2009 Tour de France: What’s Lance After?

Well, that answers that question. Lance can climb with the leaders of the Tour. He proved that on the slopes of Andorre Arcalis today. But, after watching Alberto Contador pull away from him and the rest of the Tour’s podium hopefuls, a bigger question remains. What exactly is Lance after in the Tour? Is he riding to win? Or is he actually doing what a good team lieutenant would do and riding to ensure victory by Astana leader Contador?

After watching today’s stage in the Tour de France, I am tempted to believe that Armstrong, for all the talk, conjecture and hype, is not out to win the Tour at all. I believe he may actually be riding in support of Alberto Contador.

There are a few things I saw today that lead me to believe this might be the case and I also have some conjecture about why. First off, Astana did a lot of pacing at the front of the peloton today. At any one time, there were six or seven of the Astana guys powering away, stretched in a line.

It’s something U.S. Postal and Discovery did for Lance every year and, in the mountain stages, this kind of pace setting serves to protect the team leader from attack as much as it does to manage the time gap to any escape. If you’re keeping the pace up, it’s hard for a rival to accelerate and attack.

Considering all this, Astana was definitely riding for Contador today. He was tucked away at the end of the line, out of the wind and out of trouble, conserving his energy. It’s not that I expected to see Lance back in that spot but he was frequently third or fourth from the front, doing pacing duty just like any other Astana team member. I found it a little odd and began to wonder just what Armstrong was doing there. If he were unofficial co-leader of Astana, I would’ve expected him to split time with Contador. From what I could see, he did not.

The main thing that makes me suspect Armstrong may not be out to win the tour is how he reacted when Contador attacked the peloton with about two kilometers left in the stage. That is to say, he didn’t react at all. He did exactly what a good team lieutenant would do. He watched his team leader accelerate while staying behind to cover possible rivals.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Lance simply couldn’t respond. I’ll be the first to admit that Contador’s acceleration was impressive and opened a significant gap between him and the other leaders pretty quickly. But Lance didn’t have to catch him. All Lance had to do, if he was riding for the win, is limit the damage to 19 seconds or less. Lance didn’t even try to do that. He did, however, answer the attacks of Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck half a click prior to that. I’m led to believe not that he couldn’t respond but that he just didn’t.

So, with the yellow jersey within reach, why would Armstrong sit up and watch Contador ride away on the first important mountain stage of the tour? It could be that Armstrong is biding his time, waiting to see what happens in the stage 18 time trial or even on the slopes of Mount Ventoux. That seems to be a big gamble to me, seeing as how Contador bested him by twenty-two seconds in the opening-stage time trial and seeing as how Mount Ventoux has never been kind to Lance. There’s precious little guarantee that Lance could regain any of the time he lost today on those stages.

Or it could be that he really is riding for Contador to win. But why? It could be that Lance genuinely doesn’t believe he can beat Contador. Maybe that’s true. Contador is in fine form and he’s a hell of a rider. Or it could be that Lance Armstrong, as advertised, is starting his own cycling team next year and he needs a strong, proven leader to build it around.

When the Livestrong team begins racing next year, I don’t think Armstrong will be content to do what newer teams like Columbia-HTC and Garmin-Slipstream have done. They both grabbed young riders and slowly built competitive teams. All Lance Armstrong has known for 10 years is winning the Tour. I don’t believe he’ll settle for less.

That’s why I think, when Astana implodes from lack of financing at the end of this year, Armstrong will grab the best team manager in the business in Johan Bruyneel and the best rider in the field in Alberto Contador and have a team that is automatically in contention at Le Tour.

Bruyneel is a lock as manager because of his long and close relationship with Lance. But Contador is only a possibility if Lance doesn’t ruin his chances at winning this year’s Tour. If Lance can ride Contador to the win, imparting the wisdom and knowledge of a 7 time winner of the Tour in the process, he’ll likely end up with the competitor he needs to build a winning team right out of the gate. No other rider in the field today comes with that guarantee.

What do you think? Is Lance riding for the win or is he riding for the future? It looked to me today an awful lot like he’s riding for the future. But I find it hard to believe he’s content to finish second if he thought he could finish first. He’s too much of a competitor. Could his ambition for the future be even stronger than his competitive drive? Could he give up short-term gain for greater success in the long term? I guess we’ll see.

I for one was a little let down after today’s stage. I expected Armstrong to at least rise to any challenge. There’s always hope that he’s just conserving his energy and biding his time but I think we got a vision of what’s to come today. I hope that, no matter what, the excitement of the current tour continues. And, as always, go Lance!

2009 Tour de France: Thoughts on Le Tour

Since today was relatively quiet for the general classification contenders at the Tour de France, I thought I’d take the opportunity to post some thoughts on the Tour. I’ve been thinking about what’s happened at the Tour so far and trying to divine what might happen in the coming days, especially as far as it concerns Lance Armstrong and his Astana teammates.

First off, let’s take a look at the people who are riding the Tour intending to contend for the final yellow jersey. Of course, there’s Lance, winner of seven previous tours (1999-2005). He’s currently in second place overall, the thinnest of margins separating him from first.

He opened this year’s tour with a pedestrian (for him) time trial, losing seconds on technical mistakes as much as on older legs. His vast experience took him to third place and the brutal strength of the Astana team came within a whisker of putting him in first. The question remaining for Lance and his legion of fans is one that will likely be answered on Friday as the Tour enters the Pyrenees: can Lance still climb a mountain with the best cyclists in the world?

If the answer is yes, Lance will likely win his 8th Tour de France this year. He doesn’t have to attack in the mountains. All he has to do is survive. If he can survive the inevitable attacks from the younger climbers, he is one 40 kilometer time trial from victory. Given that he finished 22 seconds behind Contador in the opening time trial, and given that he is no 19 seconds ahead of Contador, he has no margin of error, assuming he makes it through the mountains in yellow.

That’s assuming Alberto Contador is Lance’s main rival. Contador, winner of the the last three grand tours in which he has participated and any number of other races, is largely considered the best stage rider in the world today. He won the 2007 Tour de France and the 2008 Giro d’Italia and the 2008 Vuelte Espana and probably would be trying for his third Tour de France win if the Astana team, under previous management, hadn’t been disqualified for doping. He is young, fit and motivated.

Before Lance came out of retirement, Contador was the unquestioned leader of the Astana team. He has to be chafing at the idea of being relegated to second place status on what was his team. I have real questions about whether Lance is fit enough to hang with him if he were to attack. Even Lance, as strong-willed as he is, can be cracked under pressure and he doesn’t have the same burst of speed to the finish that he used to have. I don’t think Contador needs to attack just yet. His better strategy is to strengthen the position of the Astana team and wait for the stage 18 time trial and the Alps.

That brings me to the other Astana contenders, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer. Kloden and Leipheimer always seem to be near the top of the field in the Tour but have never met with Tour glory. Leipheimer had a good ride in this year’s Giro and it would be wrong to count either of them utterly out of the race, especially given their solid performances in the individual time trial.

I don’t think it likely that either one of them will win the Tour but, if there are four Astana riders atop the tour standings coming into the Alps, it will be difficult for either of them to be content missing the podium. That could provide some great fireworks in the later stages of the race. We could witness Contador attacking Lance, Lance attacking Contador, Leipheimer attacking Kloden and Kloden attacking all three! Utter chaos! One can only hope.

I don’t think you’ll see Astana riders attacking one another until that scenario comes to pass, however. Their best strategy by far at this point is to keep together through the Pyrenees and defend against all the others that will be looking to make their move. Carlos Sastre, last year’s Tour winner, will be looking to make up lost ground and he tends to be aggressive in the mountains. Ditto for Denis Menchov.

I don’t remember Cadel Evans being that aggressive in the mountains but he’s pulled a Jan Ullrich the last two years, finishing second both times. He has to be capable of something. Another wild card is the 2006 Tour de France winner, Oscar Pereiro. He won “Most Aggressive Rider” back in 2005 and has some time to pull back if he hopes to contend.

Lastly, there’s American Christian Vande Velde and Saxobank leader Andy Schleck. Vande Velde has a strong Garmin-Slipstream team riding for him so he might make some noise. Saxobank is pretty strong this year and there has been some talk about Andy Schleck but I have to say I’m not familiar with him as a rider. Both Vande Velde and Schleck are comparatively well positioned compared to Evans, Sastre and Menchov. I don’t know if that will make them more aggressive or less. My gut says, if you’re Astana, worry about Schleck.

Anyway, I do expect Astana to take on all comers and come through the Pyrenees with at least two riders contending for the general classification. Schleck or Vande Velde may catch one or two but probably not all four Astana riders. If the two Astana riders left standing are Armstrong and Contador, expect a wild stage 18 time trial, especially if the current 19 second gap holds up. Both Contador and Armstrong will be riding for all they are worth at that point.

But all of this hinges on answering the question. Can Armstrong climb? He attacked in the mountains of the Giro but didn’t have the legs to make it stick. From I read, he’s in better shape now than he was then and he has historically gotten better as the Tour progressed. If he can hang tight through Friday’s climb up Andorre Arcalis and if Astana can defend against long-shot breakaways on Saturday and Sunday, he’ll be there at the end. If he cracks under the barrage of assaults that are sure to come…well, at least he can do his best to get Contador home in yellow.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens. This is definitely the best Tour in years. Say what you want about Lance but Le Tour has not be Le Tour without him. His presence brings a certain level of drama and excitement that has been missing for the past three years.

More thoughts:

  • The Tour de France riders are being tested for performance-enhancing drugs like no other athletes in history and Lance is more tested than any athlete ever. There’s almost zero chance he’s taking performance enhancing drugs in this tour, regardless of what he may or may not have done in the past. And he’s still atop the standings. What does this say about his past? It says to me that, you know what, maybe he really is just a different class of rider. He’s 37, clean-as-a-whistle and competing favorably with men 10 and 11 years his junior. He’s a physiological freak of nature.
  • Armstrong apologized but he was right. Last year’s tour was not up to par. Seeing last year’s Tour contenders far down the food chain this year is evidence enough of that.
  • Johan Bruyneel is the Phil Ford of cycling. He built powerhouse U.S. Postal and Discovery teams around Armstrong in the past and he’s built a powerhouse Astana team around Contador. Will he help Armstrong build his LiveStrong team next year, given Astana’s cloudy future? I bet he does.
  • If Armstrong builds his own team next year, will he ride again? I think it depends on how he does this year. A win this year and maybe it’s back into retirement. A loss this year and might come back to help the LiveStrong team leader win next year. Just a thought.
  • Who would ride for LiveStrong? Leipheimer? Popovych? Hincapie? I wouldn’t be surprised to see an offer made to Contador, even. I think Contador would do it if it were guaranteed that he didn’t have to ride against Armstrong. It’ll be a strong team right off the bat but I’m interested to see if the U.S. can support a third team besides Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-HTC.

    That’s all for now. More to come as the Tour develops! Go Lance!