Nantes, France — Asking Lance Armstrong to hold himself back is like asking a bull not to charge at a red cape. But in the hours prior to Saturday's final individual time trial, I implored him to be careful.
Winning the Tour de France overall was more important than winning the time trial. Even though Armstrong had won the final time trial in each of his four previous Tour wins, all he needed to do Saturday was match Jan Ullrich and retain his 1-minute, 7-second advantage over the German.
When we talked before the time trial, I told Lance to remember that Ullrich was the one who had to take all the risks. He was the one who was more than a minute behind, and if he wanted Lance's jersey, he was going to have to take huge risks to get it. I believed Ullrich would start fast, in an effort to make Armstrong panic and ride harder than he could maintain, so I reminded Armstrong to ride his own race and push himself to his limits, not Ullrich's.
Beyond pushing his limits physically, I knew Ullrich would take huge risks in the corners and traffic circles that punctuated the final 10 miles of the time trial course. When you are racing against the clock and searching for seconds, you try to take corners as fast and as close to the curb as possible. On a warm and sunny day with dry pavement, it would have been safe to ride as fast as possible from start to finish. The steady rain falling Saturday complicated issues by making the tarmac very slick. Add plenty of painted crosswalks, some short sections of cobblestone, and a few rail crossings, and the riders faced a very tricky and dangerous 30.4-mile ride to the finish line.
Both Ullrich and the winner of the stage, Britain's David Millar, crashed during the time trial. They were pursuing goals that required them to push the limits of safety, and they paid the price. Thankfully, neither man was injured, and they quickly got back on their machines to continue racing. For Ullrich, though, the crash stole his momentum and marked the end of his challenge for the yellow jersey.
Armstrong, on the road three minutes behind the German, knew about the roundabout Ullrich crashed in; he had seen it earlier in the morning on a reconnaissance trip. The German, on the other hand, viewed a videotape of the course prepared by his team director. Knowing how slick the tarmac was in that roundabout, and that Ullrich had crashed there a few minutes earlier, Armstrong backed off the throttle and rode gingerly through the area. You lose far less time slowing down for corners than when you crash and have to get back on your bike. Once he was back on straight roads, Armstrong quickly accelerated back to full speed.
Once Ullrich crashed, the pressure was off Armstrong. Starting with a 1:07 lead over the German, all he had to do was match Ullrich's speed and keep his lead. A crash in the final six miles potentially could have led Armstrong to lose his lead, and even worse, sent him home a day early with an injury. Since he and Ullrich were almost even on time when Ullrich crashed, Armstrong could afford to slow down slightly and be more cautious in corners during the final part of the race.
Some may ask why Armstrong didn't slow down out of sportsmanship for Ullrich, like the German did on the climbing stage to Luz Ardiden when Armstrong crashed. Races like yesterday's individual time trial are individual events. The riders start alone, at three-minute intervals, and the man who records the fastest time to the finish line wins. Armstrong crashed during a road stage, where all the competitors start together and ride in a pack. During road races, riders are competing directly against each other, searching for weaknesses and exploiting them to ride away and gain time on one another. Ullrich waited for Armstrong to rejoin the pack because the right way to win is by being a stronger rider than another man, not by attacking him while he is lying on the ground. In a time trial, you are riding against the clock and cannot even see the other riders. You ride as fast as you can, taking the risks you deem appropriate, from start to finish.
The final individual time trial was the last major obstacle in Lance Armstrong's bid for a fifth consecutive Tour de France victory. With a 1:16 lead going into today final stage, there won't be any major challenges coming from Ullrich. Even if the German were to win both intermediate sprints and the stage, he would only gain 32 bonus seconds, far fewer than he needs to take the yellow jersey. The final stage of the Tour de France is traditionally a processional, the race protagonists concede victory to the man who starts the stage in the yellow jersey, and the only heated racing comes from the sprinters as they charge up and down the Champs-Elysees.
The Tour de France, however, is not over until the riders cross the finish line today. In a race where we have already seen several bizarre occurrences, I won't say Armstrong has won his fifth Tour de France until I see him raise his hands from the podium. Until then, anything can happen, and there is bound to be at least one more surprise before this whole race is over.
-- Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong's coach since 1990. Carmichael is writing a twice-weekly column for the Associated Press during the Tour de France.