will appeal, but it won’t work. I can’t believe they kicked him out of the Tour. That is fucked up.
Everyone has been going crazy about all the crashes in this Tour, about narrow sprints and concerns over corners. I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again, right now: the riders need to get their shit together, and get a seat at the table with the Tour organizers and members of the sport’s governing body. They need a union. A real union. Not some email address. Full confession: If I think back to the early 2000s, I probably had the ability to galvanize that effort, and I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it because I was thinking about me, and I was thinking about my team, and I didn’t care about other teams. It’s going to take somebody to come in and say, we are unified, and these are the conditions we want. We matter the most. Not Christian Prudhomme and Brian Cookson, who are back there sipping champagne. They don’t matter. Also—let’s not kid ourselves. You could have a course that all the stakeholders approve of, and still have happen what happened today.
Tomorrow is going to be a real shakeup, hopefully for what happens on the bikes. It’s a shorter stage at 160 kilometers, and there’s a minor climb before—bam!—they hit La Planche des Belles Filles. That climb has chunks of 11 and 13 percent grades, and the final kick is 20 percent. This particular Tour doesn’t have many opportunities for gaps or selections, but this is one of those stages where there will be a selection. Nairo Quintana is going to light it up. He has to, in order to take back time, and to live up to his promise that he will race aggressively and try to win this Tour.
Stage Three: Every Rider in the Tour de France Should Be on Disc Brakes
Peter Sagan won the Tour’s 212-kilometer stage three, despite coming out of his pedal in the final straight. On the subject of equipment, a gnawing question that’s emerging from this Tour: Why isn’t the entire pro peloton on disc brakes? For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
Sagan dared his Tour de France competitors to challenge him today, and they tried. Near the uphill finish, Richie Porte went early, and Michael Matthews came on late. Neither succeeded. The stage wasn’t without drama though. Sagan’s foot came out of the pedal (maybe an issue with his cleats?) as he started the sprint, and for most people if that happens you’re on the ground. But Sagan is Sagan. And because the sprint was uphill and a bit slower than usual, he kept it up. You’ll want to watch it yourself:
So…speaking of equipment. Yesterday Marcel Kittel became the first rider to win a Tour stage on disc brakes. I’ve been very outspoken on the topic: I think that every rider in the Tour de France, every rider in the professional peloton, should be on disc brakes. And it will happen. Because they work better when it’s dry. And when it’s wet, disc brakes work much better.
Discs haven’t been without controversy though. People are worried about how when there’s a massive pileup those exposed rotors could cut someone pretty seriously. But there are solutions here—I mean, my motorcycle has disc brakes, and carbon covers. However most importantly, moving to disc brakes will be good for the sport. You have to remember that pro cycling is now largely supported by the industry, not big outside sponsors. We’re talking about the Cannondales, Specializeds, Canyons, Treks. These companies are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the sport, and you have to work with them. What happens when the viewer at home sees the entire peloton on discs? He says, I’ve got to get a new bike. I just don’t get it—everyone in the UCI, they’re complete dipshits when it comes to all of this. Personally, all I ride is disc brakes. I love them.
Not to say that there won’t be cooperation in the Tour. As the race goes on, we’re going to see some “arrangements,” when, in quiet ways, teams work with other teams, and riders work with other riders. Arrangements can change by the hour. Maybe one day in this Tour, Nate Brown will be in a breakaway and one of the controlling teams will agree that Nate can have the yellow jersey on that day. A little bit like, you know, Merry Christmas. But in bike racing it’s always give a favor, and you want a favor back. It gets interesting, too, when you have guys who are personal friends but on different teams. That never took precedent for me. When I raced, I always told the boys you can talk to your friends in three weeks. There are no friends here. Whatever—we’ll watch for the back-scratching.
Whether or not Richie Porte had so-called friends in today’s peloton, he raised eyebrows. He raised mine. He went too early, but I think he had the opportunity to test the legs a little, and I even thought, damn is this guy trying to win today? He looked good. I was impressed.
Tomorrow: Another lumpy stage, and 207 kilometers into Vittel. The finish is complicated. Three or four corners in the last 3 km, and it’s going to be a power sprint. Tejay van Garderen texted me—he predicts Cavendish. I’m not going with that. Kittel again.
Happy Birthday, America.
Stage Two: Do Everything Right and Still Crash
Day two could have gone better for Chris Froome, who goes down in Belgium, and gets accused of cheating. And American Taylor Phinney starts winning fans. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s reflections and predictions, keep reading:
Marcel Kittel winning today. I predicted it. Froome crashing. I didn’t predict. Couldn’t predict it. The guy did everything right and still went down. Bike racers know crashes happen at the middle, and at the back. Where was Froome with about 30 kilometers left? At the front. Well, it turns out crashes do happen at the front, too. Froome says he’s fine, and he didn’t lose any time. But you never want to hit the deck. Even minor crashes have a way of snowballing at the Tour. Say you go down and your right hip gets bruised. Suddenly, you can’t sleep on that side. After a few days, it affects your pedal style. And then maybe your left knee starts to flare. Bottom line: there’s no crash that doesn’t have any impact on a rider.
The other big topic of the day has to be the controversy about Froome’s skinsuit. I discussed that suit on the preview podcast. He and the rest of Sky are apparently coming under fire for racing with a “cheating jersey.” FDJ claimed that the skinsuit was good for 18 to 25 seconds. Meanwhile, the director of Sky says all its equipment was validated by the race commission—though you didn’t read that in the headlines. The whole story is chicken shit. You could’ve given Froome a tutu yesterday and he would’ve done the same thing.
As for Taylor Phinney? He’s clearly enjoying the race. That’s a guy who woke up today and said, I’m getting in the move today. I’m happy to see that, the toughness and panache and mixing it up. He’s impacting the race, and he’s surely getting a lot of fans. This is also his first Tour, and he’s also going to feel that long breakaway effort tomorrow.
Here’s what everyone is thinking about tomorrow: How much is Peter Sagan going to win by? Nobody in this bike race has a chance of beating him. The finish is too hard for the Kittles and the Cavs. The last 5 km of what I call a lumpy 212-kilometer stage, which starts in Belgium, runs through Luxembourg, and ends in France, are super-technical. So for the GC guys, they’re going to have to stay up front as if they’re going for the stage win. If you’re Contador or Porte or Bardet, you cannot lose time. That would be hit number two in three days.
Look at me. I’m getting cocky because I predicted the winner today.
Stage One: It’s Not Too Slippery If You Don’t Go Too Fast
From crashes to Team Sky’s dominance, there’s plenty to talk about on day one—a 14-kilometer prologue in Dusseldorf, Germany. For the full story, listen to today’s podcast. For Armstrong’s highlights and predictions, read on:
- Geraint Thomas. Nobody threw that name around. And it was an oversight. Team Sky’s Thomas is a two-time Olympic champion. He’s been around for a while—I did the Tour de France with him. He’s a strong time trialist, and really he had less to lose than the GC riders. Folks like Richie Porte looked at the rainy prologue as a risky, dangerous day with slick roads and a lot of downside. Thomas looked at it as an opportunity, and then he won. The Welshman also had the best post-race quote: “[The roads] weren't too slippery if you don't go too fast.” Some kind of weird and serious understatement.
- Everyone has to acknowledge how much time Chris Froome put into his rivals. He finished a strong sixth, and only 12 seconds behind Thomas. Four of today’s top ten finishers are with Team Sky, which sends a clear message to Porte’s BMC squad.
- Porte, my pre-race pick to win this Tour, rode tentatively for obvious reasons. But finishing 49th and 47 seconds back—35 behind Froome—is tough news. You lose 10, 12 seconds riding conservatively. But 35 seconds? That’s not being cautious. That doesn’t happen because you’re using more brakes in the corners.
- Alejandro Valverde, my dark-horse to win this Tour, is out with a broken kneecap. Overnight, the race has changed. If Froome was worried about Valverde and Quintana, he’s not now. If Porte was worried about Valverde and Quintana, he’s not now.
- Cycling needs more personalities. So big congrats to Taylor Phinney today. He’s one of only three Americans in the race, and he’s a nice kid and someone who’s actually fun to watch. He kept it upright today and finished 12th, in the first stage of his first-ever Tour.
Tomorrow: Belgium, and 203 kilometers. A day for sprinters, and I’m going with Marcel Kittel. He’s German but would love to win in front of a Belgian crowd, and rides for a Belgian team. Quick-Step is designed to escort Kittel almost all the way to the finish line. And right now that dude is fast. If Kittel takes the intermediate sprints and nabs the finish, he could also be in yellow tomorrow.
Tour de France Preview
As the world’s greatest riders prepare to put shoe to pedal, here’s what Armstrong has to say about his approach and expectations.
OUTSIDE: You remain persona non grata at the Tour, and not long ago you were more runner than cyclist. So why a podcast about the Tour de France?
LANCE ARMSTRONG: Two things: I found that I’ve really enjoyed hosting the Forward [Armstrong’s year-old, weekly podcast]. And not to sound corny, but not long ago I fell back in love with the bike. I’d been running a lot and overdid it. My left and right psoas muscles got really pissed off. I thought, I’ll start riding again, until the injury heals up. Then I got back on the bike and thought, “Wow, I’m digging this.”
Translation: You’re riding a lot?
When I’m in Austin [Armstrong’s hometown], it’s 90 percent road riding. When I’m in Aspen [Armstrong’s retreat], it’s 90 percent mountain biking. I enjoy riding with the young guys, too—like Nate Brown and Lawson Craddock. I can’t go toe-to-toe with them, but I can hang for six hours in the group. They’re fair to me. They’re sweet and respectable kids.
Apparently you’ve warmed back up to the Tour, too.
I spent several years not watching it at all. You won’t even hear my name mentioned by the announcers, which is so classic—and as a rider it’s such a grind. But then last year I watched some, and it was high entertainment. The huge banner falling down on the course one kilometer from the [Stage 7] finish. The complete lack of crowd control on Mont Ventoux, and Froome running. I mean shit, that is content gold.
Spoken like a true entertainment exec. Or, for that matter, an aspiring podcaster.
Yes, I think more that way. The actors who make up the play. The dynamics of the race. How the actors act.
How do you see the 2017 Tour de France unfolding?
It’s a very atypical Tour in that it lacks long time trials and a lot of uphill finishes. The total elevation gains are relatively low. That Düsseldorf prologue [Stage 1] could easily be in the pouring rain, and then they’re in Belgium and Luxembourg. Any time the Tour goes outside of France the crowds alongside the road are about 10x of what you find in France. Crazy. Then they’re in a part of France that’s a complicated place—twisty and rainy. In the first week, it’s going to be race over for some people who thought they’d be in contention.
So who will transcend all of those challenges, and shine for another two weeks? Your favorites?
The odds-on favorite is Richie Porte, if he can race smart. Plus, let’s see if his team can manage the race. I would bet my life on Sagan winning the green jersey.
Back to the yellow jersey for a sec. Porte, in a landslide?
No. Froome is number two, and very well may win. My dark horse, and he could certainly pull it out, is Alejandro Valverde. You can’t get rid of Valverde. He won’t have any difficulty navigating the first week’s highly technical parts. He knows what the fuck he’s doing.
You’re not showing much love for Valverde’s teammate, Colombian climbing great and 2013 Tour winner Nairo Quintana. No way?
I don’t know, this might be the kick in the ass Quintana needs to make true accelerations, not to be conservative. This is not a route for the conservative. Anybody that wants to be conservative in this Tour de France? They’re racing for 10th place.