Lance Armstrong’s Winning Secrets

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Restart training, November 1: check. Informal camp with new Discovery Channel team in Austin, early December: check. Four-hour rides in the Texas hill country: check. Two-hour weight-training sessions: check. Lance Armstrong’s winter doesn’t look much different from those of the past six years, the years in which he set an early course for July’s Tour de France and won it every time. You might think he’d be a bit more relaxed this winter, what with that record-sixth-win monkey off his back.

But, Lance told me recently, “it’s a full-time, 12-month commitment.” So what’s all this training leading up to? He won’t say yet whether he’ll attempt an unprecedented seventh Tour de France win, but, considering his other plans, it’s likely. “I will not be riding the Giro d’Italia,” he announced to me. He calls Italy “a country where it’s apparently illegal to race your bike,” referring to ongoing legal snarls with Italian rider Filippo Simeoni. Instead, Lance says, he’ll focus first on Europe’s spring classics. “I’m really inspired to do a good Tour of Flanders,” he says. “It’s a beautiful race and truly one of the hardest of the year. People don’t expect me to win that one.” Indeed, its mostly flat course is more challenging for Lance because it doesn’t allow him to crush rivals on mountains the way he does on the Tour. But, “He’s definitely capable of it,” says Chris Carmichael, Lance’s coach since 1991.

Then again, what isn’t he capable of? Here are the five keys to being a winner, Lance Armstrong-style.

Way back, long before the six tour wins, years before his battle with cancer, and even before he became a pro cyclist, a 17-year-old Lance told me, “The only thing that counts is winning, and if something goes wrong I get furious.” He was talking about having taken second at the finals of the 1986 IronKids Triathlon Championships three years earlier. Most kids that age would have been thrilled to finish second at a national competition, but Lance’s intense eyes stared off into infinity, his taut body screaming with frustration. He had been, he said, “pretty bummed out.”

That unwillingness to accept anything short of victory, that underlying fury, is a fundamental building block of Lance’s bottomless motivation (and, studies have shown, in the motivation of many winners), and you can see it still in everything he does in life, from driving a car to battling cancer to, of course, racing. Take the 160-mile Liège–Bastogne–Liège classic in April 2003: A 31-year-old Lance made a bold attack and appeared to be headed for victory – until a small group of riders caught and passed him with four miles to go. On finishing 50 seconds behind the winner, a stone-faced Armstrong stalked straight to his team bus with nary a word for reporters. How does he keep summoning that intensity even now, after all his success? Quite simply, says teammate Floyd Landis, Lance’s man Friday at the 2004 Tour, “He’s obsessed with winning.”BE PATIENT
Clearly, getting mad is not enough to always chalk up a W. What Lance needed to transform himself from that young runner-up into an unbeatable force was to learn to hold it in, to let the fire burn without torching everything else. “A bike racer is like a gas tank,” he was told by former national champion Wayne Stetina. “And if you step on the gas too much, too soon, you end up on empty.”

It was a lesson that hit home for Lance. When he quit triathlons to focus on cycling, at age 17, he found himself beating up on American junior cyclists almost immediately. But on the world stage, at the Junior World Championship in 1989, he steamed ahead in the early miles of the race and then ran out of power before the end.

“I had to learn to be smart,” Lance says, “and I started to learn that under Carmichael.” Indeed, Coach Carmichael, a former pro bike racer himself, helped Lance to channel his pent-up fury, to be patient, to wield his bullish instincts only when he most needed them. Lance learned to conserve energy by following his teammates’ wheels for the first five hours of a six-hour race – and then striking like a Texas rattler. Heeding those lessons, Lance established himself as one of the top five single-day racers in the world over the following three years.

But he needed to learn a lot more if he wanted a shot at winning the 23-day Tour.BE DISCIPLINED
Much has been made of Lance’s shedding 15 pounds during treatment for testicular cancer in 1996. But the fact that he emerged from the experience with a leaner frame wasn’t all due to the treatment. What really happened was that his smoldering inner fury flared up again and propelled him to try a new, sleeker racing form, to come back and win his first Tour, in 1999. “My main motivation for eating well was not because I had cancer,” he says. “It was because I didn’t want to be fat and get dropped on the climbs.” And in that famous Armstrong fashion, he didn’t just do it like the rest of us, by cutting his doughnut consumption; he got religious about it, weighing his portions on a digital scale and balancing his daily calorie input with his energy output. “I was more serious about my diet than ever before,” he says. “I weighed the cereal, pasta, bread – everything.”

“He was like a mathematician, with the calculator every day,” his ex-wife, Kristin Armstrong, has said. “It was crazy, but it worked.”

That attention to detail is something that Mr. Millimeter, as Lance’s teammates call him, has since carried to extremes in all aspects of his Tour-winning campaigns. He, Carmichael, and team director Johan Bruyneel approach winning as if it were a military campaign, with a never-enough kind of discipline applied to everything from gear testing (in a wind tunnel, as if Lance were a new Porsche prototype) to reconnaissance (he rides critical portions of a race’s course as many as a dozen times in the months preceding, memorizing every bump and bend) to team selection (last year he dropped a teammate who had helped him win the previous three Tours because he had found someone he thought could do a little bit better). “Lance is very organized and determined,” says his onetime teammate Christian Vande Velde. “No matter what he’s doing, he’s going to do the best he can.”DON’T BE SELFISH
Cycling is the only team sport in which an individual takes all the glory. It’s a delicate balancing job that is especially important in a race as long and demanding as the Tour; the team has to believe in its leader, and the leader has to have complete confidence in his teammates. Lance, more than anyone, has mastered this (to the point that some competitors even accuse him of letting his team win races for him). “It’s not just me,” he says. “It’s an entire team of riders, an entire staff.” And so he leads by example, motivating his colleagues by being physically and mentally at his peak for the Tour.

Then there’s his ability to tamp down his ego and let Bruyneel take charge. “Johan and Lance have a great relationship,” says Vande Velde. “Johan dictates what things are going to happen, and that keeps Lance as a member of the team, not having to yell or apply pressure to the other riders. And that’s good for the well-being of the team.”

The result has been the famous “Blue Train” performances, when Lance’s entire team, with him tucked into the draft, rides for hour after hour at the head of the Tour’s 200-strong peloton to contain the opposition and prevent unexpected attacks. Take the toughest day of the 2004 Tour, for example, the stage to Plateau de Beille in the Pyrenees. Four hours into it, climbing the steepest hill of the day, the Col d’Agnes, seven of the nine U.S. Postal Team riders were setting an infernal pace, and only 15 of the other 150 competitors had what it took to stay in their company. By the time Lance took over from his last two teammates on the final climb, one rival was left, Ivan Basso. Lance didn’t even have to mount an attack.OUTWIT YOUR OPPONENTS
The immaculate teamwork, the thorough preparation, the aura of invincibility, the inner blaze: Lance has them all. But in the past few years he has also added a higher order of strategy, taking one of the world’s most purely athletic endeavors and injecting a kind of psychological warfare more akin to high-stakes poker than a bike race. Only a handful of past masters, including Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault (each of whom won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour in the same year, it’s worth noting), have even come close to such mastery.

On a macro level, Lance and his team take great care to keep opponents guessing about their plans. Last year’s F-One project, for instance, in which all of Lance’s gear sponsors secretly collaborated to improve his setup, was equally effective at scaring his opponents and getting them talking. This year’s reticence to announce what races he’ll run may be the same kind of move.

But it’s on the micro level, in the heat of a race, where it becomes clear the man is a virtuoso. Perhaps no example shines brighter in Lance lore than one from the 2001 Tour, on the seemingly vertical slopes of L’Alpe D’Huez. Lance’s chief rival, the hard-charging German Jan Ullrich, thought he had Armstrong’s number when his Telekom team took control early on. Lance lagged behind, and when Ullrich’s support staff checked the TV monitors, they saw signs of a struggle in Lance that they had never seen before: He grimaced, his shoulders slumped, he slipped back to 12th place. They took the opportunity and urged Ullrich to blast ahead, to go for the kill – not knowing that Lance had been playing possum all along, putting on a show and baiting the German into giving it too much gas too early. He had turned the biggest flaw of his early career on its head!

Suddenly Lance told his Spanish teammate Chechu Rubiera to accelerate. Only Ullrich and Armstrong had the juice to follow the furious move, and when Rubiera could no longer push the pace, Lance stomped on the pedals. He shot a glance back at Ullrich and bolted clear. The gap was two minutes at the top. It was an act of pure intimidation, the kind of bullying move that didn’t win Lance any friends but broke Ullrich’s spirit and put yet another Tour on ice – the move of a brash and sure winner.

All of which raises the question: What happened to the simple love of the game, to the fun of it all? Should winning trump that? There’s a French proverb that Lance is fond of: La vie est courte – c’est mieux de gagner. Life is short – it is better to win.

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