Thursday, July 23, 2009

The 'L' Word

Lance Armstrong is many things: a father, a son, a cancer survivor, a cyclist, a philanthropist, a baby daddy, an ex-husband, a 7 time winner of the hardest cycling race in the world, a marathoner. Lance doesn't know how to lose.

But, for the first time since he rode the Tour as a brash World Champion, he will not finish atop the podium in the yellow jersey in Paris.

I watched yesterday's stage with incredibly admiration for the role that Lance was playing. During the years of 1999-2003, Lance rode only select races throughout the year and expected his team to ride only for his cause at the Tour. He treated them well, paying them bonuses out of his own pocket following the race. One thing he did not do, however, was repay them in a different way - working as their domestique in other races. It was beneath him, it seemed.

He wouldn't ride in support of Levi or Roberto in their respective Vueltas, nor would he ride for George at Paris-Roubaix or any of the other spring classics. It was the one thing that made him less of a champion to me.

When he announced his return to cycling, my initial reaction was "does he think he's able to win the Tour?" In all the press conferences though he remained adamant that he was coming back for different reasons, to bring the global fight against cancer back in the public eye. He was riding without a salary. He was doing different races and more races, presumably to gain exposure. Not that he ever needs any, but it was awesome to see him doing the races he had always avoided because they didn't fit into his Tour preparation.

Then his form started to come together and winning the Tour was a definite possibility. I was perplexed by the Astana team's decision to ride with 4 potential GC contenders, after all - how would 5 others protect the collective interests of these 4? At some point, one of the guys was going to have to work for another.

In the first week you could cut the tension with a knife. The biased media we receive here in the US of course made us all feel like Contador was acting a primadonna, and that he was neither qualified nor worthy of being the automatic team leader. For us here in the States, sadly, it appeared as the race went on that Lance just wasn't capable of accelerating in the mountains like he once was, and he relegated himself to the role of super domestique. He covered moves, he slowed down the pace, playing a superb teammate.

I think everyone was surprised yesterday when Contador essentially attacked his own teammate late in the stage, but many felt that Contador would likely lose time in the individual time trial at Annecy today to the likes of Kloden, Wiggins and Armstrong. Needless to say, what developed in the 40.5km circuit caught me out like an echelon in a crosswind.

For those unaware of the rules of an individual time trial (hopefully there aren't too many), riders start in reverse order of the overall classification, one by one, in a race against the clock. 40.5km is 25 miles for us non-metric users, and to put it into perspective I can ride 40km in about 58 minutes, maybe just under. Since there are still about 160 riders remaining in the race, the early riders go at 1 minute intervals. You never want to get caught by your one-minute man. That means you don't want to get caught by the dude that started a minute behind you. Never a good feeling. It is, however, a great feeling when you catch your one minute man. And your two minute. And your three minute.

Swiss time trial specialist (Olympic and World Champion in the individual time trial) Fabian Cancellara was one of the early riders and set the bar high at 48:33. That's 48 minutes and 33 seconds to ride a bike 25 miles. 31 miles per hour, roughly. And there was a climb in the middle of it. Other TT specialists such as David Millar (Scotland) and Dave Zabriskie (USA) slotted in behind this position, and these guys are among the best at this discipline.

When the race gets down to the last 10 or 15 riders on GC (general classification), riders leave in 3 minute intervals. That meant the order on the road was going to be Wiggins, Kloden, Armstrong, F. Schleck, A. Schleck, Contador. The way I thought the race would go: Wiggins pulls time back on everyone, but Lance pulls himself into 2nd, and the top 3 would be Contador, Armstrong, Wiggins. Boy, was I way off.

Armstrong's time checks were just never there, and he continually lost time to Wiggins throughout the stage. Kloden rode very strong, ultimately finishing faster than Armstrong, and then Frank Schleck had a poor ride. Andy Schleck, however, rode like a man wanting to fight for yellow, and then Contador rode like he deserved yellow. Ultimately, Contador rode just under 3 seconds faster than Cancellara, winning the stage and opening the gap in the overall race.

The thought of this diminuitive Spaniard racing faster than Cancellara and these other time trialists was mystifying. I have had the opportunity to be on hand for 3 time trials at the Tour, though, and I've seen my fair share of crazy things. Like Michael Rasmussen crashing 5 times and changing bikes twice, going from 2nd or 3rd overall to 5th in 50 short kilometers. I've seen Lance put minutes, MINUTES, into everyone. So now it's clear: Alberto Contador is the best rider in this year's Tour and deserves to win.

The only thing left to decide is the final pecking order in the overall classification. Andy Schleck sits in 2nd at about 4:30 back, and then it's another 1:14 to Armstrong in 3rd. On the unforgiving slopes of Mont Ventoux it is easy to give back that kind of time in just a few kilometers towards the end, but against a rider who is going well at the moment, it is highly unlikely. What Lance needs to watch out for is the pack of 3 that sits just a total of :34 behind him. Third place is in serious jeopardy with the likes of Frank Schleck, Bradley Wiggins and Andreas Kloden, chomping at the bit to have their day in the sun in Paris.

Friday's stage is a rolling transition stage that shouldn't feature any surprises or challenges to the overall contenders. I would look for a small breakaway of 3-4 to be allowed freedom and survive to the end. With a second category climb late in the race, the teams of the sprinters won't do any work to pull back a breakaway if their men are not on good form, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Thor Hushovd and his Cervelo Test Team at the front if they can get the Norwegian over the climb. This would enable him to pick up enough points to put the competition for the green jersey out of reach of Mark Cavendish.

However, it could also be a good day and last opportunity for someone from a team that hasn't done anything this Tour - perhaps Silence-Lotto, Katusha, Rabobank, Lampre - or maybe a rider like Juan Antonio Flecha or Oscar Freire to get away with a kilometer to go and just surprise everyone.

Either way it all culminates on Saturday's stage from Montelimar to Mont Ventoux, and there will certainly be a battle there.

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