Even when he was winning seven consecutive Tours de France, Lance Armstrong didn't ride a lot of races. In fact, you could almost say that Lance popularized the reduced racing schedule.
Today, most of the top Tour favorites just don't have that many race days in their legs when they show up in France in July. Back in the day, the Tour de France contenders raced almost continuously. Sure, they only targeted a few select races, but they started their season in February and finally stepped off the bike in October. That's just not what is happening now.
These days, either a racer rides a shortened season, usually March through July/August or they ride a longer season with at least one prolonged break from racing either in May or August or both.
Being an American, Lance can get away with a reduced racing schedule. Unless you are a die-hard fan, most Americans only know of one race, and that is the Tour. As long as Lance is firing on all cylinders in July, all else is forgotten. Lance can pack it in after the Tour because to most Americans there is only one race on the pro calendar—well maybe two now that the Amgen Tour of California has become so popular.
What seems to be changing lately is that the top American Tour contenders, save Christian Vande Velde, don't seem to be racing much before that big event in France in July. In fact, they don't appear too concerned with living full-time in Europe before the Tour. Even Lance, though not racing, used to feel it was important to be on the east side of the big pond during the late winter and spring.
This year, Lance has been jet-setting all over the world. In his defense, his trips to places like South Africa are to support his cancer initiatives, but that is a pretty weak excuse to give to your title sponsor when you get dropped in the Alps in France. It is not the same as "my dog ate my homework"—in this case, it is about having your priorities set correctly.
I don't think anyone is going to take exception with Lance's charity work for cancer, except maybe his Team RadioShack's sponsor if the squad isn't riding well. Clearly, Lance is the star attraction on The Shack, but he can help himself out by hiring some very good riders and having them win a few races, the bigger the better.
Guys like Levi Leipheimer can go a long way to helping please the sponsor by delivering the overall win at the Amgen Tour of California. But what about Lance? I saw some pictures of him at the recent Tour of the Gila and well, uh, um, uh, ah, he looks like he is a few pounds over his ideal riding weight. Usually that would be OK since the Tour is two months away and Lance has proven that he can drop weight.
However, the 2010 AToC is in May, less than a month and a half from the Grand D?part in Rotterdam. Sure, his teammate Levi is the favorite in California, but with the new team's lead sponsor, RadioShack, going to be there in full force, it is critical that Lance ride at an acceptable level.
What to Look for in California
What is an acceptable level? Well, if he drops Levi on the climb and/or beats him in the time trials and goes on to win the thing then that is OK. But, realistically it is important that Lance finish top 10 and be in the lead group on the climbs and finish at least top 15 in the time trial.
Can Lance ride well at the AToC? Given how he looked at the Tour of the Gila I would say no. Given how he rode at the Tour of the Gila I would say yes. The key will be for Lance to be both looking good and riding well when the Tour de France starts in July.
Bruce Hildenbrand is a freelance journalist covering cycling and a host of other outdoor-related sports. Find the latest news, rumors and more on his Active Expert blog. He splits his time between Mountain View, California, Boulder, Colorado, and Europe.