Tour de Force
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SPENCER MICHELS: As the pack of cyclists sped down the Champs Elysees in Paris yesterday, there was little doubt who would win the 88th Tour de France. Lance Armstrong, the 29-year-old American, took his third straight title, with a comfortable lead of six minutes and 44 seconds. He became the first American ever to win three in a row. The Tour de France is one of the most grueling sporting events in the world. This year’s race covered 2,146 miles– many of them in mountainous terrain– over three weeks. To win, the rider needed the best total time in the 20-stage race when the race concluded in Paris. Armstrong excelled on the uphill stages and remained clad in the yellow jersey reserved for the leader for the last seven stages of the race. Yesterday, Americans and French alike celebrated Armstrong’s victory as the Texas native took the lap of honor with fellow members of his team, which is sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service. Later, flanked by his wife and son, he spoke about the key to his success.
LANCE ARMSTRONG: You’re supposed to work hard for what you want and work hard for the big things in life, and I was taught that, so far over the last three years, it’s worked out pretty good.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Armstrong’s triumph extends beyond cycling. In the early 90s, the Plano, Texas, native was winning professional bike races around the world. In 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which had spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain. He was given less than a 50% chance of surviving. After aggressive surgery and chemotherapy, Armstrong was cancer-free and back on his bike by 1997. Just two years later, he made the most of his second chance and won his first Tour de France.
LANCE ARMSTRONG: I’m living proof that we get second chances, and that the second time around is better than the first.
SPENCER MICHELS: For the past three years, Armstrong’s quest for the tour’s yellow jersey has been dogged by speculation in the press that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. He has repeatedly denied the accusations and has passed all drug testing this year. Armstrong plans on resuming his rigorous training schedule, and competing as the favorite for his fourth Tour de France title next year.
JIM LEHRER: More now, from Bill Strickland, editor of Bicycling Magazine, and Ron Kiefel, a former professional cyclist and seven-time veteran of the Tour de France. Bill Strickland, in the world of competitive cycling, how exceptional is it that… how exceptional of an achievement is this that lance Armstrong did?
BILL STRICKLAND: Well, only five people in history have ever won the tour three consecutive times. And Lance has a chance to make that perhaps five or even six. He’s that dominant right now.
JIM LEHRER: Why is he so dominant? Why is he so good?
BILL STRICKLAND: Well he’s always been good. Before the cancer when he was in his teens he was tested and doctors found out he could make his muscles work 10% more than even the most elite athletes. Then the cancer came along and literally reshaped his body. The cancer itself and the chemotherapy took away 15 to 20 pounds. Imagine going out to your car stripping away everything but the engine and maybe the seat. That’s what happened to Lance. He took away a lot of the weight that holds people back in the mountains. And his training is special too. He’s found a way of training that lets him spin the pedals extremely fast. It raises his heart rate more than other riders but he’s able to produce a lot more power that way.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Kiefel, what would you add to that in terms of what makes lance Armstrong so much better than the rest?
RON KIEFEL: Well, Jim, I think that lance has such a mental toughness. I mean, that’s what’s really seen him through, through the cancer battle, even prior to that we saw that… I was a teammate of Lance’s when he first turned professional was the end of my cycling career. Lance really had the ability to go out there and fight he really wanted to be the best cyclist in the world. When he got to the cancer battle, he went out there and got the best people that he could to help battle the cancer and then when he got through that and got on to the road to recovery and on to the team, he’s been able to surround himself with people that really helped shape and direct him down the proper path.
JIM LEHRER: But specifically on the training, Mr. Kiefel, what does he do that other cyclists, including yourself, do not do or did not do?
RON KIEFEL: Well, Lance has the ability with those people to utilize some of the best training techniques that are out there — his coach Chris Carmichael who has been with Lance since he first was on the national team. So he came and they really understand Lance’s biomechanics, how he works. He’s able to utilize that. He has the ability with the technology, bicycles built, his time trial bike, which is very fast. He’s quoted as saying a lot of these other teams and riders are going to be really upset when he gets out there on the time trail bike when it first came out.
JIM LEHRER: So all bikes are not created equal any more than cyclists are, right?
RON KIEFEL: Well, that’s true. Someone like Lance… I would almost consider someone like Lance, Greg LaMont, Miguel Indurain — and all these famous tour winners as almost a genetic mutant. They have some ability that they can go faster or harder or longer, train harder. That’s what Lance has. He has a mental toughness. Greg LaMont had the ability to recover very quickly. Miguel Indurain had so much power — a huge aerobic engine.
JIM LEHRER: Bill Strickland, it’s hard for those of us who are… our only acquaintance with bicycles is we used to ride them or still do. What is it he does special? For instance, as Spencer said in the piece, when he was going uphill, that’s when he really made the progress. Why can he go up a hill faster than everybody else? What does he do in his training that makes that possible?
BILL STRICKLAND: Well, two things. First he has an incredible engine and he lost the weight — of his power-to-weight ratio just skyrocketed.
JIM LEHRER: When you lose weight, you also lose energy, do you not?
BILL STRICKLAND: Right. Well he was able to adapt his training to spin the pedals at an extremely high cadence, which is… you can go faster two ways: You can push a harder gear, which takes more muscle, or you can spin the pedals, which takes more lungs. And Lance has really focused his training on the aerobic part. That’s something the other….
JIM LEHRER: I’m sorry to be so elemental here but help me on this. His legs are literally moving faster than everybody else’s. Is that what you’re saying?
BILL STRICKLAND: That’s correct. He’s climbing… When he’s climbing sometimes between 90 and 100 revolutions per minute. Kind of traditionally riders would go, say, 70 to maybe 85 revolutions per minute.
JIM LEHRER: And is this something he developed on his own?
BILL STRICKLAND: He developed this with his coach. When he came back from cancer, he couldn’t really do a traditional kind of training, which was go out and go as hard as you can for as long as you can –and train your body that way. They decided to really focus on aerobic potential. The other interesting thing Lance really does, if you look at innovations in race strategy, Greg LaMont was the first guy who decided, you know what? I’m not going to race all year. I’m just going to win one race — the Tour de France, it’s the biggest race in the world. Lance’s innovation is that he’s decided, I’m not going to train for the whole tour – I’m going to train for the four most key stages. He replicates those stages in his training. He knows the grade and how long they are and how fast he’ll have to go to win those stages. He also practices. He rode Al Pues six times in training before –
JIM LEHRER: He rode up what? I’m sorry.
BILL STRICKLAND: Al Pues; it was one of the key stages of the race this year.
JIM LEHRER: And he did it how many times before?
BILL STRICKLAND: Six times before the race.
JIM LEHRER: And how long a distance is that?
BILL STRICKLAND: That’s 14 kilometers.
JIM LEHRER: He did it six times. Mr. Kiefel, what about diet? I also understand that he has a most peculiar or not peculiar but a different diet than most people, even cyclists, use; is that correct?
BILL STRICKLAND: Jim, I don’t know the exact details of his diet. I do know that what Bill was talking about that Lance was able to lose all that muscle weight from the chemotherapy, that stripped his body. When he rebuilt his body, he got those new muscle fibers. He was able to really redefine who Lance Armstrong was. His diet now allows him to continue staying as lean as possible, yet being able to put out the kind of power that he does now.
JIM LEHRER: Bill Strickland, do you know anything about the special diet he uses?
BILL STRICKLAND: Sure, we’ve talked with Lance about it a little bit. He’s sort of weird. He weighs everything that he eats when he’s in training. He knows what weight he wants to be at on race day because that affects how much power he can put out and to get to that weight he weighs all his food so he knows exactly how many calories he’s taking in and he knows how many calories he’s burning in training.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Kiefel, do you agree with Bill Strickland– I think you’ve alluded to it but let me just ask you directly– that in some ways the cancer has resulted in his being even a better cyclist?
RON KIEFEL: I think it’s made Lance a better person in a sense because before the cancer Lance was very… He’ll even admit it. He’s written in his book – that he was arrogant. He didn’t respect the riders… After he went through the battle of cancer, he really understood what’s really important in his life. It wasn’t just to be number one or to, you know, kind of crush everybody. I think he came out of that whole period with more of a sense of grace. He honors riders like Ulrich and Belucci. He’s much more of a sportsman now. When he goes out there and races hard, he’s racing against these guys but when they come up and they put on a good fight and all that, he also honors them very well. He honors his team. That’s what I think we’ve seen the best out of Lance now is that he has come through that whole cancer cycle with such a strong mental attitude and more on the positive side.
JIM LEHRER: Bill Strickland, what should we make of these reports about enhancing drugs? What’s that all about?
BILL STRICKLAND: Well, when it comes down to it really maybe only three or four people know whether Lance is clean or whether he’s taking drugs. That would be Lance, his coach and maybe his doctor. I believe him. Three reasons: He’s always been kind of a physiologically marvel. He’s the first rider who has ever reshaped his body this way — albeit unwittingly through the cancer. Third his training is just such an innovation. Really though it’s kind of… One of my friends compared it to Kierkegaard, which maybe I don’t completely understand but it’s just sort of taking that leap of faith. Based on what I know about Lance and his comeback from cancer and how he knows it would devastate cancer survivors, I believe he’s clean.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Kiefel, what would you add to that?
RON KIEFEL: Lance is probably one of the most medically tested athletes out there. A lot of cyclists are medically tested for sports- enhancing drugs. They’re tested, you know, probably 20 times a year and especially in lance’s case. So that, in the sense right there, speaks large volumes of what — how clean Lance really is. And I agree with Bill, there are only four people that truly know. But from all the indications that we’ve seen from Lance, he has really used the technology of the bicycle, the training and put all those elements together that I think that’s the reason why we see him so strong today.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Bill Strickland?
BILL STRICKLAND: Yes, I do. I mean that’s not to say he’s not doing some things that would seem strange to the public. He sleeps in an altitude tent, which sort of recreates being at high altitude. It helps increase your body’s ability to carry oxygen. It’s an extremely hard sport. After a stage, sometimes you’ll see a lot of riders actually getting some saline drips to be rehydrated. There’s some strange stuff that goes on anyway that’s all perfectly legal and legitimate. So, you know, Lance may have some bizarre training methods but I don’t think any of them are illegal.
JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.