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Friday, July 23, 2004

A Curious Incident at the Tour 

Today's stage was a mostly flat nothing, and a breakaway of GC no-hopers got away early. That's the kind of thing the GC leaders (Armstrong, Basso, Kloden, Ullrich) want to see, as it makes the stage safe for them (why? The short answer is that the escape can't do any harm because they can't gain enough time to affect the top riders, and additional escapes by anyone else are discouraged, because they would have to do the hard work of getting all the way to the lead group just to have a chance at anything useful like a stage win or a time gain).

But then one more rider, Filippo Simeoni (a classic GC no-hoper: almost 3 hours behind Armstrong!) made an attempt to catch the break, and something strange happened. Lance chased him down and they both joined the breakaway.

From any on-the-road perspective, this is insanity tactics, the kind of thing that doesn't happen in a race like this. Armstrong's presence effectively poisoned the break, because the GC hopefuls couldn't let it succeed (one suspects as much on general principles as anything else) lest Armstrong gain another 10 minutes. So Lance has now done the hard work of catching a breakaway even though the break is meaningless, the rider he is chasing is meaningless, and nobody (not even Lance) really wants to see him in this break.

Ah, but sometimes the rest of the world can intrude even upon the Tour. In this case, Armstrong was exacting petty vengeance for a feud between him and Simeoni involving doping allegations and a mutual connection to the controversial Dr. Michele Ferrari.

Eventually, a resolution was found, one straight out of the schoolyard: the break asked Armstrong to leave so they could, you know, go for the stage win, and Armstrong said he would gladly do so, as long as Simeoni left too. So the break asked Filippo, and recoginizing the essential hopelessness of his situation, he did. I don't think he was very happy with Lance.

I recommend that Velonews article for the details of this story, but a few background details deserve to be added:

Ferrari, surrounded by controversy (which is to say, accusations he helped riders dope), really is one of the sharper minds analyzing cycling right now, and he has been keeping an online diary that is one of the most insightful assessments of the tour going.

Lance Armstrong seems to get incredibly motivated by anger or any hint that others are trying to thwart him. He is famously both very loyal to those who support him, and very vindictive towards those who have burned him in the past (he has an ongoing feud with the Cofidis cycling team, which signed him right before he found out he had cancer, but dropped him before he ever raced for them when the cancer was discovered). My armchair psychological assessment is that it's not even that he's thin-skinned so much as he needs some anger as a motivating force. And I think that like virtually all elite athletes, he really, really hates losing.

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