14th July 2003
2003, and Lance Armstrong is aiming for his record-equalling fifth consecutive Tour de France win. It would be almost a decade before he was stripped of all seven of his wins after the truth about the US Postal Team’s doping programme was revealed. As for many of his Tour attempts, Armstrong believed that Jan Ullrich would be his closest rival in the 2003 race. Ullrich had signed with Team Coast at the start of the year, but the sponsor had run into financial difficulties and the title sponsorship was eventually taken on by Bianchi, which secured the team’s entry into the Tour.
Ullrich’s presence at the race, and the number of other possible yellow jersey rivals, meant that the 2003 Tour was much more competitive than Armstrong’s previously dominant victories. Two of Lance’s biggest rivals, ex teammate Tyler Hamilton and fellow American Levi Leipheimer were involved in a heavy crash early in the race. Leipheimer was forced to abandon, yet Hamilton continued with a broken collarbone. This left Jan Ullrich and the Spaniard Joseba Beloki as the biggest threats to the dominance of the US Postal Team.
Beloki had the ability to perform well in both mountain stages and time trials, and was only 40 seconds behind Armstrong in the General Classification at the start of Stage 9, which was held on 14th July. Beloki’s all round ability had seen him share the final podium in Paris with Lance in the previous three editions of the Tour – as 3rd in 2000 and 2001, moving up to 2nd in 2002. His skill and proximity to the yellow jersey as Stage 9 began meant that the US Postal Team had to mark his every move as the stage took the riders from Le Bourg d’Oisans to Gap.
Although the stage win on 14th July 2003 went to the Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinakourov, his win is overshadowed by an incident on the road between Beloki and Armstrong. 4 kilometres from the finish line in Gap, Beloki was descending from Cote de La Rochette after negotiating the mountain pass of Col de Manse. Attempting to eat into Armstrong’s lead, Beloki appeared to be taking risks on the descent. Armstrong was determined not to let the Spaniard escape, and stuck to his wheel as the pair descended into Gap.
Beloki, riding directly in front of Armstrong, negotiated a difficult turn at high speed, and panicked as he realised the severe angle of the corner. In a split second, Beloki lost control of his bike, applied his rear brake, and locked the back wheel. The heat of the day had partially melted the road surface, with the result that the rear end of his bike swayed wildly in both directions. Beloki crashed heavily, suffering career threatening injuries. His elbow and wrist were broken, and his femur was fractured in two places.
With barely a fraction of a second to react, Armstrong aimed his bike straight ahead in order to avoid hitting Beloki, and rode straight off the road across a ploughed field. The road curved around the edge of the field, which allowed Armstrong to travel a short distance across the rutted field, before leaping off his bike and carrying it across a ditch. Armstrong quickly remounted and continued with the race. The entire incident lasted only a handful of seconds but served as a metaphor for the Armstrong era as a whole. Lance – riding with performance enhancing substances in his system, was gifted a hefty dose of luck to match his undeniable talent. “That man was in complete control” exclaimed race commentator Paul Sherwen, “Armstrong is such a star!”
Beloki’s career as an elite rider was cut short that day, as he attempted to ride away from Lance. The scene only added to the Armstrong legend.