The rumors continue to swirl around the one of the world’s most famous athletes. For the anti-doping crowd, Lance Armstrong has long been a person of suspicion. Despite being one of the most tested athletes in the world, the conspiracy theorists, the haters and frankly, those with a dash of reason in their world outlook, have a hard time accepting that Lance is clean. If you think about it, how could he be, if he beat a squadron of very talented cyclists, year after year and almost to a man, all of them have proven to be dopers? We’re talking Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Marco Pantani, Vinokourev… it’s a long list.
But here’s the thing about Lance that always has to be considered and it’s what makes me believe that his seven wins in the Tour de France could have been legit: nobody else trained like the guy (except for maybe Floyd Landis the year he won, ouch!).
There’s a great story about David Millar (an admitted doper) calling Lance on New Year’s Day during the Texan’s domination of Le Grand Boucle. Millar, who was suffering a bit from the night before, asked his friend what he was up to. Lance told him, “I’m riding my bike.” Millar couldn’t believe it. Most cyclists do very little from November to mid-January. They let their fitness slide, give their bodies a chance to rest and enjoy some of the things competitive life rules out. For Armstrong, he approached the game differently. He took some time off but was always back on the bike long before his competitors. His fitness never got out of hand and more than anything, Lance focused on one race and one race only: the Tour de France.
Sure, in preparation for the Tour, he’d ride other races but he never let his focus get away from his singular goal. That kind of commitment was basically unheard of before Lance. If you think about someone like Eddy Merckx, he raced and won everything. In addition to taking the Tour five times, he won all but one of the Spring Classics, won the Giro D’Italia and the Vuelta. That’s pretty impressive stuff, in fact, even more impressive than Lance’s career because outside of the Tour, Lance’s wins are respectable but not dominant. Merckx was so fearsome throughout his career, they called him “The Cannibal.” Awesome.
Anyway, as part of his singular focus on the Tour, Lance used to spend a good amount of his time scouting the course. Every year it changes, from clockwise to counter, new towns are passed through, new mountains are climbed and new combinations of climbs are thrown together. To successfully navigate these changes, Lance and Johann Bruyneel, his coach, would ride sections of the course, figuring out what efforts would be required, where the opportunities to attack lay and what needed to be done to cover every inch of the race with the best possible chance to win. In doing this, Lance put himself in a position that none of his other peers found themselves. Without doing this work, they couldn’t possibly have the confidence that Lance had heading into the Tour. And in a twenty-three day race, confidence comes in pretty damn handy.
So, today, with the kids down in Florida, I got in the car and drove the ninety minutes to the start/finish area of the Nipmuck Trail Marathon. It was a cold and mostly gray day and I really would have preferred to sit on my couch and read a book but dutifully, I strapped on my Fuel Belt, laced up my shoes and got familiar with the course. I didn’t run the whole thing but I covered most of it in the three hours and twenty-two minutes I was out there. Having run it once before, it struck me how much wilder it seemed without 200 other runners keeping me company. The first section was more technical than I remember and the hills in the second half weren’t as big as my mind had made them out to be. I ran well, suffered no ill effects with the exception of a monumental ankle roll with about a mile to go. As has become my habit, I ran through it, teeth and hands clenched tight but after a couple of minutes the pain subsided and I finished strong and a little disappointed the run was over.
With the race 2 and a half months away, this was a good barometer for me. My fitness is good but my speed needs work, which is pretty much where I thought I’d be at this point. I’ve probably got about 4 more long runs in me and then I’ll spend that last month really focusing on getting the “quicks” out.
By the time I got home, I was already thinking about what I was going to do next week for my Sunday run. That’s a good place to be, no doubt inspired by the intimate knowledge of having run on the course I plan to crush in June.