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Armstrong talks about the people behind the scenes who have helped him win three consecutive Tours de France
By John Wilcockson
When you watch him slicing his way through the field on another solo attackto a mountaintop finish, it’s easy to forget that there’s much more toLance Armstrong’s stunning Tour victories than a lone rider battling arugged climb. Granted, if he didn’t have his genes or genius, he wouldn’thave the potential to pull off those remarkable feats. But behind the manis a whole team of consultants, colleagues and friends who help Armstrongexcel in every sphere of matters Tour de France.
In some ways, he has put together a high-profile company that has asingle mission: to win the Tour de France. That becomes clear when, oneevening in April, he begins talking about his group of experts. Appropriately,he’s sitting at a corner table in a four-star hotel room normally frequentedby businessmen who ply the highways of the European Community. Armstronghimself has just flown in from his base in Gerona, Spain, on his executivejet, and he’ll be flying back the next evening. In between, besides doingthis interview, he’ll be competing in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, a 264km,seven-hour World Cup race. Not your typical businessman.
And not your typical bike racer.
As a TV high above the closet silently relates CNN’s 9:30 p.m. newsbulletin, Armstrong sits relaxed by a window, at one point sliding it opento let in a cool draft of rural air. As the name of each of his helpersis spoken, he thinks for a moment, then gives a solid appraisal, like aCEO discussing the performance of his key employees. And, make no mistake,Mr. Lance Edward Armstrong is the boss.
He has eight immediate teammates to help him during the Tour de France,but there are twice that number who collaborate with Armstrong all yearlong — from mechanics to massage, from making deals to making meals, fromaltitude training to aerodynamics. But we start at the bottom, with Armstrong’sfeet. His podiatrist lives in Boulder, Colorado. His name is Russell Bollig.
“I have a bad sesamoid bone on my right foot, so it’s real criticalthat I have good orthotics, that the orthotics fit in the shoe and everythingfits together,” Armstrong explains. “Finding a good pair of orthotics hasbeen [what] seems like a lifetime pursuit. The pair that I just came outof … were five years old. They were terrible.
“But Bolig’s stuff is nice. I mean, he was nice enough [to come] downto Austin with all his equipment…. We went back and forth on differentgenerations of orthotics, different materials, a little more here, a littleless there. So far, they work pretty good.”
So we have the orthotics that fit into the Nike shoes, which fit into— what? Is he still riding the same old pair of Shimano pedals?
“I’m just off them,” he says, doing a quick calculation. “What am I?Thirty? I bet you I started on those pedals when I was 14, 15. So it’sbeen 15 or 16 years. And the only real time off of them was a little bitof time that I rode in ’97 on Time pedals, because Cofidis had Time. ButI’ve finally changed.”
Does he like the new ones from Shimano?“I like ’em, yeah,” he says, his face lighting up. “Lighter, just asstiff, straight on the axle, lowered the seat 7 millimeters. Nearly ruinedmy TT bike. I didn’t have 7 millimeters.”
Armstrong then relates what happened at the previous weekend’s CritériumInternational, a two-day race that closes with an individual time trial.His team U.S. Postal Service mechanic Jean-Marc Vandenberge had to takedrastic action with the Trek time-trial bike.
“Two hours before the start,” Armstrong continues, “Jean-Marc was inmy room, the TT bike on the rollers. We were trying out the seat height’cause I hadn’t raced it since the new pedals. He’s in there carving it,to get the seat down….”
Carving the frame?
“Yeah. The seat was already all the way down with the old pedals, andthen we took the seven mills out with the new pedal. Yeah, it was prettyfunny.”
Will he use that bike for the Tour?
“I like that bike. I mean, once I get one I like … but I might get anew one, I don’t know. Next guy.”
The next guy on the list is John Cobb, an aerodynamicist and mechanicalgenius who Armstrong has known since he converted from triathlon to cyclingin his late teens.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel at Texas A&M, whichis actually really close to where I live,” says Armstrong. “So it’s alwaysbeen really easy for us to get together and try things out there. [He’sa] person I trust … absolutely … when it comes to position, equipment,aerodynamics. [He’s] been around other things that involve aerodynamics:motorcycles, cars … it’s not just a triathlon bar or a helmet. If we didn’ttalk aerodynamics, then we’d sit around and talk about the Dallas Cowboys.”
Yes, Armstrong is originally from Dallas and remains a big footballfan. But swimming, running and then triathlon were his sports. He’s remindedthat when he started cycling his back made a big hump when he was in atime-trial position. Today, his back is much more level. Has that meantdoing things physically to correct that?
Before he can answer, there’s a knock at the door. It’s teammate GeorgeHincapie, asking Lance to come to his room to pose for a photo with somefriends. After another interruption a few minutes later, Armstrong hangsthe “Do Not Disturb” tag on his door.
He returns to the subject of the hump. “Is it flatter than it used tobe?” he asks. “Oh, it is? Good.” He then explains how Cobb has helped hisTT position. “I think that was the idea behind the [aerodynamic Giro] helmet.The helmet was Cobb’s baby, as well, because he found it. Both things worked.The traditional aero’ helmet just sticking straight up was also fast. Sohe combined ’em…. But John always thought there was nothing we could doabout the back. So we kind of worked with it. Maybe I’ve gone lower andfurther out, and [moved my] elbows closer together. I can get rid of thehump, but I completely have to rotate my pelvis, where I wouldn’t be ableto pedal.”
Armstrong then explains what he does in training to help him hold thesomewhat unnatural TT position. Rather surprisingly, he says, “I don’thave a hard time transitioning between the time-trial bike and the roadbike [because] I train so much on the time-trial bike. There’ll be weekswhere I’ll do four days on the road bike, three days on the TT bike [so]my body and my back and my legs are used to going back and forth. And,especially now, I’ll do climbing with my time-trial bike…. Not worryingabout speed or anything else, but in the TT position, proper cadence, butclimbing. Real long climbs, 10K climbs.”
What’s the reason for that?
“For me, at least, the TT position isn’t natural, it’s uncomfortableand a lot of time you want to get up, want to get out of the saddle, youwant to move. And it really forces you — if you can do a climb in thatposition, repeat climbs, day in, day out — then when you get into a flatTT, it’s a little easier.”
Armstrong starts drumming his fingers on the table, a nervous habitthat emphasizes the pent-up energy that always seems to exude from hislean, muscular body. We go on to another member of Armstrong’s aero’ group,
Steve Hed, who he has known since 1987.
“Somebody again I trust. Hed, in my opinion, only makes products thathe has found through research and through testing to really work. No gimmicks — just fast equipment, fast wheels.”
And what about the aerobars that Hed has been developing? “We’re stillworking on that,” Armstrong replies. “They’re not ready yet. At the Criterium[International], I was still riding last year’s bars [made by Vision TechUSA].”
From bikes, the subject turns to bodies and the team chiropractor, JeffSpencer. “Hmmm. [He’s] really more of a physical therapist,” says Armstrong,“somebody that I spend a lot of time with at the Tour — less now from arepair standpoint, but more from just a stretching, ritual standpoint.I probably spend a part of the morning with him before the stage, and thenpart of the evening with him, after everything, after massage, dinner,back to the room. So my last probably 30 to 40 minutes before I go to bedare spent with him. Just to look over everything — and I go after all theguys go, ’cause during the Tour I actually stay up a little later thanI normally do, ’cause I like to sleep from 12 to 9.”
Is there something specific that has helped? “You know, the thing wealways joke about is I get this left hip, [which] got flopped, and he alwaysfixes the left hip block. Lower back.”He cracks it? “No, he pulls it…. Like I always say, ‘I need a littleleg pull.’ It’s not like, ‘Okay, here’s a neck, kkkk, here’s the back,kkkk.’ He doesn’t do any of that unless he absolutely has to. In fact,I hate that stuff. Sometimes my neck will act up and I’ll need that…. Wehave a serious deal that, before he does that, I get plenty of warning,’cause … it scares me, that move. I can imagine just not getting up fromthat.”Armstrong may be frightened of bone cracking, but there are no competitorshe’s scared of. One man who has helped him develop his confidence is hispersonal coach, Chris Carmichael. More than a coach, actually; “Chris ismy main confidant,” Armstrong says. “Our relationship has grown and evolvedover the years, because we started out as just this national team coach[and] national team rider.
He’s become one of my best friends, and somebody that I talk to allthe time. [We] talk about everything.“I think everybody knows that when I was sick, he was very close…. Iwould probably list him as my No. 1 confidant, the first person that toldme I could win the Tour de France. I thought he was crazy…. [It was atthe Settimana] Bergamasca in ’91.”Carmichael is also the man who plans Armstrong’s training schedule,adjusting it almost daily. His race calendar, on the other hand, is workedout with the Postal team directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel. This formerBelgian racer joined Postal at the end of 1998, and soon convinced Armstrongthat Carmichael’s prediction was right: He could win the Tour. “Johan isthe logistics guy behind everything,” says Armstrong. “We talk 365 daysa year, and on most of those days it’s four of five times, could be asmany as 10. Again, he’s a really good friend.”Besides running the team, Bruyneel plays a major role in Armstrong’spreparations for the Tour, and in the race itself he is constantly relayinginformation and tactical advice to his team leader. “Johan’s an informationjunkie,” Armstrong continues. “In the race, with the radios — if they work— he is very good. Not only in the road stages, but also in the time trials.“Just as an example, we were in Lorient last week, to see this TT course[stage 9 of the 2002 Tour]. It’s not a very hard course, it just kind ofrolls, but there’s one little section where you’re getting close to thecoast and it starts to open up, and there’s a long drag — probably a Kand a half, 2K. If you come into that thing a little bit behind, a littlebit on the rivet, you will pay. Especially if it’s windy. You could lose30 seconds.“So the other day, after I saw this the first time, I said, ‘Shit, thisis hard.’ I did it again. ‘This is really hard, or could be hard.’ I wentback to the car and said to Johan, ‘Just remember this hill and rememberthe town it comes after … and in the race, remind me on the radio thatthis thing’s coming up.’”Warming to the subject, Armstrong reminds himself what he’ll be thinkingat about 4:45 p.m. on July 15 as he races toward Guidel in Brittany: “A[kilometer] before the town, lighten the gear, take the turns easy, getready and then just hit this thing hard.” Armstrong claps his hands foremphasis. “And Johan will remember that.”When Bruyneel can’t help, Armstrong can call on other cycling expertssuch as the controversial Italian sports doctor and trainer, Dr. MicheleFerrari. One instance of Ferrari’s help came during stage 15 of the 2000Tour de France, just after rival Marco Pantani attacked Armstrong on theclimb to the finish at Courchevel. How did Ferrari help, and did he reallyspeak to Bruyneel on his cell phone that day?“[Ferrari] can tell you how really fast we’re riding, based on whatthey call VAM — the rate of ascension. The point being, yeah, Johan hadthat conversation. Obviously it wasn’t good to let Pantani go, but howfast was he really going? How long could he sustain that? And Ferrari wouldknow the answers, because he is above all, in my opinion, a mathematician.A brilliant mathematician … with a ton of experience.”In describing Ferrari, Armstrong says, “Michele’s a bright, bright manwho’s brutally honest.” He then goes on at length in defense of his relationshipwith the Italian doctor who has been accused of doping practices with hisriders. (For more of Armstrong’s comments on Ferrari, see the July 2issue of VeloNews — Ed).Besides the consultants, Armstrong relies heavily on certain peoplein the Postal team. One is Vandenberge, a Belgian bike mechanic who waspreviously with the Deutsche Telekom team.“It’s my second year with him,” says the Tour champion. “He spent alot of years with Riis and Zabel and Ullrich. Best mechanic I’ve workedwith. Easy guy to work with, very quiet, open, free thinker, motivatedto do things the way we do them.“For example, when we went to Lorient last week, it was Johan and Iand Jean-Marc. He just loves little missions like that. Riis was like that,always messing with his position — ‘Let’s try this, let’s try that’— and[Jean-Marc] likes that.”Another close colleague, also Belgian, is the team’s head soigneur,Freddy Viaene. “I’ve known Freddy since ’92,” says Armstrong. “At the Tour,he works on me about an hour a night. Whenever I get back, I have somecarbo … some potatoes or something. Then I have massage before dinner.It’s nice to be around somebody that you’ve known for 10 years. He’s themost passionate soigneur I’ve ever been around. Absolutely in love withhis job. He gets nervous he’s so passionate about it.”Does Armstrong use his soigneur as a psychotherapist, as many ridersdo, to talk about problems? “I don’t like to talk at all during massage.I prefer to lay down and just relax.“Another thing about massage is I think it’s good to change it up alittle bit, too. I think it would be a mistake to go every day to the sameperson. During the Tour, I always go to the same person, but last weekat Criterium [International], Freddy wasn’t there. So [I had] a littledifferent massage, a little different rhythm, just a little different stroke.I think that’s healthy.”Another who Armstrong describes as “critical” is Willy Balmat, a feistySwiss chef in his 60s, who first came to the Tour with the Motorola teamin the early ’90s. “His role [has] become more and more important, because… people say you need to really watch every aspect of something like thekitchen. When you’re trying to get some sort of a streak going, you don’twant to have a stomach bug, or you don’t want somebody doing somethingto your food. And I won’t eat anything that Willy doesn’t prepare.“[At first], these French kitchens would [only] allow him to cook thepasta. And now, since people are a little bit more excited that we’re there,they’ll allow him to cook the chicken or the meat or whatever … at leasta few pieces. And so I’ll eat that.“His food is … rich. And if you’re trying before the mountains, the10 days before, trying to lose a kilo, you wouldn’t do it. So I have tosay to Willy: ‘Easy on the cheese, easy on the olive oil.’ He makes greatrisottos, great pastas. And he’s a great storyteller … the best. I can’ttell the stories,” says Armstrong, chuckling.While not always on the road with Armstrong, there are other men whoare essential to his well being, both business- and morale-wise. The firstis Bill Stapleton, a Texas attorney before he became the Tour champion’sagent in 1995.“Stapleton?” he muses. “Umm, the business manager, the one who I trustwith managing all the relationships that we might have. Everything fromthe Postal Service to a Nike to a Trek to an Oakley to a Shimano. Everybody.He’s the only agent I’ve ever had.“He’s not a real slick sales guy, but if somebody calls with some interest….He’s very, very intelligent … went to the University of Texas law schooland business school all at the same time. Again, like Chris, like Johan,got to be a great friend. We go play golf together, have a beer together,go on vacation together.”Then there is team owner Thom Weisel, the San Francisco millionairemerchant banker and former national masters cycling champion, who in 1990started Subaru-Montgomery, the team that morphed into U.S. Postal Service.“Thom is a very successful, shrewd, tough, driven person,” says Armstrong.“Everything for him is a competition — if it’s investment banking … a biketeam … driving home from downtown San Francisco to Ross and somebody comesbowling by in a Porsche. He’s invested a lot in cycling, and I think it’sgreat that he has this now.”Ironically, now working for Thomas Weisel Partners as a vice presidentis one of Armstrong’s closest confidants, Jim Ochowicz, who was the managerof the 7-Eleven and Motorola teams through 1996. Och’, as everyone callshim, has remained close to Armstrong and his young family.“Och’ is Luke’s godfather,” says Armstrong, “the first person that puta bunch of faith in me as a rider, built the team around me, really believedthat I was a good bike rider. The closest friend when I was sick. And stillto this day, we talk three or four times a week. Probably the nicest managerever in cycling. The most honest, most ethical, most correct person inprofessional cycling ever. Maybe too nice.”
Another confidant is five-time Tour champion Eddy Merckx. “Outsideof being the greatest cyclist in the world,” Armstrong says, “Eddy’s justa really good friend of mine. Sounds odd saying that, but the whole family— Eddy, Claudine, Axel, Sabrina, Sabrina’s husband, Sabrina’s kids — they’relike family. I’ll never forget after I won the ’99 Tour, I was doing somecriteriums in that area, Belgium, Holland, and I said, ‘Hey, do you guysmind if I stay here?’ And they said, ‘Sure.’ So I just stayed with Eddyand Claudine for a week. I could have stayed in the nicest hotel … butI just wanted to be at home. Home-cooked meal, laundry and a comfortablebed. And that’s it. Eddy and I would sit around and joke and laugh…. [ThenI’d] do the crit at night, get back at 12 or 12:30, and Claudine wouldhave a full spread of food waiting.”Then there is Texas businessman Jeff Garvey, who has become the executivedirector of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which raises millions of dollarsfor cancer research. “First, Garvey [is] probably the most generous personI’ve ever been around,” says Armstrong. “Second, Johan has named him theofficial time-trial timekeeper. He has to be in all cars for all Tour deFrance time trials. He was in Metz , Futuroscope  and bothtime trials last year. Johan will follow a couple of guys and keeps splitsevery 5K, 10K. So it’s Garvey’s job to take [my] time splits and not screwthem up.”Asked if anyone has been forgotten, Armstrong mentions his wife Kristin.“She’s my best and closest teammate,” he says. “That sounds corny, I know,but for someone who doesn’t come from cycling, she sure knows a helluvalot about what I do. And knows what it takes to be — to try to be the best.Now our house is full of kids. Luke is at an age where he bounces off everywall, all day long. And then the girls, four or five months old, one screamsthen the other screams, and they get each other screaming. And then youadd me, the biggest kid of them all. She does an amazing job juggling itall.“You overhear stories [when] guys are away — maybe the wife will beasking, why are you leaving again or why do you have to be gone so much?My wife has never said that. She is totally supportive. A true champ.”Armstrong is ready to continue, but he probably has a few e-mails toanswer before business concludes for the night. There’s a bike race inthe morning.