I started watching bike racing back in 2000, when Maryland finally decided to provide us with cable and we got OLN. It was awesome. It completely changed my outlook on all sports, most notably the notions of tactics - both individually and as a team. If you want to learn how to succeed in anything, just watch 3 weeks of cycling every July.
I watched every second of the 2001 Giro d'Italia as Dario Frigo claimed the magglia rosa and even though he went on to get busted years later for drugs, it was still awesome. The greatest sprinter on the greatest sprint team of all time, Mario Cipollini, aka the Lion King, never disappointed. Italians loved their bike race.
That summer's Tour de France featured Lance attempting win #3, and OLN really gave great coverage. It was from this Tour that the now-infamous "look" was given by Lance, to all others, on the slopes of L'Alpe d'Huez, and he went on to grab his third yellow jersey in Paris.
Now I was officially hooked, and I started thinking about taking a trip out to watch the Tour. 2002 went by and I was glad I didn't go to that one as it was super boring. Largest margin of victory, over 7 minutes, to Ivan Basso (a drug cheat). Most of the main competitors, including Jan Ullrich, weren't there. 2003 flipped the script, as he was having a go at #5. Every stage was crazy, from the Paris-Roubaix style early stage that knocked out a few competitors, to the crazy stage on Bastille Day where Joseba Beloki crashed, to the dehydrated TT, to the final TT in the rain that saw Ullrich crash and lose the race.
I knew there wouldn't be too many years left in Lance's legs for the Tour, so I had to get out there in 2004. I flew from JFK to Nice and headed into the Alps. All I had with me was my little black backpack, some cotton undershirts and a light sleeping bag. I trekked up the mighty Alpe d'Huez and slept on a steeply sloped field under the Alpine sky, and watched Lance decimate the field in the next day's TT. He had just won the prior day's stage in the Alps, and the next day, Stage 17 from Bourg d'Oisans (the village at the foot of Alpe d'Huez) to Le Grand Bornand would prove to be one of Lance's greatest victories.
I watched the stage roll out and quickly made my way to get out of town to the finish line. I had no idea how things transpired out on the route, but at the finish line it was Lance snatching a sure-win away from T-Mobile's Andreas Kloden. After watching the footage it appeared as if Lance's Postal teammate Floyd Landis (another drug cheat) set such a mean tempo all day that a select group of 5 came into the closing kilometers together - LA, Floyd, Ullrich, Kloden and Basso. Lance was more than happy to give Floyd the stage win, as he had done tremendous work on the day, but Kloden had a go of it just before the 1 kilometer to go banner.
His gap was unreachable, or so it seemed, until Lance pulled it back, impossibly, right on the line. It was after this stage that Lance uttered the French phrase that Eddy Merckx had told him: "Pays Cadeaux." It means "no gifts," and Lance was certainly not giving his competitors an inch that Tour. You think you can beat me? Think again.
That was a long buildup to my impressions on this year's Tour, but it was relevant to the story, because today, Stage 17, was into Le Grand Bornand again, and I honestly felt a similar situation would occur. I thought that 5 riders would make it to the summit of the Col de la Colombiere and race down into the finish at Le Grand Bornand and that it would again be Lance Armstrong victorious. And it would have been, too, if not for that little skank Alberto Contador.
What I don't like about AC is that he lacks respect. Respect for the bike races, respect for competitors, respect for the history of the race. He feels entitled, and as the 2007 race winner (along with his 2008 Giro and 2008 Vuelta wins) he thinks that his teammates are there to work for him. When he pulled his bitch move in the mountains of Andorra in week 1, I felt it was a slap in the face but perhaps that it could help establish some order in the team. After all, Lance said all along it would be foolish to fight and fight, but not have someone on the team wearing the maillot jaune.
As I've watched Lance ride throughout this Tour, it's almost as if nothing's changed since his last ride nearly 4 years ago. In that time he's run 3 marathons, somehow popped out another kid and raised millions of dollars for cancer research. You can think whatever you want about Lance Armstrong, but the dude is a BOSS.
And that's how he rode this Tour - as the boss. You have to be very good to win a Tour (let alone 7), and also have to have some good luck. You never saw Lance dawdling in the back of the peloton, waiting to be caught out. He rides at the front. He rides attentively. He knows more about what's going on in the race than anyone, and it shows during his interviews. In the stage 4 TTT it was Lance setting the pace for his team, doing the big pulls, directing the team. When they finally hit the Alps and he couldn't respond to the vicious attacks, he was okay with working for the team.
Astana has had a huge advantage over the other teams this year because they had 4 riders who could legitimately win the Tour. I've never understood this move because people think they're riding great in weeks 1 and 2 but the 3rd week proves final. Lance did an awesome job in Sunday's stage to ride as a teammate in support of AC, and when he saw an opportunity to bridge the gap, he went. As Alex said, "his patience is as impressive as his athleticism." Lance never panics, and he smoothly worked up to the group so as to defend his position without helping others advance theirs.
I was excited for today's stage. I was craving it. I expected that Kloden, who has looked unbelievably strong for days, would set a good tempo and only AC, Lance and the Schlecks would be there at the end. And since Kloden and Lance are the faster sprinters, I thought it might again come down to those two battling for a stage win, with Lance reminding Kloden what happend 5 years ago.
Then I'm watching the stage and it wasn't quite unfolding how I'd expected. Lance covered a Schleck move on the steep climb of the Col de Romme, a first time climb in the Tour, and then another attack hit from Andy Schleck. Contador and Kloden were on it, and Lance simply marked Frank Schleck and Bradley Wiggins. Smart, and very team-oriented. Lance looked great, I thought, and the race would come back together. Frank Schleck made a move at one point and Lance shut it down, but then he was dragging Wiggins back up so he slowed up and Schleck went again.
This time, Frank bridged to the 3 up the road and Lance just sucked Wiggins' wheel. They were losing quite a bit of time, but if it meant that Wiggins was losing time, it was good. About 2km from the top of the Colombiere, the day's last climb, Contador made what seemed like a good move for a second - but it completely backfired. Instead of shelling the Schleck brothers, he only managed to get rid of his own teammate. And now he couldn't slow the rivals down, so he had to go with them. Lance, meanwhile, looked calm and collected, and when his opportunity came to drop Wiggins, he went.
Towards the end of the descent into Le Grand Bornand, Lance managed to bridge to Kloden (with youngster Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas) and they rode in - but the damage had been done. Contador and the Schlecks picked up 2:18 on Lance at the line. Really it was a brilliant piece of riding by Lance, but a super impressive effort by the brothers from Luxembourg who put time into Lance on a descent. Now the overall picture looks bleaker for Lance, who sits in 4th, at 3:55 back. Andy Schleck is in 2nd at 2:26 and Frank is 3rd at 3:25. Kloden is now in 5th at 4:44.
Originally I felt like no time gaps would have been made today between those 5, and that either Lance or Kloden would have won the stage. Then I felt like Lance and Kloden would have ridden amazing time trials tomorrow and placed themselves squarely in 2nd and 3rd. Now it looks like a tall order. Contador can time trial, although a flat 40.5km is not his speciality, and the Schlecks are likely to lose big time. I feel like Lance will end up in 2nd overall and pull maybe 1:00, 1:10 back to yellow. But instead of that putting him within striking distance of yellow, he'll likely be too far away now, with just a decisive finish up Mont Ventoux on Saturday as the only real test before the finish.
Mont Ventoux, the geant de provence, is a fabled mountain in Tour history. A British rider (Tom Simpson, maybe?) died when he reached the summit back in the 60s. In I think the 2000 Tour, Lance rode up with Marco Pantani and "gifted" him the stage win - to which Pantani basically decried the display and set forth a tumultuous relationship between the two riders. Then the last time it was used in the Tour I believe Iban Mayo won (although that may have been in the Dauphine Libere). Either way, Lance has never won on Ventoux and he obviously wants to. I thought it could be a day for Lance and Contador to say "cheers mate, each man for himself" but now it looks like that won't be the case - but it'll still be a great stage. And as Lance said this morning:
Anything can happen.