Armstrong learned about teamwork the hard way

Updated: July 5, 2005, 2:55 PM ET
By Chris Carmichael | Associated Press

Lance Armstrong's teammates would ride through fire for him, not because of money or the jerseys on their backs, but because he's mastered the art of effective leadership.

Great leaders understand the critical role emotion plays in performance, and that getting the most out of a team is a matter of harnessing the power of a positive attitude.

Lance was not always a great leader, nor was he a "born leader." When he was young, he was so strong he didn't believe he needed help from teammates. He sometimes figured he was so much more powerful that they wouldn't be able to help him. Lance tried to win a lot of races by himself, without using his teammates, and he often came up short against men he could have otherwise beaten.

Both the maturation process and the excruciating experience of cancer helped Lance learn the importance of teamwork. As strong as he was as a 25-year-old professional athlete, he couldn't have defeated cancer by himself. It took a team of professionals with a wide range of expertise to win that battle.

When he returned to the European peloton in 1998 and started preparing for a run at the 1999 Tour de France, he realized the other eight men on the team needed to be more than just supporters, they needed to be assets.

When it comes to recruiting riders, Lance and Discovery Channel director Johan Bruyneel look for the whole package. It's important for the rider to have the engine and racing skill to compete at the top level of international competition, but that's not enough. There are many riders who have the necessary athletic prowess but have attitudes and personalities that are incompatible with the team.

Professional cyclists spend an enormous amount of time together, including weeks traveling in packed team buses, cars and small hotel rooms. Small personality conflicts can develop into full-blown fissures over the course of a short stage race, and that's the scenario Lance seeks to avoid.

When there is discord in a team, it's nearly impossible to race effectively as a unit. The intensity of competition amplifies even the smallest personal conflict and clouds a rider's judgment during the split-second decisions so critical to success in races.

The situation gets even worse as the races get more difficult. It's always at the hardest moment, when a rider is at his limit, that emotions take over. If they're the wrong emotions, the team implodes; but if they're the right ones, the team gets performances that become legendary.

All the money in the world can't buy a team as strong as the Discovery Channel, because it's impossible to build a stronger team without a leader more inspiring than Lance Armstrong.

To the outside world, Lance is an inspiration because he's a cancer survivor and a great athlete. There's an additional aspect to Lance that earns him the unending loyalty of his teammates. They know that when push comes to shove, when the pressure is entirely on his shoulders, their leader will turn himself inside out to win the race.

If there's a lesson to take from Lance's leadership style, it is that a leader can only count on getting 100 percent from a team if it can count on getting the same from him. At the Tour de France, Lance's teammates are there to bury themselves for three weeks so he can ride into Paris wearing the yellow jersey.

It would be easy for them to keep 1 percent of their effort in reserve, just in case there was an opportunity to get a stage win for themselves, but they don't. They give every ounce of their strength because they see Lance right after the hardest mountain stages and time trials. They see the drawn face and sunken eyes that only come from extreme exertion, and they know he put himself through hell to live up to their efforts getting him into position to win.

Lance understands the impact his attitude has on the environment around him, and he uses that impact to create another advantage for his team. Beyond the eight guys in the race with him, there is an entire support staff of mechanics, physical therapists and drivers working behind the scenes to keep the team running optimally.

These people do their jobs better when their team leader is riding well, and even if he's not, they'll still do their jobs better if he maintains a positive attitude. When the team leader is in the dumps, the whole organization suffers, and that makes it even harder to get back to delivering strong performances.

Thus far in the 2005 Tour de France, Lance has been floating on the pedals. He keeps telling me that his legs have never felt better -- and the quiet confidence he exudes has permeated the entire team. Nobody's feeling any pain because they know they're riding for a man who's already been through the fire and who came back to do it again, with them.

Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong's coach since 1990, guiding him to six straight Tour de France titles. He is writing columns for The Associated Press during the race.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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