FRENCH EVO­LU­TION

Arm­strong’s tack has changed, but not his tenac­ity

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Suzanne Hal­libur­ton

ROTTERDAM, Nether­lands — In this port city still giddy over suc­cess in soc­cer’s World Cup quar­ter­fi­nals, Lance Arm­strong spent Fri­day morn­ing scout­ing the short, flat course that be­gins the Tour de France, then vis­ited can­cer pa­tients at a hos­pi­tal in the af­ter­noon.

To­day’s pro­logue is a snappy, 51⁄ 2-mile sprint through the heart of Rotterdam over wide roads, to and from the river Nieuwe Maas, and over three bridges, in­clud­ing the half-mile Eras­mus Bridge. This is a late-day, chase event, with the first rider off at 4:15 p.m. (9:15 a.m. Cen­tral). Rid­ers start on one-minute in­ter­vals. Arm­strong starts at 12:30 p.m. Cen­tral.

There are 198 rid­ers on 22 teams. The rider with the fastest time will start the first stage Sun­day in the yel­low jersey, which sig­ni­fies the over­all race leader.

The re­sults of these open­ing events have never de­cided the out­come of the three-week Tour. Yet, for Arm­strong, what hap­pens to­day may fore­shadow where he will be stand­ing in Paris when the race ends July 25.

Arm­strong is in the sec­ond year of his come­back, and his abil­ity to dom­i­nate a time trial, which used to be as pre­dictable as the bru­tal sum­mer sun­shine, has not en­tirely re­turned from re­tire­ment with him.

Con­tin­ued from C1 When he was dom­i­nat­ing the Tour be­tween 1999 and 2005, he won 11 in­di­vid­ual time tri­als.

“I don’t know if it his age or just (his) time out of com­pe­ti­tion,” says Chris Carmichael, Arm­strong’s per­sonal coach. “I think he is bet­ter in this area than last year.”

An­other sig­na­ture at­tribute that has been elud­ing his 38-year-old legs: his abil­ity to burst away from com­peti­tors in the moun­tains. The steep-ter­rain kick that Arm­strong ap­plied at cru­cial points helped se­cure seven Tour vic­to­ries.

“It’s not like it used to be, for what­ever rea­son,” Arm­strong said in a pre-Tour in­ter­view with the States­man. “I can main­tain a high speed. If I’m put on the de­fen­sive, I can ride my tempo. Hope­fully, that’ll be enough.”

Arm­strong cited a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors, in­clud­ing age, mind-set and train­ing, for the elu­sive af­ter-burn­ers. Age, of course is a lead­ing fac­tor. A year ago, he fin­ished third and be­came the sec­ond-old­est rider in Tour his­tory to reach the in the Pyre­nees, ap­proach­ing a per­sonal best he set in 2005, months be­fore his first re­tire­ment.

“He has made sig­nif­i­cant gains over the last eight weeks,” Carmichael said.

Whether it will be enough to beat de­fend­ing Tour cham­pion Al­berto Con­ta­dor or last year’s run­ner-up, Andy Sch­leck, re­mains to be seen.

To pre­pare for this year’s Tour, Arm­strong re­verted to past train­ing habits. He spent more time in Europe, mak­ing Nice, France, his train­ing base. He re­turned to Austin for brief stretches to visit his fam­ily.

A year ago, Arm­strong thought he could train at al­ti­tude in Colorado to prep for France. But in hind­sight, he said, the climbs in the Rock­ies, while high above sea level, weren’t as se­vere as what he found in the Pyre­nees and Alps.

He’ll have a hint af­ter to­day’s pro­logue whether he’ll be a fac­tor in the race.

“I’m get­ting bet­ter,” he said. “Who knows, maybe it’ll all come back.”

Rotterdam, The Nether­lands Dis­tance: 8.9 kilo­me­ters (5.53 miles) TV: Ver­sus Stage 1: Sun­day, Rotterdam to Brus­sels, 225.3 kilo­me­ters (140 miles)

2005 Arm­strong won his un­prece­dented sev­enth Tour cham­pi­onship — then said good­bye.

1999 Arm­strong be­gan his sev­enyear hold on the Tour by blis­ter­ing the field by more than 7 min­utes.

2009 Arm­strong re­turned to a third-place fin­ish af­ter three-year Tour hia­tus.

2001 It was clear Arm­strong would etch his name among

cy­cling’s all-time greats.

2010 A crash at Tour of Cal­i­for­nia left him blood­ied, bruised — but un­bowed.

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