Armstrong's Ardennes campaign

BY MAY 12 1996 - thanks to his five stage wins and overall victory in the Tour Dupont - Lance Armstrong was number five in the UCI rankings. But the foundations for this had been an aggressively fought European early season - second in Paris-Nice, and then, in April, storming rides in the two Ardennes classics: Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the most gruelling of all the one-day races.

WHAT MAKES L-B-L so tough? Above all it's the terrain. Its 263km in 1996 threw up a dozen climbs classified in the race's climbs competition, 10 in the last 100km, but outside the short stretches through the Liège city centre there's hardly a kilometre of road in the race that's not going up or down, and the finish was 200m from the top of a climb of about 10%. More often than not the weather in the Ardennes is as harsh as the course. There's always an even chance of being soaked in icy rain for most of the race, with snow only a degree or two away. Sometimes the snow doesn't hold off. The 1957 race was held in May - in a snowstorm - and at Houffalize on the way back from Bastogne hot drinks were handed out by the organizers. French star Louison Bobet struggled in more than 13 minutes down on the Belgian winner, Frans Schoubben. Why had Bobet bothered, someone asked. "It's my job," he replied. In 1980 snow fell from the first kilometre and within two hours 100 riders had abandoned. Only 21 finished, with Bernard Hinault coming in 9mins 24 ahead of Hennie Kuiper. Hinault asserts that his finger joints were never the same again after that chilling.

IN 1996 THE WEATHER went the other way. The day before the race the temperature hit 80 degrees and at the presentation riders who do well in the sun, such as Festina's Richard Virenque, had optimistic things to say about their chances. Motorola's Jesus Montoya politely opined that Belgium was as warm as Spain. The presentation is ably chaired by Tour "Speaker" Daniel Mangeas who's heard that Lance Armstrong has been teaching Laurent Madouas English and Madouas teaching Armstrong French. He asks Laurent to interpret for Lance. The Lance-Laurent Show freezes in stage fright - neither man can get out a word in either language...

RACE SUNDAY was as sunny as the day before. Those of us who'd followed the race before pinched ourselves as we stood in shirtsleeves getting a blast of dust from the peloton rather than the customary cold rain spray; on the Sart-Tilman climb near the finish Armstrong was seen pouring water over his head. Had we accidentally strayed into a Tour de France mountain stage time-warp? Armstrong's magisterial ride to victory in the seriously hilly Flèche Wallonne on the Wednesday - also in sunny weather and at a record race speed of 42.96kph - was a tasty hors d'oeuvre. "I certainly didn't regard today's race as a training race [for Liège-Bastogne-Liège]; I know it's an important race," said Armstrong after his Flèche win. "But I wasn't looking to win today, I didn't join the break for that, simply to test myself for Sunday. The circumstances decided otherwise and I'm very happy. But it doesn't change anything, Liège-Bastogne-Liège remains a major objective and I certainly didn't use up my strength today. My legs responded very well, and I still think they'll be in good shape on Sunday."

BUT THE FLECHE WIN raised the stakes, putting Armstrong within reach of joining an exclusive club of riders who have won Flèche Wallonne and L-B-L in the same year. Switzerland's Ferdi Kubler managed it twice, in 1951 and 1952; the rest were one-time winners - Belgians Stan Ockers (1955) and Eddy Merckx (1972); and the Italian Moreno Argentin in 1991. Armstrong had a fine Liège pedigree - 2nd in 1994 and 6th in 1995. Could weather suited to a Texan make the difference?

IN THE SUN but also into a headwind the riders were not rushing into battle. When Belgian Kris Gerrits of the Vlaanderen 2002 team broke away at 60km on the long drag up the Baraque de Fraiture he was allowed his head and made the turn first at Bastogne (95km) to pick up a useful $1,000 prize - he didn't finish the race. He was chased down by France's Damien Nazon (Banesto) at km116 and the pair were swept up by the peloton at km136. By the Cote de Wanne (km155 - 3km at an average 4.6%) serious front-runners were beginning to show. Motorola's Andrea Peron began a monumental day's work he was to share with team-mate Laurent Madouas when he led Armstrong over the climb followed by 1994 winner Evgeni Berzin (Gewiss) and Italian national champion Gianni Bugno (MG-Technogym).

THE NEXT CLIMB, the narrow, winding Côte des Hézalles (km164 - 1.1km at an average 11% but with a maximum gradient of 23%), proved as selective as ever. The climb, which rears up from the town of Trois-Ponts, had Peron, Armstrong, Bugno, Virenque and Roslotto's Maurizio Fondriest and Alexandre Gontchenkov at the front. Near the top of the hill just after a tight hairpin Virenque attacked and soon had a clear gap. Dropping back into Trois-Ponts his lead climbed to over 30 seconds, with the peloton stretched out in a long line behind him. Once through Trois-Ponts, the depleted peloton (one road out of the town is a quick route home to Liège that many back-markers took) was soon on the long drag of the Aisomont (km172 - 4.5km at an average 5.1%, maximum 9%) where Fabrizio Bontempi (Brescialat) set off on a solo attempt to catch Virenque. Farther back Beat Zberg (Carrera), Georg Totschnig (Polti), Marco Saligari (MG), Piotr Ugrumov (Roslotto) and Peron made a brief excursion off the front of the peloton. Near the top of the climb Virenque was caught by Bontempi but they were almost immediately swept up by Peron pulling hard on the front of the bunch with Armstrong on his wheel. Irrepressible, Bontempi took off again for the climb points and headed off alone down the 15% descent with a peloton of 68 chasing behind and stretching out in a long line.

ON THE WAY DOWN to the town of Stavelot (km178) Peron was almost constantly at the front with Armstrong on his wheel. Others prominent at the front were Bugno and team-mate Saligari. Before Stavelot, Bontempi was caught and the increasingly strung-out peloton braced itself for the fearsome Stockeu wall (km179 -1.1km at an average 12%, with a maximum 22%). On the first part of the Stockeu, Peron led Armstrong, others at the front including Bugno, Saligari, Gontchenkov, Didier Rous (GAN), Fondriest, 1995 winner Mauro Gianetti (Polti), Laurent Brochard and Pascal Hervé (Festina), and Michele Bartoli and Pascal Richard (MG). Near the top of the Stockeu, Armstrong worked his way past a flagging Peron with Bugno on his wheel. Gianetti bridged the gap and opened a new one, which Hervé closed with Armstrong on his wheel. The three of them were away and moved clear on the descent back into Stavelot.

A DESCENT is a relief from all this climbing, but how much of a relief is this one? - it's cobbled as it drops through the town of Stavelot and the cobbles continue as it ascends through its streets and then onto the Haute Levée (184.5km - 3.7km at 5.6%, maximum 11%). Armstrong finds himself out alone in front on the cobbles and turns onto the Haute Levée looking as if he's in no mood for lone-break heroics. He eases off, looks back and waits for the first group. Gianetti goes to the front and they line up Michele Coppolillo (MG), Armstrong, Richard, Stefano Zanini (Gewiss), Rous, Gontchenkov, Abraham Olano (Mapei), Laurent Madouas and Axel Merckx (Motorola). Others in the front group pulled away by Gianetti are his team-mate Davide Rebellin and San Marco's Gabriele Missaglia.

NEAR THE TOP of the Haute Levée Olano accelerates and pulls the lead group to the summit. Coppolillo then attacks and starts to build a lone break that is 1min 25 by km190 on the descent from the Haute Levée and is to last almost 40km. On the Côte du Rosier (196.5km - 4km at 6.2%) Rolf Sorensen (Rabobank) bridges up to the group chasing Coppolillo, having broken clear from Hervé, Virenque and Claudio Chiappucci (Carrera), who half-heartedly pick up the chase. On the descent from the Rosier, though, the chase group merges, first as a stretched-out line and then as a bunch of 34 thinking about emptying musettes into their pockets and bottle cages as they hit the second feed at La Gleize-Stoumont (202.5km).

THE RESPITE IS BRIEF. At 209km the Côte de la Vecquée looms (3.3km at 4.8%, maximum 8%) and on the climb the peloton begins to splinter again. First it's Gianetti on the front, but then Madouas picks up the pace for Armstrong. By the top of the climb Madouas' blistering pace has reduced to six a group that initially included eight. The others are Armstrong, Olano, Richard, Brochard and Gianetti - the two who falter Fondriest and Missaglia. Armstrong had a word for Madouas' efforts after the race: "He was fantastic - even too good. From time to time I was suffering so much that I had to ask him to ease off. He was stronger than me..."

COPPOLILLO sees nothing of this sport - he's busy finding new ways of getting aerodynamic (off the front of the saddle rather than off the back Pantani-style) on the way down la Vecquée. Behind, the six leaders stay away for a while. Then Armstrong eases off - he needs the team car - Madouas waits for him, and simultaneously there's a new but reduced regrouping of 17: Gianetti, Rebellin, Olano, Richard, Fabiano Fontanelli (MG), Chiappucci, Enrico Zaina (Carrera) , Brochard, Virenque, Hervé, Armstrong, Fondriest, Missaglia, Gabriele Colombo (Gewiss), Sorensen and a Motorola reinforcement - Axel Merckx. The three Motorola riders take to the front again but are not able to hold off attacks on the 10km drop down to the Ourthe river. Sorensen, still frisky, tries twice; Brochard, Olano, Richard and Gianetti get away briefly, but on relatively level ground the 17 are all together, and the spectator-packed La Redoute is looming 7km away.

COPPOLILLO still looks good as he weaves his way through the corridor of humanity up La Redoute (226km -1.7km at 11%, maximum 19%). He's about 30 seconds ahead of the chasers. Near the summit, disaster strikes - he unships his chain, comes to a halt on a bend and dismounts to fix it. Gianetti has attacked and is first past Coppolillo with Richard and Armstrong grappling for his wheel. Farther back Olano takes chase and pulls a select group up to the front three to make eight - the others are Madouas, Coppolillo, Fondriest and Colombo. After the summit there's a brief stretch of downhill, then the road turns up again. On the rough surface Armstrong kicks hard again, a vicious attack that Olano, Fondriest, and Gianetti all try to counter. But it's only Gianetti and Richard that are able to get up to Armstrong.

IT'S THE CRUCIAL BREAK that will take the trio through Liège and up to the suburb of Ans for the final showdown. By the Côte de Hornay (34km to the finish -1.05km at 6.2%, max 9%) the lead group has 30 seconds on Rebellin, Fondriest, Olano, Coppolillo, Virenque, Colombo, Madouas, Merckx, Chiappucci and Hervé. The famous Côte des Forges is out of the race this year because of road repairs and just before its replacement, the Sart-Tilman climb (15km to the finish - 3.5km at 5.5%), Sorensen bridges across to the chasers, tries to head off and is sat on by Merckx and then the rest. Fontanelli is also suddenly in the group, he must have been on Sorensen's tail.

THE FINAL SUB-PLOTS were played out on the long drag of Sart-Tilman. First Fondriest attacked, splitting the chase group, taking only Olano, Madouas and Rebellin with him; then Madouas made an out-of-the saddle attack, rapidly getting clear to assure himself of fourth place at Ans. Judging by the finish order at Ans there's also a lot of switching about on the fast descent to the valley of the Meuse and the run-in to Liège, with Merckx, Fontanelli, Rebellin, Virenque and Sorensen making up ground and Olano and Fondriest losing it.

THROUGH THE CITY OF LIEGE and on the difficult climb, drop, false flat and then steeper climb up to the finish at Ans, Armstrong, Richard and Gianetti watch each other carefully, with Gianetti sticking solidly to the back until he attacks on the last steep stretch with 1km to go. As Armstrong chases him down, Richard hangs back, feigning, he later says, incapacity to do anything else. But he then makes a token counter-attack, slowing when Armstrong gets on his wheel, leaving the Texan stuck in the front with 400m to go. At 300m, as the road levels off, they slow to walking pace but Armstrong is still caught in front. The sharp left at 250m puts him in the finishing straight still ahead and he's forced to go from the front, leaving Richard to take him by a bike length.

A MODEST CONSOLATION for Armstrong was that his 1st in Flèche Wallonne and 2nd in Liège-Bastogne-Liège gave him clear victory in the Trophée Week-End Ardennais, which combines the results of the two races. After all this, amazingly, Lance gives an interview in more than passable French ñ proving that Laurent Madouas' linguistic efforts have been as good as his day's racing. Why the Trophée's strange name? - an historical hangover to the days when the Flèche took place on a Saturday and Liège-Bastogne-Liège the next day. What a tough racing package that must have been!

© Roger Thomas 1996