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The Secret of Lance Armstrong's Success
The winning psychology of the seven times Tour de France champion
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-24 14:53 (KST)   
Lance Edward Gunderson was born on Sept. 18, 1971. When his father abandoned his mother shortly afterwards, he took his mother's name, and became Lance Armstrong. Lance grew up in a deadend place -- Plano, Texas. He started out as a triathlete, and appeared on the cover of Triathlete Magazine at age 17. Even as a triathlete, his bike splits were exceptionally quick. At 17 he received an invitation to train with the Junior National Cycling Team.

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Lance, cycling as an amateur, won the U.S. amateur championship at age 20, and finished 14th in the 1992 Olympics road race. In 1992 Lance turned professional. The Clasica San Sebastian was his first professional road race; he finished last. This is an extremely difficult race, and Lance has subsequently admitted, had he given up in this race, he would not have gone on to any of his subsequent successes. His first major victory came in 1993, when Lance won the World Cycling Championship in Oslo, Norway. He was the youngest world champion cyclist yet. The King of Norway invited him to a celebratory dinner which Lance initially turned down, because he wanted his mother with him. The King quickly assented.

Now the world appeared to be his oyster. And a fairytale story about to be set in motion.

Signing up with the Team Motorola, Lance managed to win individual stages in the 1993 and 1995 Tours de France. After placing 2nd in the Tour duPont in 1994, he won the same race in 1995. In 1996 he was ranked 9th in the world. He abandoned his 1996 Tour de France, and did not perform well at the Atlanta Olympics.

Soon after, on Oct. 2, 1996, at 25 years of age, Lance was diagnosed with metastasized testicular cancer. It had spread to his lungs and brain, and doctors gave him a less than 40 percent chance of surviving.

During the course of his treatments, two brain lesions were removed and one testicle. Lance was put on a more severe form of chemotherapy, but one which would cause less damage to his lungs than the alternative. The chemotherapy changed the shape of his body, so that he emerged much slimmer than the original and muscular triathlete/cyclist.

In the meantime the Cofidis team cancelled their contract. In 1998, after finally signed up with the United States Postal Pro Cycling Team. Lance finished 4th in this, the third most prestigious stage race in the world, the Vuelta a Espana (which ends in Sept. each year).

The rest, as they say is history. Armstrong won the Tour de France in 1999, and then every year since, for a total of seven victories: a phenomal achievement in the history of sport.

In retrospect it's interesting to note that when it seemed his life was over, cancer made Lance realize that he was smart. It boosted his confidence in himself, not only in cycling but in everything. It made him focus on his desire, and more importantly, on who he didn't want to be.

In his book Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force Daniel Coyle describes Armstrong's psychology, which is based on fairly simple, but highly effective software, on these paradigms:

1. Binary evaluations: everything is either good or bad, there are no gray areas.
2. Attack, push, inflict yourself on the world
3. Free yourself: block out the negative.

To understand how powerful Armstrong's persona is in the world of cycling (it's moved into popular mythology since), it's important to have a basic understanding of the lifestyle, and the realities, of the professional cyclist.

During the 2002 NASCAR season, there were five injuries all year.* Professional cyclists (and there are approximately 400) suffer about 5 serious injuries a week. These injuries include having the flesh torn off your eye, punctured lungs, broken vertebrae, concussions and that staple of cycling injuries: the broken collar bone. If you've read Armstrong's books you'll know he came within a whisker of breaking his neck. Ullrich, the day before the 2005 tour, crashed into his team car deeply cutting his neck two millimeters from his jugular vein. These are the days of the professional cyclist.

And if people think that Lance is a happy-go-lucky guy, they need to be corrected. John Korioth, one of Armstrong's closest buddies, says Lance is the toughest person he knows. He's not Mr. Smiley. When you understand the sport of cycling, and the daily dynamics involved, and especially the demands of the Tour, it's impossible to believe that just anyone -- especially a Mr. Nice Guy -- can win the Tour.

When it comes to Armstrong and the tour, the trick was -- some said -- to not make Armstrong mad. And if you've studied Armstrong closely, you'll see that people who upset Lance don't stick around -- not in a race, not on his team, not in his life. Bob Roll, an OLN commentator, came up with Roll's Law:

1. The way to beat Lance Armstrong is to not make him mad
2. Beating Armstrong makes him mad

Daniel Coyle discusses these opposing axioms, explaining their logic. The way to beat Armstrong, Coyle writes, is to "catch him by surprise." And what is the Lance the master of? Preparation. Preparation means training, homework, research and readiness. All these things mean work, very hard work, very hard consistent work. If you want to make yourself unbeatable, work hard, and care a lot about being beaten.

Two serious threats to Lance, two cyclists that demonstrated incredible toughness and might well have scuppered Armstrong's plans to win seven Tours, were East German stalwart Jan Ullrich (and one time tour winner), and Armstrong's countryman, Tyler Hamilton (whose nice guy exterior hides his teeth-grinding determination).***

Yes, Tyler Hamilton is nice. He's polite and dresses in neat collared shirts. But underneath the I of nice is a guy who rode a tour with a fractured collar bone and finished fourth. Hamilton's very tough, but he's never won the tour. Hamilton's current tribulations may change that.

Ullrich who has shadowed Lance through every tour, is a hardcore East German, and like Lance, grew up without a father. He's not nearly as intense -- off the bike -- as Lance, and enjoys good food and Western entertainments. Once, when they encountered each other (despite their rivalry they're good friends), Lance held out his hand and Ullrich gave the Texan a hug. That's Jan. Nice is good, but if you're out to win, nice is going to be a hindrance.

Ullrich is probably the most talented cyclist in the world, yes, even stronger and more talented than Lance. I'd argue that when competing in a race as hard as the tour, where millions of dollars are at stake, being overtly nice or laid back becomes a serious handicap. Ullrich famously lay in bed on the morning of a vital time trial, while Lance reconnoitered the course in the cold and rain. Ullrich fell approaching a roundabout, and lost another chance of winning the tour. Winning big today requires sustained seriousness and intensity, perhaps under a guise of a calm precision, and perhaps supplemented by a sense of humor.

Lance has said he never wanted to know what coming second in the tour would feel like. That's another way of saying: winning means everything. If that's true for you, then you must know how much work there is for you to do. Ullrich could write a book on the subject of coming second. He has said, after all: [I will be remembered] either as a gifted athlete who made life difficult for himself, but always succeeded in the end, or as a sloppy genius who wasn't capable of using his exceptional talent.**

What makes Armstrong so dangerous is his competitiveness, his raw aggression, his anger, distilled into something more constructive: pedaling a bicycle. If that seems simplistic, then look at the first half of the sentence again. That raw aggression, that anger is not ordinary anger.

Daniel Coyle, in his book on Armstrong, describes Armstrong's fascinating power as follows: he's our embodiment of the fundamental human act -- to impose the will on an uncaring world.

You may wonder what underscores, what underlies such a powerful sense of will. Is it anger? Is it desire? Is it both? Landis, Lance's one-time teammate has described Lance as "one very, very complicated guy." Will is underscored by our very being, whether we're conscious of this or not. Of course, the more conscious we are, the more we're able to set our being, our bodies in motion, and instill the will on turning the delicate wheel of the universe.

Cycling is an interesting sport. For some reason, the emotions translate into the legs, and the machine conducts, directs these impulses in a straight line -- making fate move that much faster towards you. Even mental conditions tend to manifest on the open road. Today you're negative; you've missed your morning ride and finally got yourself out the door after 3 p.m. A tailwind threw you forward.

But then, at 6 km, your back wheel suddenly hissed and you felt the road, chewing teeth, under your saddle. You never get punctures, but you are also never very negative on the bike. Today's puncture makes sense.

On Saturday, in a cycle race, you were faced with this common conundrum: get dropped or ride dangerously close to the guy in front. You chose the latter, knowing that by riding so close your view of the road was blocked, and that you wouldn't have time to react if there was a pothole or worse in the rode. The guys are flying, and the wind was pumping, so you had to push in tight. Then it happened. The rider in front bounced over crushed fragments of concrete. Fortunately you darted right and the debris sprayed fairly harmlessly through your spokes. But it is just after this incident that you realize this simple truth: cyclists often put their lives, their bodies on the line, to keep themselves in contention. To do well, we need to commit all, and that requires sometimes violent, always complete acts of will.

A final point to make is that no psychology is complete without a language in which to express it. Armstrong's vocabulary is a reflection of his belief in himself and his mission.

How does Armstrong describe his equipment, his bicycle, and his weapons for battle?

The Shit That Will Kill Them.

Now go out and win. Slay the dragons. Kill them all.
*Lance Armstrong; Tour de force, by Daniel Coyle. P15
**Ganz Order Gar Nicht (All Or Nothing At All), Jan Ullrich셲 autobiography, 2004
***Hamilton ground his teeth to the nerves, had them recapped, then did so again

For more information on the author of this article, please visit www.3xluck.blogspot.com
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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