On and off the bike, it was an impressively aloof performance. Lance Armstrong
mercilessly laid waste to his rivals in the freezing rain of Hautacam ski station,
then held an equally chilly press conference in the mobile interview room set up
alongside the finish line.
If the Texan’s ride was ruthless, then so was his attitude towards the sports press,
as 12 months of tension and bitterness was soon apparent in his body-language and
demeanour. So, he was asked, was such a stunning ride a way of exacting revenge on
his detractors, on those who said that last year’s win was devalued by the absence
of Pantani and Ullrich?
“I heard the remarks last year and I thought about that today,” he said
immediately after the finish. “Sometimes you need those things — you need a
Ironically, on the day that his lengthy interview in L’Equipe revealed the full extent
of his resentment over last year’s allegations, he came face to face with some of
those who had tormented him in 1999.
All the same, he thoughtfully answered the questions put to him. “Efforts like
today burn the candle quickly,” he admitted. “It was a tactical day. I
was worried in the Col d’Aubisque when I was two minutes behind Escartin and Virenque.
But it turned out to be a good day, a bit similar to Sestrieres last year.”
“I think it’s worth noting that the important part of the stage began on the
Aubisque. I didn’t have my team mates there and I had no idea what to do. I just
had to wait, so it was a bit of a crisis for me.”
But it was a crisis that proved to be short-lived, as Armstrong dropped all but Otxoa
on the final hill. “I don’t know if I’m stronger than last year,” Armstrong
said, “but the tests I did before the Tour on the climbs I train on in Nice
revealed that I was climbing faster.”
“But I learned last year that it’s hard to defend the yellow jersey,” the
Texan continued, “and a few minutes lead does not mean that the race is over.”
Even so, his rivals sounded distinctly downcast after the stage. “I felt good
today, but I couldn’t match Armstrong,” said Alex Zulle, runner-up in 1999.
“My only hope is that he is peaking too early.”
“Armstrong was like a plane,” said French climber Richard Virenque, who
was caught and passed by last year’s champion in the steep closing kilometres. “He’s
definitely now the man to beat.”
And Telekom team manager, Walter Godefroot, seemed ready to throw in the towel, despite
Jan Ullrich’s status as the American’s best-placed rival. “If Armstrong has
no weak days,” said Godefroot, “then he will win in Paris.”
Point proven then, whichever way you look at it…
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