Gasping for breath and dripping with sweat, Lance Armstrong was pedaling his bicycle up an impossibly steep mountain road in the Pyrenees during the Tour de France last week when he got a phone call.
It was Johan Bruyneel, the director sportif -- that is, head coach -- of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. He had called -- using the portable communications system that all Postal riders wore -- to alert Armstrong of a breakaway effort by a dozen or so riders from other teams. Bruyneel didn't want to let the group get far enough ahead to endanger Armstrong's overall lead.
The coach then started talking strategy with the other six members of his team. Within seconds, it was agreed that three Postal riders would pull ahead of Armstrong to block the wind and let him ride in their slipstream so he could speed up and catch the breakaway.
As it happened, the Postal advance guard stayed close enough that there was no threat to Armstrong's lead. And today, Armstrong, the 27-year-old Texan who survived a serious bout with cancer in 1997, stood on the podium as the overall champion of the world's most prestigious bicycle race. He finished 7 minutes 37 seconds ahead of the runner-up, Switzerland's Alex Zulle, in the standings.
Amid all the excitement about his amazing comeback, Armstrong reminded everybody that there would have been no victory if he hadn't had his teammates to rely on. "The team won this, not me," he said this weekend.
Long-distance bicycle racing -- the bitter struggle of a man and his human-powered machine against gravity, wind and exhaustion -- may look like an individual sport. But as that perilous moment in the Pyrenees demonstrates, it has to be a collective effort at the top level. Not even a phenomenon such as Armstrong could win a major race without the support of teammates dedicated to getting their leader across the line first.
Since every rider has to cover the same grueling 2,290-mile course in the Tour, it may seem unfair that only one member of each team gets a shot at the glory and grandeur of victory.
In fact, the supporting riders on a Tour de France team know exactly what their assignments are. They no more expect to win the race than Washington Redskins center Cory Raymer would expect to drop back and throw a touchdown pass.
In the jargon of the bike racers, the junior riders whose job is to support the team leader are known by the slightly belittling term domestiques. (The U.S. Postal team, with an American concern for equality, prefers the more neutral word "sergeants.")
One key job of the sergeants is that windshield duty. Depending on conditions, a bike racer may find himself using a quarter of his energy output just to overcome wind resistance. When two or three teammates ride ahead of him in single file, it is they who have to produce that extra energy, while the team leader saves strength for the vital sprint at the end of the stage.
Another key role for the sergeants is serving as a gofer. If the team's riders need new water bottles, for example, or a battery for the communications unit, a junior rider will drop back to the end of the pack and collect what is needed from the team car. Then he has to sprint ahead, past the pack, to make the delivery.
On the U.S. Postal team, the main delivery man was the team's only French rider, Pascal Derame. Although he is a respected international rider, Derame finished 140th, or second-to-last, in this year's Tour. "Poor Pascal had to make so many sprints each day for delivery that he was lucky even to finish," said the team's media director, Margot Myers.
Team riders also have to serve as a protective guard around the leader. When the pack is jammed together and the road narrow, collisions and injuries are common. So three or four team members will form a convoy around the leader -- acting, in effect, as human bumpers.
The U.S. Postal team took that tack today at the end of the 89-mile final stage of the Tour. By tradition, the team of the man in the yellow jersey gets to enter central Paris at the head of the pack on the last day, riding into a huge cheer of welcome from the crowds that always gather on the Champs Elysees.
Today, Armstrong and the U.S. Postal squad stayed in front just long enough for the honor of the thing. Then they dropped safely back into the pack, forming a rolling huddle around their quarterback. Armstrong finished 86th in today's stage, but that was irrelevant because he already had a big enough margin to ensure the overall title.
The U.S. Postal team was by far the most American operation in the Tour de France. Six of the seven team members who finished are Americans, and they rode American-made bicycles. In addition to Armstrong, they are Frankie Andreu of Dearborn, Mich.; Tyler Hamilton of Brookline, Mass.; George Hincapie of Charlotte; Kevin Livingston of Austin, and Chris Van de Velde of Lemont, Ill.
And their teamwork paid off. U.S. Postal became the first American team to produce an overall winner at the Tour de France. American Greg LeMond won the Tour in 1986, 1989 and 1990, but in each case he was riding for European teams.