Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Category — Tour de France 2009

In This Tour, It’s Armstrong Who Wasn’t a Team Player

After more than 2,000 miles of riding, Alberto Contador won the Tour de France Sunday, defeating a 180-man field. Contador withstood the assaults and attacks of every other rider, including Columbia-HTC’s Frank and Andy Schleck and surprise Garmin-Slipstream contender Bradley Wiggins.

Albert Contador (left) defeated Lance Armstrong (right) in the 2009 Tour de France.

But as Contador said after Saturday’s dramatic climb of Mont Ventoux, the real battle came from one of his teammates. The most serious obstacle to his victory was Lance Armstrong, back after four years away from being the most dominant bicycle rider of his era.

Contador, who won the Tour two years ago, was on a comeback of his own. Denied entry in last year’s tour because he had joined Astana, which had been involved in doping scandals before he joined the squad, Contador had plenty to prove, too. Johann Bruyneel, the director who had guided Armstrong to his seven Tour victories, had recruited the Spanish rider after Armstrong retired.

Then, last August, Armstrong decided to return to cycling and the Tour, he said, completely to promote Livestrong, his powerful cancer foundation. But it was equally obvious that Armstrong intended to win another tour, and he signed up with Astana because of his long partnership with Bruyneel, who suddenly had the strongest team with the best rider in the world and his predecessor on the same squad – both with the same goal.

Armstrong, perhaps the best strategist in the history of the sport, used every kind of psychological warfare against Contador. He belittled him at every opportunity in the press. After Contador missed a break in an early stage, Armstrong reminded us that “he’s still got a lot to learn.” He claimed that Contador wasn’t a team player after the Spanish rider caught out Armstrong and the rest of the pack on the ride up to Arcalis in Stage 7 and later reprimanded Contador for supposedly leaving teammate Andreas Kloden on a Alpine stage.

Contador kept his tongue throughout the race even while Armstrong kept the barbs coming after almost every stage. The American media actually seemed to go along with the idea that Armstrong might (or even should) win the Tour and/or be able to defeat Contador. The irony, of course, is that Armstrong, who rode a sensible and inspiring race himself, would be the one to learn that he could never defeat Contador, or Andy Schleck, either. His third-place finish should be applauded for what it is, a wonderful performance that shows that though his skills have diminished, he can still ride among the best.

What Armstrong defenders seem to be missing is that Contador dominated the field just as Armstrong used to in his heyday. Look at his move on Arcalis. Pure Lance. Look over at the rest of the struggling pack and saying, “Bye, bye.” But Armstrong derided him for disobeying orders, which is ridiculous unless the order was to keep Lance in the race for the yellow jersey. But, just as Armstrong would have done back in his day, Contador picked the perfect time to remind everybody that he was the boss. He did the same thing on the second time trial, crushing the pack as the final rider of the day just as Armstrong used to do. On Mont Ventoux he shadowed Andy Schleck and led Armstrong up the mountain to his podium finish.

But what we heard from Armstrong was that Contador was inattentive, that he disobeyed orders, that a later attack in the Alps eliminated Andreas Kloden, that he wasn’t a team player. What did he expect after hijacking a team designed to perpetuate Contador’s reign and trying to defeat him within the team? Who was a better team player?

Throughout Armstrong’s attempts to demean his accomplishment, Contador has kept a civil tongue about the dissension between him and Armstrong (which seemed often to be the only question on reporter’s minds) and showed the mark of the true champion, the kind of champion that Lance Armstrong once represented.

I began watching and became interested in cycling because of Lance Armstrong. He has brought immense attention to the sport of cycling, and more importantly, has used his celebrity to raise awareness and money to battle the scourge of cancer. But at this Tour de France, his hubris got the best of him, he got his butt beat, and he acted like a petulant, spoiled child who didn’t get his way.

July 28, 2009   2 Comments

Contador is the New Armstrong

Alberto Contador left the field behind on Sunday's steep climb.

Alberto Contador scattered the field on Sunday's steep climb to Verbier.

Whew. We finally got that settled.

The 15th Stage of the Tour de France is in the books, and there should be no lingering doubts that Alberto Contador is the leader of the race, the Astana team and the man with the best chance of winning this tour.

On Tuesday, Lance Armstrong will become Contador’s domestique (and he owes Andreas Kloden a big favor, too). After watching him Sunday, it should be clear to everyone, including Armstrong himself, that barring injury or mishap, he will not be in the yellow jersey next Sunday. And he’s got a real battle on his hands to even be on the podium.

That is not to say his feat in this year’s race is not remarkable. He is second in this tour after a four-year absence from professional cycling. But he is not the best man in this race. Or the second or third, either.

Armstrong performed admirably on a difficult stage that ended with a first-category climb that seemed to get steeper as it moved into the clouds, ending with a precipitous right turn just before hitting the finish that left everybody except Contador gasping as they crossed the line.

Versus commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, mindful of the great story it would be if Armstrong won, kept reminding us that Armstrong looked strong until it became painfully obvious to everyone that he was struggling to keep up with the contenders, and it was hardly surprising when Bradley Wiggins, Frank Schleck, Vincenzo Nibali, Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans all raced away from him near the end. Had not teammate Andreas Kloden been there to pace him to the top, more riders would have probably passed him, too. (We watched the last climb a second time, and it was even more palpably obvious that Armstrong was at his physical limit.)

Hopefully we can get on with the real race. The much-hyped Armstrong/Contador rivalry, when you think about it, was kind of ridiculous from the get-go. Beyond the fact that he had won seven tours and dominated the race in years gone by, there was no reason to believe that Armstrong, 37, could ride the high Alps with Contador, 26, who won the Tour two years ago and has been riding competitively during the entire period that Armstrong was out of racing. There were suggestions that he would psyche out Contador like he did Jan Ullrich in his salad days, but that was pure sportswriters’ imagination to whip up interest in this year’s race. Nobody is getting inside Contador’s head this time around.

Anybody who has seen Contador knows he’s the best climber in the world; two years ago this week he danced around his rivals at the Tour at the tops of the Alps like they weren’t really there. He did the same thing last week on the ride into Andorra, which should have been warning enough but was cast by observers as some kind of rash move on Contador’s part that hurt the team dynamic.

To this observer Contador was merely biding his time pedaling with the pack before he took off and left everybody in his wake. And let’s not forget that both attacks were pure cycling poetry in the classic Armstrong sense – he waited with the leaders until the exact moment that he knew nobody could catch him and took off like a locomotive.

There is still about a week’s worth of racing left, so a lot can happen. But with the Armstrong/Contador issue finally behind us, the commentators and the rest of us can begin to concentrate on the real contenders as they battle for the jersey in a wild finishing week.

July 20, 2009   No Comments

One Really Strange Tour de France

Alberto Contador is the rider to beat at the 1/3 point in the 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

July 13, 2009   No Comments

Contador Is Number One Astana Rider

Stage One: Monaco
Winner: Fabian Cancellara
Maillot Journe: Fabian Cancellara

Fabian Cancellara won the time-trial prologue of the 2009 Tour de France.

At the beginning of the day it was all Lance Armstrong. Stories, rumors and innuendo circulated about who is the number one rider on the Astana team. And though Astana includes three riders who have wound up on the podium in the years since Armstrong retired the first time – Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden – the only question on commentators’ minds at the beginning of Day One seemed to be whether Armstrong will win this race.

Versus’ color guy, Bob Roll, absolutely believes it. So, apparently, does longtime announcer Phil Liggett. Of the Versus staff, only Paul Sherwen questions that wisdom, believing that Alberto Contador, eleven years younger than Armstrong, will be the winner. Bob Roll rolled his eyes at that one, suggesting that Armstrong will psyche his way to victory.

Perhaps. But today, those twelve years that separate Contador and Armstrong were readily apparent. Armstrong ran early – very early – in the prologue individual time trial. His time along the 15.5 kilometer course was better than any predecessor, but his time was quickly eclipsed by Tony Martin and then teammate Levi Leipheimer, whose 20:02 beat Martin by three minutes and remained as the time to beat until the big boys got on the course.

Versus showed Armstrong’s entire 21-minute traverse – the only time it did that — and commentators Liggett and Sherwen were pointing out his good form and pulling for Armstrong to do well.

Armstrong came in tenth, but more importantly, he came in fourth on his team, which clearly leaves Contador, who looked the way Armstrong used to. Contador came in only 18 seconds back of Fabian Cancellara, who, as expected, came down the second half of the course like a luge.

Teammate Andreas Kloden was only four seconds behind Contador and just a second ahead of Cadell Evans, also a challenger for the maillot journe. After one day, Armstrong is already behind by 40 seconds, 22 seconds behind Contador.

This day certainly doesn’t disqualify Armstrong from winning this year’s tour, or being the guy to beat by the time they get to the Alps in week three. But it does show that Armstrong, at least at this juncture, is going to have to dig deeper than he ever has to win the race, or even challenge his own teammates. It seems much more likely that he will be helping Contador or Kloden ascend the Alps and the podium.

July 4, 2009   No Comments

Looks Like Another Wild Ride at the Tour de France

A familiar photo for those of us crazy enough to watch the Tour de France from beginning to end.

A familiar view for those of us crazy enough to watch the Tour de France from beginning to end on television.

Ah, yes, it’s that time of year again. The Tour de France begins tomorrow morning in Monaco. My Twitter account is atwitter with those following and riding the race, and I’m trying to catch up on hash marks and RSS feeds. I just found the weblog of Martin Dugard,  whose commentary on the last few races generally rises a step above the usual swirl of rumors and speculation.

And the rumors and speculation could not be at a higher pitch. Will Lance Armstrong win the race for an unprecedented eighth time, eclipsing even teammate Alberto Contador, generally recognized as the best cyclist riding today? Phil Liggett, erstwhile television commentator, is not alone in already proclaiming that Armstrong will be on the podium come July 26. Our local newspaper has had stories on Armstrong every day for a week, and stateside interest in the tour seems higher than, well, the last time Armstrong participated.

Drugs still loom large over the Tour, and given the ingrained nature of doping I’m sure a few riders will be bounced before it’s all over. Tour officials have bragged about increased testing procedures, yet they were forced to allow sprinter Tom Boonen, who tested positive for cocaine in the last year, to compete after a last-minute ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport of the French Olympic Committee.

Le Tour. All the highest and lowest qualities that sports has to offer wrapped around three weeks of epic European backcountry scenery. Who could ask for more?

July 3, 2009   No Comments