by Chris Brewer
While the history was there, it’s doubtful that anyone would have picked Gruene, Texas as the start of Lance Armstrong’s historic comeback to professional road racing. Back in 1996 it was a very different story as Lance, who admittedly “barely could ride a bike” due to cancer treatments, rode with legendary Eddy Merckx in a ceremonial Time Trial circuit. Then in 1997 he rode with teammate Kevin Livingston notching a 2nd place result.
Flash ahead 11 years later and Lance had teamed up with longtime friend John “College” Korioth to contest his first TT since July of 2005. Lance started off by winning the individual race Saturday and the 2-man contest with College on Sunday. But as always, the result is only part of the story, here’s a look at what it took for Team Armstrong to get the win this past weekend…
The morning started early for those in support of Lance’s solo effort. Man-of-all-things Dave Bolch (soigneur, mechanic, ranch manager, welder, and on and on) got all the gear together while I went out and picked up aero guru Steve Hed at the airport. While some things are always kept close, suffice to say they wanted to try some new things position-wise, as well as some new equipment. After all, early races like this are more about testing yourself and equipment than they are about victories.
Dave and Steve got to making the adjustments they wanted to try and Lance came over to check on their progress and discuss what his thoughts were in recent rides compared to back in the day. The joke of the day was that we planned to go “low profile” into Gruene, but by the time we had everyone organized realized we had four vehicles, a follow scooter, 12 folks including Lance’s kids and a video crew! So much for incognito… we made the 50 mile trek to just outside of Gruene proper to a scenic riverside start line. With everyone unloaded we got down to the business at hand: Lance went out to warm up, we got the lay of the land and start procedures down, and LA’s son Luke practiced skipping rocks in the river…
The weekend, weather-wise, couldn’t have been nicer for a Fall TT. With temps in the upper 70s and fall colors abundant, it was a truly scenic venue. Lance went and pre-rode the course (they had scouted it earlier as well) while we met with race directors Tom Sickman and Will Rotzler. Both guys have been running this race for a long time, and Tom was one of the first folks to get me into the sport back when he used to own B&J Bicycle Shop in San Antonio. Solid guys for sure.
With riders streaming out to test themselves on the 16 mile out and back course, Lance rolled in and got set up to spin on the trainer. By this time the crowd had found our camp and was a respectful 8-10 feet around him while he continued his warm up. While I helped with crowd control on one side, an older man came right up to him on the bike much to our surprise. As I came over to escort him to a safer position, he smiled and said, “No, no, it’s OK ?I am from Denmark!” No, no – it’s OK to be over there, not here, regardless of national origin.
As the crowd started to press in, Lance decided to go finish his warm up out on the road and we headed for the follow car. College and Steve Hed were on the chase scooter so Steve could get a firsthand look at Lance’s position and performance, director Tom drove the follow car with several of our crew and reporters along for the ride. Lance was last to head out late afternoon, and while he was clearly the fastest rider on the course, he looked a bit “blocked” to me, especially on the first 8 miles out. I’ve seen Lance’s riding style for many years, and the smooth locked-in style just wasn’t there. He seemed to be fighting for power rather than it just flowing. The power was still there (albeit well below his Tour performance standard, he noted after), but it just didn’t look like it felt right. Lance would go on to win the day with a time of 33’14” (46.5 kmh / 28.9 mph), but as soon as he came back he was in a huddle with Steve and Dave, discussing the day’s performance and bike set up.
On the way back home, with Blackberry phone calls and messages flying, it was decided for the next day to go back to basics and the riding set up from 2005. That meant plenty of work post-ride for Steve and Dave, and a 7am leave time tomorrow morning…
At least daylight savings time was in our favor, and the crew ?down to just two vehicles today, was in a much more relaxed state than yesterday. Of course the pressure was on today for College, after all, it’s not every day a 42 year old gets the opportunity to race a 2-man TT with a 7-time Tour de France champion, even if he is one of your best friends and you are the reigning Masters National Road Champ! But John looked in good spirits with plenty of good natured ribbing throughout the morning.
We rolled into downtown Gruene and set up camp in the Gristmill restaurant. Riders of all calibers were heading out onto the course, most taking it quite seriously while others took the opportunity to enjoy a sporty ride through the very scenic countryside. While Lance and College warmed up on the course, I went to scout out the venue and start times. LA and College would head out at 10:01am, and as I showed Lance a photo of the start times he saw that 2007 defending champs Pat McCarty (Garmin-Chipotle) and Phil Wikoff (Source Endurance) were starting three minutes ahead of them. “That’s the target!” he said enthusiastically. Now giving two solid TTers nearly a mile and a half head start and then running them down is not only a difficult thing to, but you have to AVERAGE 1.5 mph faster than them the entire way. Looked like a long hour for College was in the works!
With the race running spot on time we had just 13 minutes for some final adjustments to LA’s bike and while they lined up in the final spot we loaded up the chase car. I had the wheel while Bart Knaggs rode shotgun along with Steve, video crew, reporter and race director Will. The guys were off like a shot in the quick downhill start and it was immediately apparent that Lance was riding a lot better than yesterday. “The only problem is that Lance could burn out College,” Bart noted. That would take some good / honest communication between the two riders, or else College could blow up and Lance would have to wait (the final rider time is the one that’s scored). The guys looked very good together, and as to be expected Lance took most of the pulls but College did his share, too. With speeds going between 28-32 mph (and well over 40 mph on the mild descents) all was looking well, but while we knew that Lance had a ~29mph TT in him, could College hang on?
With Bart often hanging out the car yelling encouragement and banging on the door(!) it didn’t seem like they could go much faster. That is until Lance caught sight of a Garmin-Chipotle uniform on the horizon of a gradual ascent on Hwy 306. Spurred on by seeing their afore-mentioned 3-minute target, Lance and College worked even harder to catch and pass McCarty and Wikoff. The defending champs weren’t about to just get dropped and lose site, playing cat and mouse with Lance and College all the way to the line (while some in the car were concerned this chase effort may have cracked College). But in the end John did indeed hang on as they notched the second consecutive victory of the weekend, rolling in with a time of 56’37” and an average speed of 28.9 mph / 46.5 kmh.
“That was the hardest physical thing I have ever done in my life,” a weary College said afterwards. “I have been asking Lance to do this race with me for 12 years. And when he finally agreed I realized I wasn’t quite sure what I had gotten myself into. I remember a part in the race where I told Lance my heart rate hadn’t gone below 180 since the start, and he told me his had been up over 190. I literally yelled at him, so why are we going on so hard?!” And while College was a bit cross-eyed, Lance had the fire back in his eyes and was already comparing TT photos on Liz Kreutz’s cameras back in the hotel room.
We made our way into the historic Gruene Hall jammed with riders and fans waiting for Lance’s podium time. Will first presented Lance with his trophy from the day before, then he and College accepted their prize for winning the 2-man TT. Lance thanked the crowd and the race for their amazing support, and then told them he intended to be back the following year to defend their title, much to the crowd’s delight! As we made our way back out, Lance signing item after item on the fly, you could just feel the overwhelming positive energy.
And while we’ve celebrated many victories on the streets of Paris, today just off of I-35 it was a Whataburger drive through that went to the victors. Hopefully when we look back on a very successful 2009 season, we’ll be able to say that it started on the roads of Gruene, Texas? great people, a great event, and a solid step forward in Lance’s comeback to professional cycling.
Lance and company headed back to the house, LA spending the afternoon playing football and taking family photos with his kids and newest TT trophy. Dave and I dropped off Steve at the airport as he headed to the wind tunnel to prepare it for Lance and several other top riders in the days ahead. Afterwards we downloaded all the gear, glad for an early afternoon off and a successful weekend of racing. And me, I celebrated by breaking out my bike and going for a ride, it just seemed the right thing to do. Ciao for now….
Dave, Steve and Lance discuss the Trek TTX bike set up
College follows Lance on his warm up run Saturday
The scenic riverside of Gruene, TX
Lance’s kids cheer him on roadside
Steve and Lance discuss watts and drag counts on Sunday
The target has been noted
Lance leads College at 29+mph
Mission accomplished, McCarty and Wikoff are passed
Celebrating Whataburger style!