Yesterday I sat down to watch Stage 10 of the Tour de France. As everyone on the planet is no doubt aware, Lance Armstrong is attempting to continue his dominance by winning a seventh straight Tour. He would like to ride off into the sunset, wearing a yellow jersey for his retirement ride.
Leading up to Stage 10, Lance and his team were criticized for conceding the yellow jersey to a team CSC member, Jens Voigt. Many of the critics started to doubt if Team Discovery could do what they had set out to do. Some went so far as to say that Lance Armstrong was past his prime. On Stage 10 those critics were silenced.
In the first real mountain stage of The Tour, Lance displayed perfect racing strategy. Through the first climb he patiently watched a group of riders break from the pack and assert a sizable lead. That breakaway group became a flash in the pan real quick. While they were out in front, Team Discovery set a grueling pace for the pack. One by one, each member of the team led Lance through the flats. As the race went on, the pack became smaller and smaller. Then — just like that — Lance took the lead. His teammates, exhausted from their role of getting Lance to where he needed to be, fell back and watched.
Lance was not alone in his break. When Lance is in a race, it’s not so much a question of IF he will break away, but WHEN he will break away. The riders know this. Those who are in serious contention for the yellow jersey in Paris, know that they have to ride with Lance to stay in the race. Lance knows that they know. So in Stage 10, from the moment Lance took off and made his move, he dropped the hammer and kept it there. One by one, the big-time contenders fell back. Jan Ulrich, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, all fell off Lance’s pace. He proved in his timing and racing strategy that he knew exactly when to pace, climb, and sprint.
There were, however, some cyclists who stayed with Lance. One of them even beat Lance to the finish line. Alejandro Valverde, the stage winner, and Mickael Rasmussen were able to ride with Lance and stay with his every move. Neither rider is a serious threat to win the overall yellow jersey this year, but no one can count them out for years to come. The lessons they have learned from the master will be as beneficial as the rest of the conditioning they do.
Greatness on the bike is no different from greatness in the pool or on the court, field, or track. In athletics, winning (and to a larger extent greatness) relies heavily on one thing: timing. To be a great competitor you have to know exactly what your body can do. The only way that you can know that is to constantly push your limits and hold it there. You also have to be aware of what is required to beat your competition. When that moment or instant comes that you have worked so hard to find, you also have to have the courage to do it.