Lance refines the template

Another Tour, another triumph. Alasdair Fotheringham assesses a display of clinical efficiency
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It is perhaps appropriate that the first Tour de France of the new millennium will be won by a rider who has calculated every single effort as closely as possible – and who has not shown one moment of vulnerability either.

Indeed, as Lance Armstrong tackles the largely symbolic last 160.5 kilometres that take the 88th Tour de France to the Champs Elysées today, the 29-year-old American could well reflect that the road to his third consecutive victory in cycling's biggest stage race has been smoother than ever.

The reason is simple and complicated at the same time: he and his US Postal team have made almost no mistakes: even the one tactical error committed collectively by all the favourites of letting a large group of no-hopers gain 35 minutes early on was turned by Armstrong into an advantage as part of his masterplan.

The Texan was able to let the Frenchman François Simon struggle on in yellow as far as Stage 13 in the Pyrenees before taking the maillot jaune, thereby reducing the pressure for his team.

But it was in the Alps that Armstrong first showed his hand. After lulling his rivals into a false sense of security with a fake grimace of pain, the American then dropped the mask and changed into attack mode when he charged away on the mythical climb of Alpe D'Huez to a spectacular lone victory.

Yet after opening up a large gap on the lower slopes of the Alpe, Armstrong opted not to go into the red, and at the summit his closest overall rival Jan Ullrich was just two minutes adrift. Apparently, he wished to avoid risking overheating his system.

The American then applied the same calculating style on every big final climb in the following critical five days. In the time-trial 24 hours later, he put another minute between himself and the German, on the first stage of the Pyrenees 23 seconds, and then yet another 60 seconds the next day. All in all Armstrong claimed a total of three mountain victories out of a possible five, but the time differences, while more than sufficient to sew up the race for him, were never devastating at individual level.

It was a jaw-droppingly cold-blooded and efficient performance although perhaps the most impressive thing was, as Ullrich's team director pointed out: "Armstrong never rides with his mouth open in the mountains like the rest of the field, he always has it tight closed."

But if looking unaffected by the Tour's unusually hard route this year has contributed to his super-human image, Armstrong also played the tough guy when it came to the tradition of "rewarding" his weaker rivals with stage wins after clinching his overall victory: "This year there are no gifts," he stated grimly at his penultimate press conference.

Indeed, in the final time-trial of the third week, where even the strongest riders tend to waver after 3,000 kilometres of racing in three weeks, Armstrong soared to stage win number four. "I never felt so good against the clock," he stated categorically afterwards.

It is not all quite as spellbindingly straightforward as it has looked, though. Armstrong has conceded that "I have learned to use even, consistent efforts, avoiding the crises like I had on the last day of the Alps or Pyrenees in the last two years. I won't say this has been the easiest one of the three Tours to win, but there have been no crises".

Just as well perhaps, given that this year he has had to handle his most serious challenger for the overall lead. For Ullrich, despite staring defeat in the face since Armstrong charged away on Alpe D'Huez, simply refused to surrender.

"I could not give up until the last mountain climb," the 1997 Tour winner commented. "Armstrong might have cracked and by attacking him all the way I have brought passion to the Tour."

A polite way of saying that if Armstrong has acted as the head of this year's race, Ullrich has been its heart. Certainly the courageous German, who came across as rather a cold fish in his early years, is now more popular than ever before.

Off the bike, the American has been unable to avoid other attacks, principally for his ongoing relationship with the Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who is facing charges for supplying drugs. He has responded that Ferrari, one of his inner circle of eight counsellors, "should not be judged before his trial this October".

Problems of this nature apart, have we seen the best Armstrong yet this year? His trainer Chris Carmichael does not think so, and cycling's most successful racer ever, Eddy Merckx, believes Armstrong can win "six or seven Tours". "We have a template for winning this race, and we aim to go on using it," was all Armstrong himself would say about his future chances.

And as the ink dries on this year's event, Armstrong's clinical control seems tried and tested enough for two or three more Tours to go his way – even if for some his style has a little too much of Huxley's Brave New World about it to inspire unqualified admiration.