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From the pages of Velo: Armstrong’s springboard to a million

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Jun. 3, 2012
  • Updated Jun. 3, 2012 at 11:37 AM EST

Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the June 28, 1993 issue of VeloNews. We revisit the story of Lance Armstrong’s Triple Crown win on the morning of a new-look TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship.

PHILADELPHIA (VN) — In the first eight editions of the CoreStates USPRO Championship, the Manayunk Wall never fulfilled its hoped-for role as a springboard to victory. This half-mile-long hill, with a short section of 17-percent grade, comes at the far end of Philadelphia’s 14.4-mile circuit. The Wall has always been a spectacular viewing point for the crowds that jam between Manayunk’s Victorian row houses and the barriers on race day, but it has not been a significant factor in any previous race. That wasn’t the case on June 6…. In two dramatic thrusts — the first on lap eight, the second on the 10th and final lap — Armstrong used the course’s only real climb to shape a memorable victory, and scoop that “impossible” million-dollar Thrift Drug Triple Crown.

If Armstrong were the star, it was his highly motivated Motorola squad that set him into orbit. Under the command of veterans Phil Andersen and Sean Yates, Motorola dispatched two men (former East German national team rider Jan Schur and Dane Thomas Bay) in the day’s early break — that was powered by Coors Light riders, lasted for almost 100 miles, and at one time held a nine-minute lead — while the team’s other five riders gave their Texas teammate an armchair ride in the peloton. Then, when Motorola finally decided to close down the break, it did so with immense confidence, as Yates,
Andersen, Andy Bishop and Frankie Andreu rode a team-time-trial formation at the head of the peloton. Once the break was caught, Bay and Schur joined their colleagues to maintain the pace of the pack. And half a lap later, Armstrong made his first move.

It came at the foot of The Wall, 46 miles from the finish. At that point, Coors Light’s Dave Mann was 30 seconds ahead, after making a solo attack, into a strong head wind, alongside the Schuylkill River. Motorola was still leading the 80-strong pack as they pursued Mann, around the three 90-degree bends in the cobbled streets of Manayunk that precede The Wall — where, on the climb’s first slopes, Andersen accelerated to open up some gaps in the line.

With the grade steepening, Armstrong moved to the front, from where he responded immediately to a surprise counterattack by another Coors Light rider, and former race winner, Roberto Gaggioli. There was panic behind them, as rivals scrambled forward in response to Armstrong’s attack. In fact, in the rush to the front, a few riders fell when they touched wheels, while others were forced to stop.

However, four riders were alert and adept enough to go with Armstrong and Gaggioli — two Americans, Bobby Julich (Pacos de Ferreira) and Jim Copeland (Chevrolet-L.A. Sheriff); and two Italians, Angelo Canzonieri and Simone Biasci (both of Mercatone Uno). These six riders caught Mann by The Wall’s summit — where belated chases were started by Saturn’s Brian Walton, and then by Darren Baker (Subaru-Montgomery) and German Markus Schleicher (Varta-Elk).

After dropping back to the valley, the Armstrong break was already 42 seconds ahead of Walton, 0:55 up on the next two chasers, and 1:07 ahead of the pack. Under Armstrong’s inspiration, the break was eating up the terrain, and setting a pace that proved too fast for Mann, who dropped off before the end of the lap. “I’m bollixed,” the Englishman proclaimed. “Armstrong was going much too hard for me.” But Armstrong didn’t ease the pressure: He went to the front whenever he sensed that the break was losing its momentum, and by the time the six leaders tackled The Wall for a ninth time, they were 1:44 ahead of Walton, 2:00 up on Baker and Schleicher, and 3:13 ahead of the pack. … The decisive move had been made.

The situation was almost perfect for Armstrong, where one remaining problem was how to rid himself of the three Italian sprinters. In the meantime, however, they were his allies, making strong pulls, and knowing that the only way they could win the race was to keep this breakaway alive. In contrast, Armstrong was planning how to get away from them.

He had thought about such a possibility before the race. Talking to VeloNews on the start line, the Texan observed, “The wind makes it hard for a solo rider up by the river. But if you get away [on The Wall], you have a tail wind blowing you back to the start-finish.”

With those thoughts in mind, Armstrong didn’t attack on lap nine, not wanting to tackle the seven-mile head-wind stretch on his own. Instead, he rode steadily up The Wall, topping it ahead of Julich, Copeland and the three Italians, 1:48 ahead of Walton, and 2:30 before the pack. Then, riding with the wind back to the start-finish area outside Philadelphia’s Art Museum, Armstrong continued to cajole his companions.

They began the last of the big loops (which would be followed by three laps of a three-mile circuit) with a 2:43 advantage on the peloton — that had absorbed Walton and the other chasers. Back into Manayunk, the gap was still a healthy 2:20, as the six leaders emerged from the shade of the iron viaduct that supports the town’s elevated railroad.

Julich and Copeland were leading as they began climbing The Wall for the 10th and final time. And the two Americans were still in front, as they completed the first part of the hill. But then, when they rounded the left curve to begin the steepest pitch, Armstrong literally exploded out of the group. The roar of the funs was deafening, as they urged on their new favorite, in his spectacular attack.

In a press conference the previous day, the rock-and-roll-loving Texan had declared the race a “crapshoot.” Now, the dice were loaded in his favor: The other five leaders were already riding at their limit, and as Armstrong sprinted away, all they could do was stare up The Wall, and hope that he would blow. By the top, however, 17 miles from the finish, Armstrong was already 26 seconds ahead of them.

“I looked back to see I’d gotten the gap. I checked again at the top. Then, I just put my head down and went for it,” he later described.

This was a dream unfolding for the Motorola prodigy. He hurtled down the straight, rollercoaster descent of Manayunk Avenue, as if a carload of hoodlums were in pursuit; and, blown by the wind, continued his rampage alongside the river (now 45 seconds ahead), through Fairmount Park’s Mount Pleasant (with the gap up to 1:07), and over the short, switchback climb of Lemon Hill (l:20 before the five chasers). Armstrong was 1:42 ahead by the end of this final loop, with a fast-moving pack at 2:30.

He still had nine miles to ride, but the Texan already knew that the race — and the million dollars — were in his pocket. After one lap of the finishing circuit — where the five chasers were about to be absorbed by the pack — he spotted his mother in the crowd. After two laps — when a pursuit was underway from Italian Gianluca Pierobon (Mecair-Ballan) and New Zealander Graeme Miller (Duck Head) — Armstrong blew his mother a kiss. And as he returned from his final loop of Lemon Hill he responded to the waves of his teammates in the pack, heading in the opposite direction, still more than two minutes behind. Then, on entering the final straightaway, he straightened his Motorola jersey, adjusted his blue-tinted Oakleys, and cruised down Benjamin Franklin Parkway, punching the air and waving to the 100,000 crowd, all the way to the checkered flag.

“This was the loudest crowd I’ve heard in my life,” exclaimed the exultant Armstrong, the new US champion, who’d won the CoreStates Championship more decisively and spectacularly than anyone in the race’s history.

The Motorola rider crossed the line 1:30 ahead of Pierobon, who, uncertain that the race was over, continued riding for another, three-mile lap. The Italian had dropped Miller on the last climb; but the joyous New Zealander knew he had finished, and just held on to third place ahead of Armstrong’s English teammate Yates — who won the sprint for fourth place, at 1:48, from a late, eight-strong counterattack.

After finishing, the Motorola riders weaved their way back through the crowds to the finish line, where Armstrong was hugging his mom, to celebrate this famous victory — the final jewel in the Triple Crown.

Race notes

Armstrong was presented at the finish with a giant replica of a check for $1 million — but how much will he actually pocket? It would have been a million if he’d accepted the annuity payments of $50,000 a year for 20 years, but the team opted for an immediate cash payment of $600,000. Of that, approximately $210,000 will go to the Internal Revenue Service, leaving $390,000 to go into the Motorola team kitty, which at season end, will be divided between the 18 racers and their support staff. The chances are that Armstrong’s cut will be about $25,000.

Coors Light didn’t figure highly in the final results, but the Colorado-based team’s aggressive tactics stretched Motorola to the limit. In the day’s first break, Coors Light had A1exi Grewal (riding a Softride beam suspension) and Scott Moninger. Their teammates Roy Knickman and Stephen Swart were in the small chase group which joined the leaders on lap four; and they withstood the Motorola-led chase until the end of lap seven (100 miles into the race). On lap eight, Coors Light’s Dave Mann attacked solo, just prior to the key six-man break, which was started by another Coors Light man, Roberto Gaggioli, and Armstrong. Unfortunately for Coors Light, Armstrong was in a class of his own when he made his final attack 17 miles from the finish. The U.S. team earned about $10,000, thanks to Moninger taking the Subaru Power Peak KoM award; and final placings of sixth (Scott McKinley), 14th (Davis Phinney) and 27th (Gaggioli).

Was it a coincidence? Armstrong had race number 23 – the same as that worn by basketball whiz Michael Jordan, who that day led the Chicago Bulls into its third NBA world championship final.

This was the slowest CoreStates Championship since 1989, mainly because of the strong head wind that faced the riders on the main circuit’s seven-mile stretch along the riverside Kelly Drive.

After celebrating his victory in Philadelphia, Armstrong returned to his Austin, Texas, home for a week’s decompression and low-key training. He would miss the Motorola team’s participation at the Tour of Luxembourg (June 10-13) and return to competition at the Tour of Sweden (June 16-22). After that, he was scheduled to attend the squad’s pre-Tour training camp in France, and was likely to be on the Tour de France start line on July 1.

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