Tour de France news feature, July 22, 2008
As the Tour de France enters the Alps for what are arguably the two most critical stages, and an unprecedented six riders are within touching distance of yellow, Cyclingnews' Daniel Benson spoke to seven-time winner Lance Armstrong to find out his feelings on the racing thus far and who he's tipping for yellow in Paris.
Cyclingnews: Have you been following the Tour closely?
Lance Armstrong:I'm in Chicago right now, but I've been watching the race when I can, and so far I've seen some of the main stages, like the one [to Prato Nevoso] on Sunday and the stage to Hautacam. When I've not been watching the TV coverage, I've been looking at the results. [On Cyclingnews, we'd imagine! - ed.]. It's been exciting, and I've been enjoying it.
Cyclingnews: It's been an incredibly tight race with plenty of excitement. What's stuck out for you?
"It's such a hard climb there's really no place to hide out there, so if you're not going well you could lose minutes and in this race that would mean your Tour would be over." -Lance Armstrong on L'Alpe d'Huez
LA: There's haven't been too many major shocks so far. I mean, you have Cadel Evans, and he's still as the favourite in my opinion. The guys from Team CSC have been doing what you'd expect and, of course, there's been [Denis] Menchov and Christian Vande Velde. To be honest I have been surprised by [Bernhard] Kohl though. I've simply never heard of that guy before the race. Who is he?
[Hint: Armstrong might have been focused on other riders instead of Kohl in this photo from the 2005 Dauphiné Libéré. -ed.]
Cyclingnews: You mentioned Christian Vande Velde. He a former team-mate from your US Postal days. Have you been following him closely?
LA: Some people may not have expected to see Christian do so well, but I know first-hand that he's a very strong guy and that he gets better and better as the race unfolds. He might be 39 seconds down on yellow, but to me, from when I was racing, if the gap to yellow was that small, it's pretty much the same time and you're on a level playing field.
He's also got a heap of experience, too, and he is making the correct amount of effort - conserving his energy when he can but also following and instigating the moves like he did on Sunday.
Perhaps his biggest strength might be that he can get stronger as the race goes on, while some of his rivals could become weaker. Don't forget he can time trial well, too. I know he used to have some problems with his back and legs when he was younger. He seems to have sorted those out now and he is riding a great race.
Cyclingnews: Have you been in contact with many of the riders in the race this year?
LA: Well there aren't to many US guys racing this year. I think there are four, but I've spoken to George [Hincapie] a few times and swapped a few messages with him. We're still good friends.
Cyclingnews: Only four US riders. Is that an issue for US cycling? It's certainly less than in previous editions.
LA: Well, there are two US teams in the race [High Road and Garmin] and that's certainly something to be optimistic about. They're also having great races, too. But I don't think it's bad that they only have a few US riders within them.
If you look back to when I was in Discovery, near the end there was only George and I on the team in terms of US riders. You also have the fact that these days teams are a lot more multi-national. I'm sure if they could, Garmin and High Road would ride with more American riders, but they have responsibilities to their sponsors.
Cyclingnews: There's less than a week to go. Other than Christian who do you think is really in with a shout of yellow?
LA: That's a real tough one. I noticed that Cadel looked like he was suffering on the last climb to Prato Nevoso and if you're suffering at this stage on such a short climb then he could be in real trouble when the race climbs Alpe d'Huez. It's such a hard climb there's really no place to hide out there so if you're not going well you could lose minutes and in this race that would mean your Tour would be over.
If you're asking me to pick who I think looks strong going into the mountains then I'd have to go with Menchov. Nothing is certain though, so you can't count out Christian. It's been a really exciting race so far.
Cyclingnews: At the start of the Tour you said Damiano Cunego isn't a Tour rider and that he wouldn't be in contention. That's been proved right so far.
LA: I have many Italian friends, but they all need to realise that this race isn't the Giro d'Italia or Lombardy. It's a completely different world, and it's the hardest race you can ride. Those races are just not compatible. I guess you either have it or you don't.
Cyclingnews: You've mentioned before that Astana should be here at the Tour de France. Do you still think that?
LA: Definitely. The Tour is the place for the best riders to compete in the best race in the World and Contador is in my opinion the best bike rider in the world right now. I think it's wrong that they're not there. You just have to look at the measures they've gone to in the last year. They've installed the same protocol as CSC, but it's only CSC that has received the credit.
Cyclingnews: From watching the Tour from back home in the US, do you miss it?
LA: I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the camaraderie of a team. Guys like George and of course Johan [Bruyneel] were really important parts of the whole day-to- day set up. But I had my time, and I had good run.