Kevin Livingston friendly with Armstrong, but not 'friends' yet

Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport
In the first two weeks of the Tour de France, Kevin Livingston has played both the man in the middle and the leader of the pack.

Ultimately, he's right where he's supposed to be in 36th place, more than an hour behind the overall leaders. Livingston doesn't ride to wear the yellow jersey as the Tour's overall leader or even to win one of the 20 stages. His is a far less glamorous job.

But he's received more than his share of face time in Outdoor Life Network's coverage recently. Once the right-hand man of two-time winner Lance Armstrong, Livingston now fills the same role for Armstrong's biggest rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany, the '97 winner who never has finished lower than second overall but has yet to beat Armstrong.

Livingston's departure from the U.S. Postal Service team incensed Armstrong, who turned to Livingston before his other cycling pals when Armstrong learned he had cancer almost five years ago. In the months leading up to this year's Tour, though, he shunned Livingston when the two crossed paths and criticized him publicly.

After an opening week of inconsistent riding through wind, cold and rain on the flats, "I found my climbing form," Livingston said in a telephone interview from Pau, France, on Monday, the final day of rest on the three-week Tour. An accomplished climber, Livingston spent the second week riding in front of Ullrich on many of the tough climbs, expending his energy while Ullrich drafted on Livingston's rear wheel just as Armstrong did in winning the past two seasons.

In the first mountain stage, Ullrich, Livingston and their teammates at Deutsche Telekom "had a plan to keep Jan at the front of the pack," Livingston said. "We did what we wanted to do. But Lance is in unbelievable shape."

Armstrong gained a huge two-minute advantage over Ullrich that day and added about a minute each day thereafter. He could have sealed the victory Saturday, when Ullrich suffered a crash that could have ended his career.

Livingston had just finished leading Ullrich up a mountain and was catching his breath about 100 yards behind. He sensed that Ullrich, riding just behind Armstrong, had misread a turn and watched him slingshot off the road. Ullrich maintained enough control to wipe out into bushes, rather than into nearby rocks. Livingston knew immediately to slam on the brakes and rush to Ullrich's aid.

"I saw him braking where he shouldn't be and knew he was in trouble," Livingston said. "I was barely able to stop without killing myself. He walked up the hill and had all this stuff in his hair, so I knew he had gone over the handlebars. I was amazed that he was walking."

Livingston stood at the side of the road, waiting, psyching himself for the tough ride the two would have in catching Armstrong. They checked out the bike, which also miraculously escaped damage, and were back on the road about 30 seconds after the mishap. Ullrich drafted behind Livingston, feverishly working to close the gap with Armstrong.

Unbeknownst to the pair, Armstrong had slowed a bit, making their pursuit easier. Unwilling to take advantage of misfortune, Armstrong wanted another epic battle with the only man who can keep up with him. Armstrong and Ullrich rode together until the final mile or so, when Armstrong surged ahead and gained another minute on the final climb stretching his lead over Ullrich to five minutes.

On Sunday, Livingston and his teammates again did their job. But when Ullrich beat Armstrong over the line, Ullrich reached back and grasped the Texan's hand, a symbol of good sportsmanship and concession.

"What else can you do when someone is that much stronger than everybody else?" Livingston said.

Again, Ullrich probably will finish second. Five of the remaining six stages are on flat land, where the huge group of riders known as the peloton probably will finish together and thus earn the same time. The few riders likely to sprint ahead are too far behind in the overall standings to make a difference in the final outcome. Ullrich and Armstrong will go head-to-head in a time trial Friday, but the German won't make up five minutes there.

The Tour also has given Armstrong and Livingston a chance to mend fences. "After not speaking for eight months, it's OK to be friendly when you're on top of each other for three weeks," Livingston said.

In happy times, Armstrong, 29, often referred to Livingston, 28, as his younger brother, so it's easy to see this Tour as a manifestation of their sibling rivalry. But Armstrong is an only child, less adept at recognizing the nuances and the balancing act between brotherly love and jealousy, loyalty and independence than Livingston, who has two brothers, a twin sister and another sister.

Armstrong said over the weekend: "I'd go to the mat for Kevin. We speak every day here. He's got a heart of gold."

To which Livingston responded: "I'm glad he feels better about it, but things could have been better six months ago, you know? We're being friendly, but that's not the same as friends yet."

Time for that later.

In the short term, Livingston will return to the peloton for the Tour's final week. He could be called upon to ride with a breakaway group, which could get him closer to the overall lead. But, for him, the heavy lifting is over.

"My role is to do work," he said. "It's nice that they trust me to do so much of the work."

Stage 15: Verbrugghe celebrates birthday late but in style

Stage 15: Post race analysis and minute-by-minute updates

Complete results of Stage 15

Complete overall standings after Stage 15

Category standings after Stage 15

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