The Ride of Lance Armstrong's Life
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With the race coming down to just seconds, the smallest adjustments in preparation can make the difference. Some athletes might cheat to get that edge: Eight elite cyclists have died since January 2003 from heart failure, possibly due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as EPO; 26 cyclists are currently suspended from the sport for drug use, and Lance himself has become the self-proclaimed "most tested athlete on this planet."

Lance and his support network have taken a more legal approach. Right after the 2003 Tour, U.S. Postal Service team president Bart Knaggs brought together all of Lance's various equipment manufacturers – Trek, Shimano, Hed, Giro, Nike – to work as a single unit. It was an unprecedented move. Dubbed F-One, the project has produced a narrower bike, a cleaner, lower frontal body position, and a more aerodynamic racing suit and helmet, which could help Lance gain seconds in the time trials (see "Well Equipped," below). The new gear has been touted by some insiders as the cornerstone of his preparations for this year's Tour, but the truth is more complicated than that. "I always say you win the Tour de France in the mountains, not the time trials," explains Carmichael. In other words, the seconds all this new technology will shave off Lance's time trials will be crucial, but the differences in the climbs could be even bigger. Just as important, all this technological wizardry can give Lance a psychological advantage. Making his opponents worry that he has an edge can be as valuable as having that edge.

Potentially more significant than F-One is a program that addresses the dehydration problem that almost cost Armstrong last year's race on Stage 12. "I was chronically dehydrated from the beginning of the Tour, and even before that," he recalls. "I would drink water all day long and still not be hydrated. My bladder was hydrated, but not my cells."

There are several factors that may have led to Lance's dehydration. Carmichael blames it on having pushed too hard in the Dauphiné Libéré, an eight-day preparation race that Lance won that June. On top of that there's the fact that France suffered a heat wave last summer that ended up killing as many as 15,000 people. There was also Lance's pre-Tour bout with gastroenteritis. And Lance himself thinks that his dehydration could have been due to the toxic platinum-based chemotherapy he underwent during his cancer treatment in late 1996. Regardless, he and Carmichael decided they had to do something to make sure it wouldn't happen again. The coach believes he has found the answer in a new glovelike device from a company called AVAcore that lowers your core body temperature (and hence reduces the chance of dehydration) by pulling heat from blood vessels in your palm. Carmichael has been testing the unit for the past year, and he's ready to use it before key stages in this year's Tour, having Lance wear the glove for a few minutes between warm-up sessions on a stationary bike. At the starting line Lance's muscles will be warm but his core will be cool.

There's one more thing Lance is banking on this year: his excessive attention to detail. Contrary to the rumors, the truth is that he's training harder than ever. In preparation for the critical uphill time trial at the Alpe d'Huez, Lance rode up and down the mountain 10 times in May alone, studying every bend, gauging the best line to use through the corners, checking where to shift gears before the steepest grades, and looking for flatter sections where he'll be able to crank back momentarily to conserve energy. He has also made reconnaissance trips to all of this year's other mountain climbs and has ridden around the Stage 19 time trial course at Besançon and over the cobblestone sections in Stage 3. Even when he's hanging around Europe with Crow he rides every day and discusses his fitness and training plans with Carmichael. There have been some adjustments to fit Lance's hectic schedule, of course (and, to be sure, he's taken criticism from some fans who say he's become too wrapped up in being a celebrity), but Carmichael swears it hasn't affected the results. He cites an altitude camp that was originally planned for the mountains outside Silver City, New Mexico. When Lance decided he'd rather train out of Crow's house in L.A., they simply moved the entire operation west. "A lot of the climbs we had to drive to," Carmichael says, "but it was fine. He's never like, 'Okay, cut it short because we're going to a party.' He trains flat-out."

Tour de France race director Jean-Marie Leblanc doesn't doubt it. Lance's obsessiveness, he says, sets him apart not only from his current competitors but from the past five-time champions. "Lance is the greatest professional that I have seen," Leblanc says, "from his preparation to his training, intelligence, research – everything. That's why I believe that he will be the first man to win six. He's a perfectionist."