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‘Legs Shut Up’: The Most Fun I’ve Had Watching the Tour de France

Jens Voight is the heart and soul of the Tour de France.

This is our tenth Tour de France — we began watching in 2003 on the day when Lance Armstrong, after a crash by the leader Joseba Beloki, took a shortcut to get back on the road and continue the Tour — and there are so many reasons I love watching this event.

We saw Armstrong’s victories and endured his bike attacks on mountain finishes and competitors and his nasty verbal attacks against anyone willing to tell the truth, as we all began to figure out that yes, despite his vociferous denials, despite his fight with cancer, he was doping, which finally came to a head with his confession last year and the final realization that all the riders we had been watching for years had been cheating, with almost no chance of interdiction, for many years.

And so we fans have been holding our collective breaths, waiting for the dope hammer to fall again. This year, so far, no riders have been accused of anything and there have been no positive tests. Blood profiles have become common — first championed by Boulder team Garmin and its CEO Jonathan Vaughters — and riders know that they can be caught, if not today, then next year or the one after that.

And, I believe, the generation coming up, without the teams promoting their drug use and the code of silence finally broken, is a generation that isn’t into doping. Perhaps we’ll be disappointed again, but I don’t think so. Winner Chris Froome has been questioned, incessantly, about whether his performance this year has been enhanced. He released his data for analysis, and it was deemed within normal limits. I’m sure we’ll see more statistic checking in the coming months.

Let’s remember Froome wasn’t questioned last year when he led Bradley Wiggins to the yellow jersey and many, myself included, thought that he looked stronger than the winner. He was the overwhelming favorite coming into the race, and he has proven himself time and again. He was hardly put in a spot of real bother throughout. So give him credit — he stayed with his attackers and often took on his competitors at crucial moments high in the mountains to prove his superiority and team strength. Team Sky’s tactics and his final attack at the top of Mont Ventoux over the rising star Nairo Quintana, was one for the ages, an ascent so difficult that Froome required oxygen after he crossed the finish line. We will not quickly forget that moment when he overtook Quintana and soloed to the end.

Seriously give it up for Richie Porte, who played lieutenant to Froome as Froome did for Wiggins and Team Sky last year. This guy, wearing mostly an almost silly grin behind his white sunglasses, led Froome up steep, winding mountain passes, fell back a couple of times and still managed to come back with the main contenders near the top of the climbs. Had he not lost serious time on one stage, he might have made the podium himself.

Give it up for Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez, two of those new names that have no connection to past and wound up on the podium with Froome. Both exceptional climbers, they will be a lot of fun to watch in the high passes for the next few years.

Big kudos to the sprinters. The green jersey competition went to suave Peter Sagan. Mark Cavendish’s reputation as the fastest of his generation is well-deserved, and he is now tied with Bernard Hinault in second place in the all-time standings for Tour stage wins, but he has serious competitors: giant Andre Greipel, Sagan and powerful Marcel Kittel, who won four stages and clipped Cavendish and Greipel at the line on the Champs-Elysee in Paris on the last day, are all worthy competitors. The green jersey battle might even be better next year. To that end, Cavendish reportedly has gotten Mark Renshaw, his favorite lead-out guy, to join the Omega Pharma squad.

Give it up for Alberto Contador, who was just outclassed by Froome, and he knew it. Contador did everything he could with a strong Saxo/Tinkoff team to dislodge Froome, but in the end was overtaken by Rodriguez and Quintana for the podium positions and ended more than seven minutes behind. This year he looked more like an outlier than a contender. He said in an interview Saturday that he would skip the Vuelta, which he won last year, and concentrate on how he can regain the form he’ll need to beat Froome (and Quintana and Rodriguez). He’s got some work to do.

And let’s hear it for Alejandro Valverde, who came to the tour in great form to win and lost the race in the strangest and most fascinating flat stage I ever watched. There were some chances for enterprising teams to take advantage of the wind in Stage 13, and both Belkin and Omega Pharma (who we found out later had planned this the night before) took out Argo Shimano’s Marcel Kittel in an initial burst of speed at just the right moment on the course, and Saxo Tinkoff and Contador were able to gain almost a minute on Chris Froome and Team Sky nearer the end of the stage with the same tactic. Unfortunately, during the first attack, Valverde had a flat tire, there was no team car close and lost enough time to blow his chances to win the tour as a result. He wound up supporting teammate Quintana the rest of the Tour.

Even more unfortunate was Pierre Rolland, who decided to go for the king of the mountain jersey. He attacked again and again to try and catch up with Froome, whose late mountain attacks early on put him ahead. He finally overtook Froome’s point total during the first climbs of Saturday’s stage. But all his efforts were to no avail, as Quintana swept him and the field on the final mountain ascent, for which he got 50 points and the polka-dot jersey.

Give it up for Cadel Evans, who won three years ago and, as he did last year, was unable to keep up with the top climbers. By the end, he admitted he was happy to just finish the Tour, and the former champion might, if he returns, come back as support for TeJay Vangarteren, the new BMC hopeful for a possible Tour victory in the next few years. Vangarteren had a frustrating, up-and-down tour that he almost salvaged with a stage win before Christophe Riblon blew the field on the second climb of L’Alpe d’Huez at the end of Stage 18.

The commentating team seemed stronger than in recent years. Phil Liggins was sharper than he has been in recent years, and Paul Sherwen, except for his incessant obsession with Andy Schleck (we all wish Schleck well in his recovery, but Sherwen was super effusive and repetitive in his praise), offered his usual counterpoint. Of the rest, Scott Perino, who rode the Tour on a motorcycle and provided up-to-the-moment coverage from behind the peleton, did the best job.

Give it to the Tour organizers, who really outdid themselves this year making each stage as difficult as possible for the riders and as exciting as possible for the fans. The roads around Corsica were dangerous in the first three days, always a twitchy time in the peleton, and there were a fair share of major crashes. Several times, it appeared that it was far more dangerous than it should have been, with too little space for too many bikers heading for a tiny point in the distance. Most sprint finishes demanded that teams help the sprinters over tricky little hills and small mountains. The two climbs up L’Alpe d’Huez to end Stage 18 were an inspired bit of the torture and ecstasy of the tour.

And really give it up for Jens Voight, easily my favorite rider of all time, and — who knows? — this might be his last tour. He seems able to capture the whimsy as well as the rigors of bike racing, and he’s a tough guy. Who can forget a few years back when he skidded on his face after crashing going downhill, taking him out of that tour? Or, after an epic struggle to lead a teammate to the top of a mountain, seeing his legs go wobbly 50 meters from the crest of the climb? Or last year when he quipped that he could see Canada from the top of Independence Pass during his stage win in the U.S. Pro Challenge here in Colorado? Oh yeah. He also is the one person who says he didn’t dope during the EPO era that I believe. He took off on a splendid breakaway on the penultimate stage that failed but gave us at least one last look at the emblem of what makes the Tour de France so enjoyable. And you know he was saying all the way, “Legs, shut up.”

July 22, 2013   No Comments

Evans Endures for le Tour Victory

So the Tour de France 2011 is history, and it came down to the last three days of racing to finally determine a winner. Cadel Evans, who held off Frank and Andy Shleck through the mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps, won with an overpowering performance in Saturday’s individual time trial.

Tour stalwart George Hincapie (r) was part of Cadel Evans' powerful BMC team. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe)

Evans has been trying to win le Tour since he entered in 2005 and had developed a reputation for not being assertive enough to compete at the highest level. He came in eighth in that first race, sixth in 2006 and second to Contador in 2007 and Carlos Sastre in 2008. After finishing 30th in 2009, he joined the American BMC team, and last year finished 26th after fracturing an elbow while grabbing the yellow jersey in Stage 9.

This win has to be especially satisfying for the 34 year-old Australian, and his hell-bent-for-leather dash around Grenoble in the time trial should finally silence critics who say Evans isn’t tough or aggressive enough to win the tour. In BMC, Evans found a team that, like those Armstrong created for his later victories (all of whom targeted Evans as a possible winner), steered him out of trouble through three weeks of racing.

Excepting a couple of mechanical problems, Evans was the most attentive member of the climbing elite, fending off attacks or saving his strength to catch up later and finally putting his distinctive mark on the time trial to win decisively. I think my favorite moment of the tour was when Andy Schleck asked Evans to help pick up the pace on the infamous slopes of Alpe d’Huez, and he shook his head as if to say, “tell your brother to get up front.” Evans was the smartest racer out there, and he won through endurance and, finally, through brute strength in the time trial.

If anything, he showed Andy Schleck — who came in second for the third time in as many years — that to win, you must ride a high-end time trial. The last winners — Lance Armstrong, Contador, Carlos Sastre and now Evans — are all better-than-average trialists. Schleck, a riveting performer with a keen natural skill and uncanny instincts in the high mountains, like Evans, had a strong team helping him avoid the nervous crashes and broken bones  that dominated the first couple of weeks’ news.

Schleck, like Evans, is criticized for not being aggressive enough, but he showed great determination when he took control of the entire race on Stage 18 with a nasty attack 60 kilometers from the finish. But once again he failed as he failed twice against Contador, fading to 17th in the time trial, almost two and a half minutes behind Evans’ time. He’s only 26, but he’ll have to rethink this part of his strategy to win. And I’m sure he and brother Frank, a formidable contender himself, will be back next year, hopefully with a smarter game plan.

Alberto Contador lost the tour on the first day because he was too far back in the peleton and got caught behind a multi-bike crash, losing 1:20 to the other contenders, a cardinal sin for anyone seriously trying to win this race. Falling off his bike at least four times, once when his handlebars got caught in Vladimir Karpets’ seat post and Karpets shouldered him off the road and straining a swollen right knee, didn’t help his cause, either.

But he stayed even with all the other leaders and kept up when no one attacked in the Pyrenees. It was too late, but he attacked early on Stage 19, and though he cracked near the top of Alpe d’Huez, he showed that he could still play with the best of them, and Saturday he came in behind only winner Tony Martin and Evans in the time trial. Next year, he has already said, he will skip the Giro (which he won this year without breaking a sweat, though his participation might have contributed to his early lethargy) and concentrate on le tour. If he isn’t suspended for his clenbuterol positive in last year’s tour (we’ll find out in November now), the cagiest rider out there will once again be a serious threat to Evans and the Schlecks,

Like anyone who watched, I can’t say enough for the inspired race that Tom Voeckler rode. Against all odds, even is own, he stayed in the yellow jersey through the Pyrenees, even on days when he had announced he would lose it, and into the Alps. While the other leaders were playing mind games, Voeckler was providing the kind of drama that keeps us tour addicts pinned to our televisions.

As the Science of Sport website notes, the times for the Alpe d’Huez climb were more consistent with pre-doping times, and only one positive drug test so far this year. (Fingers crossed that nothing shows up later.)

Mark Cavendish, the best sprinter who is also on the best lead-out sprint team I’ve ever seen at HTC-High Road, was a marvel to watch, but it appears the team might be broken up after HTC ends its sponsorship this year. And it was really good to see former frustrated teammate Andre Greipel steal an early stage from Cavendish for himself. Thor Hushvod proved once again to be an opportunistic rider who helped himself to two stages no one expected him to even contend for, one in which he was timed descending a mountain at 69 miles per hour! Special kudos to Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha for finishing the race after a horrifying incident in which, while they were leaders of the stage, they were sideswiped by a camera car.

As for contenders next year, I was especially impressed with young rider Pierre Rolland, who won the climb to Alpe d’Huez, Tejay van Garderen, who excelled in the early stages, and Samuel Sanchez, who seemed to be right there with the leaders much of the time in the high mountains and finished seventh in the time trial. I’m certainly glad to get my life back after three weeks of insanity, but I can’t wait to see what happens next year, or the upcoming Pro Cycling Challenge here in Colorado next month, for that matter.

July 26, 2011   No Comments

A Nervous and Shaky First Week for le Tour 2011

Johnny Hoogerland wound up tangled in a barbed wire fence. Just a second earlier he was going 35 miles an hour with the breakaway.) LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

I’m not usually that enthusiastic about the first week of le Tour de France. It’s always been a good time to slowly settle into the ebb and flow of the race and listen to Versus commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen chatter on contentedly about the world of cycling. Except for general nervousness and a few crashes as the riders settle into the tour’s routine, the leaders generally let the sprinters strut their stuff and try to keep from doing something stupid.

This year, however, the first week was anything but predictable; it’s easily the most chaotic (and exciting to watch) first nine stages I’ve ever seen in the tour, though I’m sure the riders would use the same adjectives. From the first stage, when race favorite Alberto Contador got caught behind a huge crash and ceded more than a minute and a half to his main rivals, to Sunday’s ninth stage, when a television vehicle struck one of the stage leaders and half a dozen riders abandoned after some serious accidents, the race has been nothing but chaos at 30 miles per hour.

This is our eighth tour, and until this year the race has always begun with a short, ceremonial individual time trial, with the Swiss rider Fabian Cancellera lately the favored winner. This year, however, it was a full-on first stage, with several crashes and Cancellara nowhere near the yellow jersey.

Since then, all the leading riders save the Schleck brothers and Australian Cadel Evans have suffered one ignominy after another. Broken collarbones have forced top riders like Bradley Wiggins and Jurgen van den Broeck to withdraw. Both Tom Boonen and Chris Horner (one of the oldest riders, and my own personal favorite after watching him win the Tour of California in May) left the race dazed and confused with serious concussions. The Radioshack team, which came to the tour with three contenders for the yellow jersey, only has a bruised Andreas Kloden left to compete after he got caught in a pile-up.

On that vicious crash on a mountain descent Sunday, Alexandre Vinokourov broke his right femur in a massive tangle that also ended van den Broeck’s and David Zabriskie’s tours. If that wasn’t enough, a television car, in front of motorcycle cameras and ignoring race radio instructions to stay back, sideswiped Juan Antonio Flecha, one of the riders in a breakaway that was ultimately successful, sending him skidding into the pavement at about forty miles an hour and tossing Johnny Hoogerland, who was having a rousing first tour, at full speed into a barbed-wire fence. The peleton seems afraid, which can date back to the death of cyclist Wouter Weylandt in the Giro d’ Italia in May. The riders seem especially nervous and shaky.

I watched the Giro this year, and Contador defeated his opponents (none of whom included Evans or the Schlecks or Wiggins or Levi Leipheimer) with hardly a spot of bother, as commentator Paul Sherwen likes to put it when a rider is in full control. But Contador has fallen four times (that we know of) in nine stages, and he’s going to be hard-pressed to gain back the time he has lost to Evans and Andy Schleck, both of whom can be expected to stay with Contador, especially if he’s riding with leg injuries, through the high mountain passes this weekend.

French rider Thomas Voeckler, riding for a new team, Europcar, was the main beneficiary of the Stage Nine carnage. He barely escaped being hit by the car and wound up taking a minute and a half lead on the yellow jersey contenders and ending a week in yellow for Thor Hushvod, who deserves credit for keeping the yellow jersey on a course that seems much harder than most first-week sprinter stages.

Voeckler won the yellow jersey several years ago and kept it for almost ten days through brute tenacity and strength, impressing even Lance Armstrong. I expect him to tenaciously try to keep yellow as long as he can, even into the Pyrenees this weekend,, but he will be hard pressed to keep it.

And who will be wearing the yellow jersey come Paris? Like everything else about the 2011 Tour, I don’t have a clue. But I can’t wait to watch it unfold.

July 11, 2011   No Comments

Stage 9: The Contador/Schleck Duel Begins

Cadel Evans rode Stage 9 with a fractured elbow and only lost eight minutes to the leaders. Photo: © Stephen Farrand

What a strange sport cycling, particularly in the Tour de France, can be.

I was just enchanted with the stage today. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador pretty much decimated the rest of the  general classification field. Just ripped them by the throat and cast them aside.

But who could have ever guessed the two dominant riders would join forces while ascending the uncategorized Col de Madeleine and then stay together for thirty more kilometers to the finish? Or that they would catch the breakaway at the end? Or that Cadel Evans, who looked like death as he rode up Madeleine, rode the entire stage with a broken elbow?

Contador and Schleck are in complete control of this race, and, barring injury or illness, will be until we hit the slopes of the Pyrenees. I had to watch much of the Madeleine ascent a second time after I got home from work. It was magic.

Amongst the two, I have no favorite. I have been very impressed with Contador’s two earlier wins here, and his overall coolness under pressure and savvy strategic skills are undeniable, but I like Schleck’s fire and determination, especially after the last two days. “Now I just have to worry about watching one guy,” Schleck said.

But at this point, I’d give a slight edge to Contador. Schleck’s Achilles heel at this point is the time trial, which comes on the penultimate stage, and might determine the winner. Most tour watchers are saying that he could lost two minutes to Contador on that stage, so he must build a bigger advantage. He and Team Saxobank also have to protect the yellow jersey, while Contador and Astana just have to watch Schleck and stay out of trouble until Sunday. This is gonna be fun.

July 14, 2010   No Comments

Stage 8: Even Armstrong Can’t Relive the Past

Lance Armstrong became a mortal again on the slopes of the Alps Sunday. He was a great champion.

An era ended Sunday at the bottom of the first First Category climb of the 2010 Tour de France, and the new one began almost immediately near the top. The first really difficult stage in the Alps took a toll on nearly everybody except Andy Schleck, who became a stage winner for the first time in his career. It won’t be his last.

Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans both seemed surprised and a bit tuckered out at the end when Schleck took off near the summit of Morzine-Avoriaz and snatched the stage from Sammy Sanchez as the Spanish rider’s legs turned to stone in the last seconds. Evans is in the yellow jersey, so he had one of his best days at the tour, too.

It seems that it’s pretty much a three or four-man race for the general classification podium finish: Schleck, Evans, Contador and perhaps Denis Menchov. Behind and still alive are Ivan Basso and Levi Leipheimer, though neither really seems capable of winning. Basso, though he won the Giro this year, has never shown the dominance he displayed on the high slopes before his suspension, and in all the years I have been watching him, I have no reason to believe that Leipheimer has anywhere near the killer instinct to win this race against these younger, more determined legs.

Stage Eight did end Lance Armstrong’s bid to win le Tour one more time. For me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, it’s been difficult to watch his “comeback.” In 2008, after former Armstrong manager Johan Bruyneel had created a team around Alberto Contador, Armstrong joined that team, dividing loyalties among his colleagues and then spending much of the tour needling Contador for various team sins when it was clear that Armstrong was only the second- (or third-) best rider on the team.

Why do so many great champions come back out of retirement and force us to watch debacles like we witnessed today? Why can’t they rest on their laurels? I have been watching le Tour since that day when, after his chief rival went down hard, Armstrong took a creative ride across a field to join the pack around a curve. Watching him win tour after tour was greatly inspirational and sucked me into the sport of cycling, and when he decided to retire after seven victories, it seemed the perfect moment for him to sit back and watch another generation have its day.

So, despite the narrative power of the story of the champion coming back to the scene of his greatest triumphs, Armstrong’s return disappointed me, partly because of his attitude last year to Contador after he upset the dynamics of the Astana team, but also because I didn’t want to have to watch what happened today.

Make no mistake. Though Phil Liggett kept saying that it was through no fault of his own, Armstrong had this coming. He had remarkable luck, especially during the last years of his victory run. Last year he came in third, a remarkable return in itself but obviously not good enough for him. But in the year since, though he has had a couple of decent outcomes, he has never displayed any of the mastery he once had, and his body just doesn’t react like it did five years ago.

Having said that, it was still difficult to watch this great champion fall — again and again, once with only team members around him. Or to see him riding, his uniform ripped, blood running from both elbows and down his legs, or struggling to lose only twelve minutes on the leaders and having to watch as the cameras lingered on him after the leaders crossed the line.

This followed that day on the cobblestones when the cameras found him, his face blackened, fighting for survival behind the team cars. It seemed like he was always struggling this tour while the announcers tried to put a positive spin on his problems.

You can’t relive the past. Armstrong’s day is long past, and we’ll have to leave him to Versus reruns of his glory days, his Livestrong campaign and the idiotic Michelob Ultra Light commercials.

And after today’s rest day, let’s get on with the real battle at the top and let the post-Armstrong era of cycling begin. It’s overdue.

July 12, 2010   1 Comment

Stage Three: Cobblestones, Winners and Losers

Thor Hushovd won the Battle of the Cobblestones in Stage Three of the 2010 Tour de France.

Another dicey day at the Tour de France as the riders had to traverse eight miles of cobblestones in six sections today.

There was no dearth of drama during this rare event – it’s only the second time I’ve seen cobblestones on the course in the seven years I’ve been watching. Saxo Bank had dominated the front of the peleton all day, and was jockeying for position as the road narrowed, when Frank Schleck went down hard and broke a collarbone, ending his tour right there. Since it was at the front of the peleton, everybody had to stop and try to get around the pile-up, which split the field completely into disarray.

Thor Hushovd, angered about Monday’s decision by the peleton not to sprint after the crash and melee coming down the Col de Stockeu, took the green jersey, winning the stage handily over Fabian Cancellara, who kept Hushovd from sprinting yesterday. Cancellara managed to take back the yellow jersey he lost bringing Andy Schleck back into the peleton yesterday, and though the team lost Frank, Andy Schleck was right there next to Cancellara at the end, picking up the time he lost during a poor Prologue.

Sylvain Chavanel was a loser today. After winning Stage Two by staying ahead of the field and avoiding all misfortune Monday, today he had to change bikes at least twice after blowouts during the cobblestone sections. The lost momentum each time lost him the maillot jaune, too, which he had dreamed of keeping until they hit the Alps this weekend.

Cadel Evans found himself in the best Tour position I can ever remember. Always a favorite the last few years, Evans has also been a target for other teams — last year he was shut down by Astana any time he made a move. There are too many good riders for teams to go after individual riders, and today Evans missed the Schleck crash and was there with Cancellara and Hushovd and Andy Schleck at the finish line, also picking up valuable seconds on the leaders. Evans, now on BMC Racing Team, might finally be able to contend this year. The addition of George Hincapie to his team can’t hurt his chances, either. Bradley Wiggins, another contender riding for the new Team Sky, and Denis Menchov were 53 seconds back. Other GC contenders Ivan Basso, Michael Rogers and Carlos Sastre all came in a group at 2:25.

Favorite Alberto Contador, who the announcers reminded us several times early on, had never actually raced on cobbles, rode a strong, relaxed, sensible race. He was behind the Saxo Bank crash group, which left him more than a minute behind the Armstrong group. But he steadily rode himself back into competition. A leak on his back tire coming down the final stretch left him 1:13 behind Hushovd at the end.

Of the leaders, Armstrong, who had a flat tire at a critical moment on a late cobble section, fared the worst. After a frantic dash to try and cut his losses, he was still 2:08 to the finish line behind Hushovd. At one point, the camera caught the man who has won here seven times, lost behind a gaggle of team cars, dirt smearing his face, desperately trying to save his race.

The lost time can be made up – as we have found out, anything can happen in this one — but it’s a real blow to Armstrong’s chances. Much of the narrative on Versus has focused on the Contador rivalry and Armstrong’s desire to go out a winner. Many have noted that Armstrong needs to shave time anywhere he can so he is ahead of or close to the other contenders by the time the Tour hits the mountains. That hasn’t happened. He is now in 32nd place in the race, 1:51 behind Cancellara with little chance to pick up time in the flat stages that precede the Alps.

The drama already unfolding this year is a night-and-day difference from 2009, where the first fireworks came when Contador dashed away from the field on Stage 7. He is still the favorite, but everyone is vulnerable.

Last year’s rivalry between Armstrong and Contador, both on the same team, was more distracting than compelling, especially after Contador showed he was the superior rider and put Armstrong in his place. Whatever psychological advantage Armstrong might have had over Contador after a strong Prologue (and that’s hardly a given) is completely gone now. In this year’s narrative, it’s anybody’s race.

July 6, 2010   1 Comment

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