Thom Weisel, the Man Behind the Man in the Yellow Jersey

When Lance Armstrong was chugging up the mountains of France, the San Francisco investment banker was right behind him.
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SAN FRANCISCO -- If there was a day when Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, it wasn't last Sunday as he strolled down the Champs-Elysee in the race's final stage; it was July 13, as the cyclists charged up into the Alps. With contenders nipping at his heels and the field dropped to a few riders, Armstrong no longer had his U.S. Postal Service teammates at his side. But San Francisco's star investment banker Thomas Weisel was there.

On that day, the

Tour de France

was nine days, 803-miles old and just getting tough. After eight burning stages in the flatlands with just one day off, riders were facing a 132-mile climb into the Alps, the ninth of 20 stages. Eight riders dropped out that day as they approached the craggy peak of Col du Galibier, the highest point in this year's Tour at almost 9,000 feet.

The mountain was covered with clouds, and as the racers scaled six steep climbs, they were beset by rain, hail and even a roadway covered, unbelievably, with thousands of grasshoppers. Armstrong, wearing the leader's yellow jersey, faced additional assaults: four contenders - Switzerland's

Alex Zulle

, the Basque rider

Abraham Olano

, Italy's

Ivan Gotti

and the French star

Richard Virenque

.

But trailing Armstrong in the team car was Weisel, 58, chairman of

Thomas Weisel Partners

. Weisel is the lead investor of the Postal Service team and, next to

Greg LeMond

and Armstrong himself, may be the most important figure in U.S. cycling today. For most of the last decade, as pro cycling in America has sputtered amid spotty sponsorship and a pathetic showing at the 1996 Atlanta

Olympics

, Weisel has pushed, pulled and cajoled to keep U.S. cycling alive.

"There was pressure to break up the only U.S. team. The Tour de France even offered our best riders a berth if we split the team," says Matt Gorski, manager of the team. But Weisel wasn't having any of it, Gorski said. "Over the last 10 years, he's spent several million dollars of his own money to keep this team afloat."

Cycling is an expensive sport with limited rewards. Armstrong got 2.2 million francs for winning the Tour -- about $350,000 (traditionally, the Tour de France winner splits the prize among his teammates). Top salaries are around $500,000, with the greatest endorsements in the same range. Compare that with the $855,000 bonus each New York

Knick

got for

losing

the

NBA

Finals.

In 1989, Weisel established

Montgomery Sports

, a division of

Montgomery Securities

, to put together a top-flight U.S. team. He set them up with offices in Montgomery's TransAmerica building where Gorski and others went on to sign up sponsors, including the U.S. Postal Service and

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

. But during many dark days, Weisel was U.S. cycling's sole benefactor. "It's not a stretch to say that we wouldn't have been able to do this without Thom's support," says Gorski.

Weisel is no slouch as an athlete himself. A Milwaukee native, he was a five-time national speed-skating champion, but as a

Stanford

student, he finished fourth in the 1960 Olympic trials and failed to qualify. "We've joked that if he made the Olympic team, he wouldn't have gone on to do what he did," says Gorski, who won cycling gold in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. "Thom is driven ... actually, his intensity, his explosiveness and aggressiveness, that's got sprinter written all over it."

In the late 1980s, Weisel took to masters cycling, competing in the 1000-meter sprint, which is fought between two riders on a velodrome. The sprint is something of a misnomer, as much of the event is a fascinating game of cat and mouse. Two cyclists ride special, fixed-gear bikes with no brakes. They inch around each other trying to establish position, looking for an advantage. One rider inevitably makes a mad dash, with the other flying in pursuit. It's a game requiring tactical prowess as well as honking thigh muscles.

Three times a week, after the close of the market, Weisel would take a private jet from San Francisco to San Diego to train with the best, Eddie "Eddie B." Borysewicz, then the coach of the U.S. Olympic team. After practice, Weisel would fly back to his home in Ross, Calif., in Marin County. Weisel went on to win three national age-group championships, while Eddie B. would manage the top U.S. teams in the Tour de France. In time, Weisel would use the connections he made in those days to assemble this year's powerful team.

Sports has always run through Weisel's business interests. Montgomery Securities was famed for hiring hard-driving jocks like himself. Job candidates were prepped by friends to exaggerate their athletic resumes during job interviews. Weisel even had an employees-only gym installed in the 19th floor.

When Montgomery was wrestled out from under Weisel by Hugh McColl's

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Report

, Weisel hired away dozens of staffers to launch a new firm that, in just a year's time, easily rivals the power of the old Montgomery. Critics initially dismissed Weisel's firm, in part because they said the hard-driving jock thing wouldn't fly. "These guys are grown-ups now," one trader at a rival firm said. "Why would they go work for a screamer like Weisel."

But a Montgomery trader I talked to at the time dismissed that notion. "Most of us have had coaches screaming at us our whole lives," he said. "So Weisel's style doesn't bother us one bit." Dozens of traders, investment bankers, even the copier guys and the cleaning woman left Bank of America to join the new endeavor. And one of the first things Weisel did after leaving Bank of America was engineer a buyout of Montgomery Sports. "These guys had been with me five, 10 years," says Weisel. "I couldn't leave them behind."

Of course, now that his name is linked with Armstrong's, no one would ever use the word "comeback" to refer to Weisel. Armstrong's recovery from life-threatening testicular cancer redefined that notion (sorry,

Willis Reed). "I don't think any of us can imagine what that is like, facing death at such a young age," says Weisel. "It took a fella that was pretty egocentric into a fella who really appreciates people and the other aspects besides competition. God, just the sheer determination of that individual is inspiring."

Armstrong, who lost 12 pounds from his 170-pound frame after surgery to remove brain tumors and lesions, oddly, resembles Thom Weisel a bit. Some say they even sound alike. "I would speak with Thom by cell phone when he was in the team car," says Amanda Duckworth, who runs Weisel's public relations department, "and I'd hear Lance's voice on the radio. I couldn't tell the difference between the two."

And during most of the crucial stages of this year's tour, Weisel rode behind his team's leader in the team car. The team director Johan Bruyneel rode shotgun, helping Armstrong strategize in the mountains. "Lance Armstrong was always a phenomenal endurance athlete," says Gorski, "but he has the mind of a sprinter. He'd want to crush people when patience would be more prudent."

During his first day in the mountains, with his leaner, climber's body, he was facing his ultimate test. Publicly, he talked about biding his time in the first days' climbs, but the secret strategy was to attack. One by one, his teammates pushed the pace, like rabbits in the mile, pulling Armstrong along until they could keep up no longer. Finally, at the end of the stage, Armstrong took the lead himself, dropping the last of his teammates. He'd broken away from the pack of more than 150 riders, but the five who managed to hang on were among his toughest competitors.

After 134 miles, the leaders turned onto the day's last big climb, Sestrieres. It would be seven miles straight up at a 5.8% grade. Armstrong was waiting for orders from the team car, trying to bide his time to attack. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, he pulled away from the group, as if he had a gear the other riders didn't pack. His lead became 10 feet, then 10 yards, then 20.

"I got on the blower and said 'Lance, you're pulling away from these guys,'" says Weisel. "And he didn't know it. Then he put some real power in the pedals and says into his microphone: "How do you f----n' like those apples."

Armstrong finished first in that stage, and never relinquished the yellow jersey. A week and a half later, Weisel hosted a party in the high-ceilinged restaurant at the

Musee d'Orsay

. Some 200 gathered, including a contingent of Weiselians who'd flown out from the office in San Francisco, milling around a massive spread and the

Van Goghs

and

Rodins

of the Impressionist museum.

And, as the centerpiece of every table, Weisel had a fitting treat. Amid the place-settings was a statement and a memento, a nod to perseverance that Weisel and Armstrong embody with all their success, an inside joke: a bowl of f----n' apples.

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