While the world focuses on Lance Armstrong of the U.S. Postal Service team during this year's Tour de France, the team will be looking toward a person whose work will be seen by few. Jeff Spencer is officially listed as the Postal team's chiropractor, a job that requires attending to the various aches, pains and injuries incurred by riders during every stage of the Tour. Spencer is the team's own special sauce, and his work has helped put Armstrong in yellow for the last three years. "I don't know what to call myself, because there are so many things that I do that fall into so many disciplines and realms," said Spencer, who lives with his wife Kristina in Scottsdale, Arizona. "The riders don't know what to call me either."
Whatever anybody calls him, there's no question about Spencer's place within the Postal team.
"My principal role is to make sure that their bodies are capable of putting in top performances on the bicycle," he said. "Second, I need to do everything possible to make sure that the recoveries from day to day are optimized, because if you don't recover there will be body breakdown. The third part of my task is to minimize injury recovery, so in the event a rider gets injured, I make sure that we minimize downtime and optimize their capacity for remaining as competitive as possible. Finally, we take pro-active measures on a daily basis to evaluate where strain may be accumulating in the system where it may express itself in some form of tendinitis down the line, which is catastrophic for any rider, particularly during the Tour de France."
Spencer's relationship with the Postal Service team began in 1997 on a flight to Chicago when he ran into Mark Gorski, general manager of Tailwind Sports, owner of the U.S. Postal pro cycling team. Spencer and Gorski had become close friends in the early 1980s, when Spencer helped Gorski to a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in the men's track sprint. In the months that followed their meeting on the plane, Gorski got an idea that there was a place for Spencer and his skills on the then relatively new Postal squad.
"[We] started figuring out the process about how to get him involved with the team," said Gorski. "At this point, Jeff had his own chiropractic practice and did one-on-one with some world-class athletes."
The following July, at the final stage of the Tour in Paris, Spencer was carefully introduced to the Postal team, which included Armstrong, who had been recently signed by the team and was still recovering from his near-fatal bout with testicular cancer. It was a meeting that had potential.
"It's important to know that you just can't show up for work at the Tour de France," said Spencer, "because there's a level of intimacy within the team that requires that relationships be established well in advance of that. No rider in their right mind would ever allow anybody that they didn't know do any procedures within the context of what I do during the Tour without having any previous relationship."
Spencer became more involved with the Postals in January 1999 at the team's winter training camp near Santa Barbara. During that time, he began his formal work with the riders as he assessed their individual conditions, noted critical issues, and took the necessary steps to optimize their performances.
That July marked Armstrong's first Tour victory.
Spencer's own background as an Olympic sprint cyclist, and his work with other thletes, set the stage for his contributions in '99. "I certainly knew what I could bring to the team, and it was a dimension that the team did not have," he said. "I know that if you have access to that over 22 days, it's a significant contribution to the sustainability of every member of the team's ability to put in top performances day after day."
Two more Tour victories by Armstrong have placed the Texan and the rest of the Postal team firmly in the pro peloton's center stage - and also in the crosshairs of every other contender for the yellow jersey. It means more work for everybody in the Postal team to not only stay on top of their game, but to also look for every advantage to stay in front.
In this regard, Spencer's work in preparing for the Tour is never done. When he isn't attending to riders at a Postal training camp in the U.S. or Europe, he's busy searching for new technologies - "modalities" as he calls them - that can be applied to the needs of the team. When he ships out for the Tour, Spencer will be taking along almost $60,000 of equipment that will be used to treat the various wounds, strains and other physical issues that may present themselves.
The current lineup of gear that Spencer is willing to talk about runs from the exotic to the prosaic. An Erchonia cold laser is used to "treat everything," says Spencer, from wounds to nerve function. Another device called an "H-Wave" helps treat muscular pain. Then there's a silver-colored fabric that Spencer shows, but refuses to disclose any details about, except that it's just another tool in his arsenal to help Postal riders recover from injuries. At the low end of the technology spectrum is The Stick, which Spencer says is no less important than the most expensive equipment he uses. If there is a real secret, it isn't the different gadgets themselves, but how Spencer uses them to produce results.
As Tour time approaches, Spencer's pace increases. In late March, he was called upon to make a quick trip to Spain before the spring classics because, he said, "every week is an important period before the Tour. You need to make sure that you don't dig a hole for yourself that you can't get out of. I just spent a couple days with Lance, Christian, George [Hincapie] and Floyd [Landis] to go through their bodies and discharge any issues that may show up as a problem in a week or month down the road. You've got to find it when it's silent and resolve it before it expresses itself with some loss of function or symptomology."
In late May, Spencer was due to join the Postal team for a special climbing camp where final details for the Tour would be set. From that point onward, Spencer's strategy for the war, as he calls the Tour de France, will be in place and ready to go. "You never try anything for the first time during the Tour," he said. Moreover, he added, "You have only one chance to make the right decision. You have to consider the cost of today's choice as it applies to tomorrow and the following week. And if today's choice is good only for today, but it's not good for tomorrow, then it's not a good choice."
In assessing this year's race, Spencer speaks with certainty about what it will take to keep the Postal riders going: "The Tour will have five mountaintop finishes, the last one three days (actually, four days - Ed) before the final leg into Paris. So sustainability of the riders becomes pivotal, and it goes back to two categories: That we do everything possible to optimize their performances on the bike, and that we do everything possible to optimize their recoveries when each stage is over."
And when it comes to guessing who will win this year's Tour, Spencer said, "I think that every Tour has its surprises. If you look at the prime contenders - and you look at Lance - I think that anybody who doesn't pick him as the absolute favorite will be turning their backs on his prior accomplishments, the unparalleled deliberateness of his preparations, his tenacity as a competitor, his skills as a team leader, and his ability to formulate and implement sound strategies that will lead to the ultimate goal in Paris."