News feature, July 27, 2005
For Discovery Channel directeur-sportif Sean Yates, his feelings at the start of the final stage of the 2005 Tour de France were not that dissimilar to how he felt at the Giro d'Italia two months ago. In Italy, Yates directed the Discovery Channel team to its first overall victory with Paolo Savoldelli, and like the peloton's final procession to Milano, last Sunday's ride to Paris had a similar affect on him.
"Obviously, when you have such a big goal in front of you and it looks so daunting and it looks so far away, what lies between yourself and the end is so huge, it feels like it's going to take forever... are you going to make it, you know?" said Yates to Cyclingnews.
"And when you get there, like I said before when I used to ride [the Tour] and get to the Champs Elysées, after three weeks of suffering, getting over all these mountains, when you get there, it's like, 'Is that it?'"
In his 15 seasons as a professional, Yates rode 17 Grand Tours including 12 Tours de France, so the now 45 year-old from Surrey, England knows what he's on about. "You'd lose your right arm to get to the Champs Elysées," he adds. "But here, it's a special occasion. We've won the Tour for a seventh consecutive time - I've only been a part of this last one - but that's it for Lance, you know, no more bike racing.
"Everything's going to change for the team now, it's the end of an era. For someone to win the hardest sporting event in the world - that's open to debate, but I'd say it's the hardest sporting event in the world - and then retire immediately is almost unprecedented. For someone of his stature... you've got [Muhammad] Ali up there with him, but Ali kept on going too long; [Bernard] Hinault kept on a little bit too long, [Eddy] Merckx kept on going too long, Carl Lewis kept on going too long.., all these guys, they tried to push it one more year, whereas Lance has stopped, and he's purely head and shoulders above the rest."
On the differences between the team's win at the Giro and then again at the Tour, Yates said that it may have been a different group of riders, but the composition of the team and the strategies were more or less the same. "I mean, here we were obviously under attack, whereas at the Giro, we weren't under attack, we were following, apart from the final [week]. So we've had to deal with that; it's definitely opened my eyes a little bit, but I've been around the bike game for a few years now... it's a question of common sense, most of it, but you have to apply it. A lot of people don't apply their thoughts, and that's why they don't have such success," he said.
Asked about the big question mark that now hangs over the Discovery Channel team as a consequence of Armstrong's departure, Yates affirmed what team manager Johan Bruyneel has been telling the press for the last two weeks. That is, right now, there is no other rider who they can acquire to fill the Texan's place.
"Obviously, no one's going to replace Lance, that's for sure," he said, "but that means we're up against Basso next year, Ullrich... that means we have to come up with a different strategy.
"As far as I know, when we look at the market, there's no one that we can acquire that can be better than the people we got, like Popovych, like Hincapie, like Savoldelli. Popovych has got a bit of work to do, but he's done a good job, he's won the white jersey by nine minutes from the second guy [Andrei Kashechkin from Credit Agricole - ed.] - that would indicate that he's a good rider for the future. He's certainly got time to develop; he's perfect for the job, I think... and we have to work with him."
Yates also alluded to the wild card of George Hincapie, who showed in this Tour he can both climb and time trial with the best, and also to Savoldelli. However, the 32 year-old Italian said after his win in Revel on Stage 17: "For me, the Giro is really important, and I don't know if I'm ready to sacrifice the Giro for the Tour."
"Obviously, the Italians are more motivated for their home-town races, so that would have to be tackled," conceded Yates. "But you look at the paper, you look at the teams and the strategies of those directors; next year CSC will be taking command with Basso, and they will be under attack - and we have to see whether they can cope with that."
Quizzed on whether this means an equally strong focus on the Classics for the 2006 season, the Briton said the team has always focused hard on the spring campaign. "Well, this year we had a lot of bad luck with Classics riders. When we have the Classics, we focus on them as hard as we can; we've got a team for the Classics, we don't need to recruit any more," said Yates.
"When it comes to the Tour, we'll focus on the Tour. Obviously, the objectives can not be the same - we don't have Lance, where you know you can win it, as we have done the last seven years, so it's going to be a Plan B type-thing and see how we get on."