If you’ve watched the 2004 Tour de France, you’ve witnessed a command performance by Lance Armstrong, who has all but locked up an unprecedented sixth consecutive win in the world’s toughest bicycle race. But the true story of this year’s Tour may be Lance’s U.S. Postal Service team, an organizational wonder that has put on one of the greatest displays in the history of team sport. Lance’s victory this weekend will stand as a testament to the importance of surrounding any great leader with an equally great supporting cast.
The USPS team threw down the gauntlet in the first week, winning the team time trial and putting Lance in the lead. When the race entered the mountains, the team became a ruthlessly efficient machine. George Hincapie, once a weak climber, now powered the peloton up the middle climbs of each stage. Floyd Landis would take the lead at the foot of the final mountain, setting a pace that splintered the field. Landis then handed off to Jose Azevedo, whose climbing pace was so fierce that only the top few riders in the world could keep up. By the time Armstrong rode to the front, he could focus on defeating the handful of rivals who remained.
Most incredibly, the USPS riders did this day after day through the brutal Pyrenees and Alps, overcoming fatigue and sacrificing themselves for the good of their teammate. The “Blue Train” consistently set a pace at the front of the pack that other teams could not match, steadily suffocating the field. It isn’t just that the team put Lance in a position to win, it assured that no other rider would have any chance to win.
And at the head of this organization, Armstrong cemented his leadership with a convincing individual time trial win plus three other stage victories, proving to his teammates that he was a worthy beneficiary of their sacrifices. Contrast this with Jan Ullrich, Lance’s closest competitor, who found himself fighting to maintain leadership of his own team after he faltered early on and teammate Andreas Kloden surged ahead in the standings. The best way to get people to work their hardest for you is to set an example with your own work. Armstrong did this; Ullrich did not.
This USPS team may soon disband, as Lance nears the end of his career and his support riders likely receive lucrative offers to join other teams. But years from now, as Lance Armstrong is remembered as possibly the greatest cyclist ever, the 2004 USPS cycling squad should be recalled as one of the greatest sporting teams of all time, and an example of what a brilliantly planned and flawlessly executed organization can achieve.