This was why they had come, why they had camped out on the road to Pla-d'Adet. This was why they put up with the hordes of Germans who poured over the border in RVs cloaked in the pink banners of the T-Mobile racing team. This was why they endured the Americans, with their yellow bracelets and their confusing blend of friendliness and aggression, typified by the big blue banner that said, KICK ASS, LANCE. They were the Basques, and this was their land. They came from St.-Lary-Soulan, the village at the base of this menacing peak in the Pyrenees, and from surrounding towns here in the South of France and across the nearby Spanish frontier. For this, the 15th and most brutal stage of the Tour de France--the Pla-d'Adet was the sixth and final mountain the riders would climb this day--the Basques donned their orange shirts, fortified themselves with wine from goatskin bota bags and hoped fervently for good news. And here it was. Powering up the mountain at the head of the field was a pair of riders, a Spaniard named Oscar Pereiro and an American riding for Discovery Channel whose face, incredibly, betrayed no suffering. Yes, the American was very strong, everyone knew that, but Pereiro was a pure climber on his home turf. As the two cyclists neared the summit, the Basques crowded in, screaming for their boy. Epithets, and the odd beverage, were thrown in the direction of the Discovery rider. One fan got too close and was run over by the motorcycle trailing the riders. The American waited until he was safely inside the spectator barricades, in the final kilometer of the stage, before attacking.
Rising out of his saddle, he dropped Pereiro with ease. As he crossed the finish line, he covered his face in disbelief, then raised his hands to the sky. "I'm in shock," George Hincapie would say later. "I just won the biggest race of my life."
Sunday, July 17, was a very good day for Americans at the Tour de France. There was Hincapie, one of the nicest men in the peloton, followed on the podium by his friend Lance Armstrong, the overall leader, who had spent the afternoon wringing the last drops of hope from his chief rivals. With a single mountain stage remaining in this year's Tour--and in his career--Armstrong held a lead of two minutes and 46 seconds over CSC's Ivan Basso, the brilliant young rider who spent the weekend launching furious, fruitless attacks against him. The Tour ends in Paris on July 24, the day after a time trial in which Basso is likely to lose still more time to Armstrong. The Texan needs only to stay upright, it seems, to lock up his seventh straight Tour victory.
The story of how Armstrong and his Discovery teammates all but nailed down number 7 is the story of how Hincapie rode away with the first Tour de France stage win in his 11-year career: Discovery showed a willingness to call audibles, to chuck the original plan if it wasn't working.
The Queens-born 6'3" Hincapie has made a career of hiding his lamp under a bushel. He has spent the last seven years sheltering Armstrong from headwinds and from crash-prone numskull sprinters. His win on Sunday resulted from an impulsive decision he made 15 miles into the stage. When a group of riders broke from the peloton, he jumped it. At that morning's strategy meeting, team director Johan Bruyneel had stressed the importance of having as many Discovery riders as possible with Armstrong at the bottom of the final climb. Surely the breakaway would be reeled in before it reached the Pla-d'Adet, Hincapie reasoned, and joining it would put him in a strong position to pace his captain up that mountain.
We know how that worked out. The break stayed clear of the peloton, freeing Hincapie to ride for himself. His victory, while surprising, was in character with Discovery's week in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Things didn't always go as planned, but they turned out well in the end.
This was not Armstrong's strongest team ever, but it may have been his most resilient. Certainly the team rallied gamely after its unscheduled snooze in the final kilometers of stage 8. The course that day took the riders across the Rhine from Germany back into France and up the first truly challenging climb of the 92nd Tour, the Col de la Schlucht. Armstrong and his mates had scouted most of the other stages but not this one. The stiff ascent "blindsided" them, Armstrong said. "We had no idea how hard that climb was. No clue."
As the peloton hit the steep grade at 25 mph, it fractured. Armstrong found himself in the lead group with all of his main rivals and no teammates. That's when the attacks began. T-Mobile's Alexander (Vino) Vinokourov attacked three times. Basso, Denis Menchov, Francisco Mancebo--everyone who was anyone in this race took a shot at the patron. Everyone, that is, but T-Mobile's Jan Ullrich, who lived up to his reputation for tactical ineptitude. Not only did Ullrich fail to attack Armstrong, but at one point he unwittingly paced his rival, allowing the Texan to draft behind him to return to the front. Though Armstrong chased down all but one of the attacks--he allowed T-Mobile's Andreas Kl√∂den to escape--he suffered deeply doing so.
Discovery had been embarrassed. CSC's Bobby Julich said Armstrong's team had "imploded." As Hincapie would later say, "Everyone started talking about how Lance didn't have a team. That pissed us off."
Bruyneel did not raise his voice at the next morning's meeting. He didn't need to. Looking around the table, he told each of the riders that what had happened the day before could never happen again.
For seven years Bruyneel has set the same template for success: Have Armstrong take the lead in the first time trial. Keep him safe in the early, flat stages. Then, on the final climb of the first mountain stage, sic him on his rivals. Of course Armstrong does not redline his engine at the valley floor. Rather, he tucks in behind a line of teammates, who take turns spending themselves on his behalf.
They take their turns in ascending order of strength. "We want the speed to constantly accelerate," says Armstrong. "We want to be shedding [rivals]." Discovery's mountain goats are sustained by periodic radio updates from Bruyneel in the team car (Life of Reilly, page 88): "Vino is dropped!... Landis is dropped! ... Ullrich has cracked! Great job, boys. Keep it going!"
It is the team's custom to watch French TV between 10 and 11 p.m. for a replay of the day's highlights. "The boys like to see the amount of suffering they were dealing out," says Armstrong. "It's good for morale."
Morale was excellent on the night of July 12. That day marked the Tour's first Alpine stage, which ended after the 22.2-kilometer (13.8-mile) ascent of a bear named Courchevel. At the base of the climb the peloton consisted of some 70 riders. Then Discovery took over. First came Paolo Salvodelli, followed by Jose (Ace) Azevedo, then Hincapie. By the time Big George fell back, spent, only a dozen riders remained. Yaroslav Popovych took his pull, shedding four or five riders before punching the clock. That's when Armstrong delivered a burst of acceleration none of his main rivals could counter. One by one they wobbled and cracked: Basso, Ullrich, Vino, former U.S. Postal Service riders Floyd Landis (now with Phonak) and Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), all hemorrhaging seconds that they would never get back.
What seemed like a routine day for Discovery had actually been a bit of a scramble. Popovych crashed on a descent before Courchevel and was shaken as he began the climb. Azevedo wasn't feeling so hot. Jose Luis Rubiera, a brilliant climber, had a chest cold. Two days later, on Bastille Day, Manuel (Triki) Beltran crashed and suffered a concussion and had to abandon the race. With the Pyrenees still ahead, Discovery was compromised. Armstrong's rivals took comfort.
On the eve of Saturday's mountain stage Armstrong asked Rubiera how he was feeling. The Spaniard said, "I'm afraid your last memories of me will be of a guy who was sick and struggling." Reminding his friend that they had won four Tours together, Armstrong said, "My memories of you won't have anything to do with this Tour."
At the base of Saturday's final climb, a steep, jagged ascent to the Plateau de Bonascre, Armstrong found himself, once again, without teammates, and with the T-Mobile triad: Vino, Kl√∂den and Ullrich. At long last, after years of declaring that this would be the Tour in which Ullrich attacked Armstrong, the men in pink seemed poised to actually put a hurt on the patron. Sharing this view was the spectator who ran alongside Armstrong shouting, "You are alone!"
"I looked around," Armstrong said later, "and I thought, We're all alone."
What he meant was, they were all alone in their own worlds of pain. The T-Mobile riders had worked so hard to isolate Armstrong that they lacked the strength to attack on the final climb. It was the Texan who attacked them, and snuffed their hopes.
Then Sunday was dominated by the heroics of Hincapie, whose stage win called further attention to the strongest U.S. performance at any Tour de France. Before crashing out of the race, CSC's David Zabriskie, a Utahan, had worn the yellow jersey for three days. Landis and Leipheimer joined Armstrong in the top seven as of Monday. Chris Horner, an Oregonian riding in his first Tour, was having the time of his life, attacking in the flats and on the climbs. Though the future will look different for U.S. riders in France--not as yellow, perhaps--there will be life after Lance.