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By Chris Carmichael
We’ve been talking for weeks about the relative strengths of the teams contesting the 2004 Tour de France, but when it comes right down to it, there’s a point when the team leader has to step up and deliver the goods. When that time arrived during Stage 12, some men rose to the occasion and others faded dramatically.
Lance Armstrong has been looking forward to the stages to LaMongie and Plateau de Beille for a long time. He has been victorious before on these climbs, he knows them well, and he knows how to exploit their slopes to his advantage.
Prior to the stage, the US Postal Service team’s plan was to ride the stage in a similar fashion as the stage to LaMongie in 2002. The climb to LaMongie is difficult, but it is not well suited to explosive attacks because the pitch is consistent and the relatively long stretches of straight road make it difficult to get out of sight. The Postal plan of attack was to keep the pace as high as possible, as long as possible, in order to apply enormous pressure on everyone else in the race. As we saw in 2002, the lead peloton quickly disintegrated, although this time it was Jose Azevedo driving the pace rather than Roberto Heras. Further down the slopes, Armstrong’s former lieutenant was suffering, perhaps under the pressure of being a team leader.
Suffering nearby were the team leaders of T-Mobile and Phonak, and all their teammates could do was watch their leaders struggle. There are a wide variety of possible reasons behind the difficulties Jan Ullrich and Tyler Hamilton experienced today, including the weather. After climbing the Col d’Aspin in rain and the cold descent to the base of LaMongie, the sun came out and the temperatures increased as the lead group started climbing toward the finish line.
With the sun beating down, the final climb quickly turned into a sauna. The riders had to push through heavy, humid, sticky air to get to the finish, and those are conditions in which some riders thrive and others wilt. As Ullrich, Hamilton, Heras and others struggled, Armstrong pushed forward with the young and talented Ivan Basso from the CSC team. Basso’s performance confirmed the potential he’s shown over the past few years, and if he continues to ride as well as he did today, he may challenge for a position on the final podium.
Knowing he already had a reasonable lead over his main rivals, Armstrong did not put everything he had into the final ascent to the finish line. While he may have been able to gain a little bit more time over his main rivals, going all-out and digging deep into his energy reserves would have cost him a great deal of additional energy and he wouldn’t have increased his time gains very much. He was better off conserving some of that energy for tomorrow’s very difficult stage to Plateau de Beille. Today we didn’t see the best performances from Ullrich, Hamilton, Mayo, or Heras, but Armstrong knows they are likely to find their climbing legs very soon. He has a reasonable lead over his rivals tonight, but he needs to be prepared to rise to the occasion when and if Ullrich finds a way to unleash the full power we know he possesses. One thing’s for sure, the results from Stage 13 will be more telling than the results from this afternoon.