One Really Strange Tour de France
We are at about the one-third point of the Tour de France, and as the riders head out onto the flats again for a few days before the next mountain stages, there’s not a lot to report.
After nine stages, it has been most enjoyable to watch three breakaways succeed and beat the peleton and the sprinters to stage wins. I can’t stop rooting for breakaway riders, and seeing three win in a week is as much fun as the Tour can be on the flatlands. Columbia’s Mark Cavendish has distinguished himself as the top sprinter, by winning two more stages (he won three last year) and staying in the race over three days of mountain climbing.
Beyond that, the entire story, at least from the American media’s perspective, has been the return of Lance Armstrong four years past his seventh Tour victory, back in the saddle and among the leaders again. Lost is the story of almost every other rider on the Tour, including Alberto Contador, who won this race two summers ago and was not allowed to compete last year.
Not only was Contador unlucky enough to not enter last year’s event because of a technicality (he joined Astana after the doping revelations of Alexander Vinokourov were exposed and was banned along with team director Johann Bruyneel), he now is on the same team as Armstrong and Bruyneel, and he doesn’t speak English, so we’re left with Armstrong’s perspective and those of his admirers in the press corps.
The tour directors appear to have tried to make this year’s tour not produce a legitimate leader/winner until the penultimate stage, the long climb of Mt. Ventoux on the day before the riders enter Paris. Still, their decision to end two of the three Pyrenean stages in long sprints instead of at the tops of mountains, which provide most of the fireworks and drama, left most of us incredulous. The only things worth watching the last three days were the incredible rural scenery and Contador’s dash at the end of Stage 7. The climb of the Tourmalet, one of the most dramatic mountain finishes, was completely wasted and laughably boring, as all the teams pedaled up in a group behind a dozen or so breakaway riders and followed them for another hour after they got off the slopes.
Given the strange make-up of the Astana team, which includes perennial contenders Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden (who all also among the top five riders at this point) and experienced workhorse climbers (Yaroslav Popovych and Halmar Zubeldia) to lead them up, it appears that it might all come down to the climb of Ventoux and that the only real drama is which Astana rider will be first, which second and which third on the podium.
That seems more likely every day. Cadell Evans, who came in second the last two tours but is on a weak team, has been totally shut down by Astana, as have Team Saxobank’s Schleck brothers, last year’s winner Carlos Sastre and anybody else who dares challenge Astana’s hegemony.
Rumors abound that Armstrong and Contador are both eager to win the race and don’t like each other much, and having them on the same team kinda spoils the various strategies that teams use to try and win the race, since the team is working behind no particular leader and probably will stay that way until near the end.
The only thing we saw in nine days of racing was that, given the chance, Contador will attack, and to this observer, will probably beat Armstrong if it comes down to a mano a mano ascent up Ventoux. Two years ago he danced ahead of everybody except doper Michael Rasmussen at the tops of the Alps, and his dash away on the first Pyrenees stage shows he’s dying to strut his stuff.
Armstrong is the supreme mind-gamer the modern Tour has ever seen, and it’s hard to bet against a man who dominated the Tour for as long as he did. We can always hope for another team to take advantage of an Astana mistake or mishaps. If it comes down to intellect on the slopes of Ventoux, give Armstrong a slight edge. But if it depends on the legs, Contador will dance away and come out on top