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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

Miller No Longer Racing Through the Dark

Want to know why cyclists dope? It's all here. So is the story of how David Millar found redemption after being banned from the sport he loved.

David Millar is a Scottish professional cyclist who was arrested by French authorities and confessed to illegal doping in 2004. After serving a two-year ban, he returned to cycling in 2007 and now races for the Garmin-Cervélo team based here in Boulder, Colorado.

His memoir, Racing Through the Dark, came out last year, but it didn’t really catch my eye until all the latest revelations about doping came to light when Lance Armstrong decided against fighting drug charges and facing a long line of witnesses who testified before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, essentially admitting his guilt (though still denying it, of course).

It’s easily one of the best books on professional sports you’ll ever read. Millar’s story is in so many ways compelling. A gifted young athlete who loved to party, Millar’s first drug experiences came with sleeping pills, an addiction those who ride the peleton easily find, given the rigors of life on the road and riding more than 100 miles every day for three weeks. Millar came into the sport staunchly anti-dope, and if you want to understand how that attitude changed and how and why riders do drugs to compete, it’s all here.

Like most athletes, Millar got into the sport because he was supremely athletic and it was fun to compete. He became a star and team leader at an early age, winning stages in the Tour de France and other major races. His team, Cofidis, expected him to compete and win. As it became his “obligation,” injecting vitamin concoctions (called recup) after races to recover from three-week tours escalated to signing up with certain “doctor/trainers” with whom you would prepare for big tours by shooting Erythropoietin, or EPO, a hormone that occurs naturally in the liver that produces red blood cells. EPO is used by skiers, endurance runners and extreme athletes, but it has been especially prevalent in cycling. Eventually that activity landed Millar in a French jail cell.

Racing Through the Dark exposes the complete hypocrisy of professional cycling teams, most of whom end their obligation to the drug culture by having riders sign a form that promises they won’t dope. When any are caught or confess, the teams wash their hands immediately of the stench. The buck stops with the athlete. This is the same hypocrisy we see in professional sports in the United States. Just this week Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that even though Melky Cabrera is serving a 50-game drug-related suspension, he could still win the National League batting title if his percentage is the highest.

That’s why Millar signed with Garmin, the American team started in 2007 by Jonathan Vaughters, an admitted ex-doping cyclist whose ambitions as a team owner to clean up the sport coincided with those of post-dope Millar. Vaughters’ radical ideas, spurned by much of the cycling establishment in Europe, include drug-testing his own athletes regularly to create blood profiles.

So far, it’s worked pretty well. Garmin-Cervélo fields one of the most competitive teams in the sport. It includes other riders who, like Millar, doped back in the day and are devotedly clean now. One of them, Tom Danielson, lives in Boulder and, post-dope, is again among the world’s top cyclists. Another, Christian Van de Velde, won the Tour of Colorado last month.

There are those who say that the past is done, and there is no need to return to it. But as Millar makes clear, cycling (or baseball, or all other sports) have to face the truth before it’s able to move on.

Which leaves us with the elephant in the room. In a sense, he already has, and I’m not suggesting he go all Oprah on us, but Lance Armstrong needs to stop living the lie everybody knows about now. Armstrong is a legitimate hero for many people, me included. Billie and I started watching cycling in 2003 after watching a particularly memorable Armstrong moment when he carried his bike across a field to catch the other riders after the stage leader, Joseba Beloki, slid and fell on the hot pavement. His books on his battle with cancer are inspirational, powerful works, and his organization is a bulwark in the fight against that disease. It takes nothing away from any of that for him to finally tell the truth and move on.

September 21, 2012   No Comments

Stage 14: The Contador/Schleck Game

Contador/Schleck: It's lonely at the top. (The Guardian)

Though the first day in the Pyrenees brought little direct action, there was plenty of jostling between the two GC leaders. Andy Schleck, who had been caught off guard by Alberto Contador’s attack near the end of Stage 12, wasn’t about to get caught out today, and he rode Contador’s wheel each time that the Spaniard tested him.

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen were suggesting that this might have a psychological effect on Contador, but I don’t think either Schleck’s momentary lapse on Stage 12 or Contador’s challenges today will have much effect upon either man, each who seem supremely confident in his own abilities.

I watched Stage 12 a second time, and I’m really impressed with Contador’s cagey move there. He knows the climb well, and it favors his style, which seems to work most efficiently the steeper the incline, and just before the attack, he carefully looked back, then seemed to be, as he has the entire time since Schleck nabbed the maillot jaune, content to dance behind the leader, looking bored with the world. Phil Liggett said that he looked like a tourist, gazing around at the beautiful scenery below him.

Then he took off like a rocket. Like he had a motor in his cycle. In the end, he gained only ten seconds, but it was the stealth factor that was most impressive. It happened so quickly. Like when Armstrong ruled the tour, Contador seems willing to wait patiently and then strike at just the right moment. Today he didn’t succeed, and Schleck deserves serious credit for staying with him today on two tough climbs.

“Schleck needs 1:45-two minutes coming into the time trial” – Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, July 17, 2010

This is still the wild card. Though he trails, Conatador is just hitting his stride as a time trialist at the time when Schleck couldn’t look worse in that category. His prologue ride at the start of the tour was almost embarrassing. If both stay healthy, Schleck will need to increase his lead significantly over Contador before they leave the Pyrenees, or he will lose.

Both seem to have powerful teams protecting their riders, but overall, Astana seems to be hitting its stride while SaxoBank might have already peaked. At one point today before the two mountain climbs, Liggett, noting the absence of SaxoBank riders in front of the peleton, said, “if I were Andy Schleck, I would be freaking out about now.” Schleck handled the relentless pace of the Astana squad today – which punished the rest of the peleton for the last hour and a half before the two climbs — but he had nobody beside him for much of the final climb.

All in all, the tension is building nicely for a wonderful three more days in the Pyrenees leading up the climb of the Tourmalet Thursday.

July 18, 2010   1 Comment

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

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