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!

  • 2009 Tour de France: Mind the Gap

    It was another big day at the Tour de France. Lance didn’t come up with the yellow jersey but it wasn’t for lack of trying and it wasn’t for lack of support from the Astana team. They put in a hell of a ride, coming within .133 seconds of putting Lance in yellow. For those of you paying attention, that is the smallest time gap separating the first and second place riders in the one-hundred plus history of the tour.

    Astana had a great ride today and won the stage. They did everything humanly possible to erase Fabian Cancellara’s 40 second lead over Armstrong. In the end, they did exactly what was necessary, finishing 40 seconds ahead of Cancellara’s Saxobank team. Cancellara’s performance in the opening-day time trial left him the razor thin margin he needed to keep wearing the yellow jersey for another day. He’ll likely keep wearing it until Friday’s trip into the Pyrenees.

    When that happens, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll be the new leader of the tour. It could be Lance, it could be Contador. Heck, it could be Kloden or Leipheimer, for that matter. They sit second through fifth in that order, separated by 31 seconds. I would love to see the top four Astana riders attacking one another all through the Pyrenees! Someone’s going to have to attack, it seems. After today, several of the riders considered to be locks for the podium were left with a lot of time to make up. Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov all lost serious time over a very difficult course today.

    I was amazed at how the course shredded the teams. It seems like very few finished with more than the five riders necessary to stop the clock. Garmin-Slipstream shed four off the back early in their run and I thought they’d lose a lot of time. They hammered out a pretty good pace though and had a great run. It’s great to see the American teams do so well and one could wish that Lance or Levi was riding for either Columbia or Garmin. Maybe Christian Vande Velde can make some noise in the mountains for Garmin.

    The one good thing coming out of Lance’s near miss today is that Astana won’t have the pressure of defending the yellow jersey on their shoulders. They can continue to ride a low-stress ride for a few more days. Maybe we’ll be able to see some fireworks in the Pyrenees. Hope so!

    So far, this has been an awesome tour. If you aren’t watching it, you should! You may not understand the excitement right off the bat but, once you understand the strategies involved, nothing beats the drama.

    2009 Tour de France: Unexpected Drama

    Okay, maybe I was wrong. Maybe Lance has a chance to win his 8th Tour de France after all. Forgive me for doubting. After watching him finish 10th in the individual time trial, I thought for sure he was done. I didn’t think he had the legs or the form to hang with some of the younger riders. I mean, come on. The worst finish Lance Armstrong has registered in an individual time trial in the Tour de France since he first won the thing is seventh. That was way back in 2003, the year he came closest to losing out to Jan Ullrich.

    That same year, in the 12th stage, he had a miserable time trial. He was hot and dehydrated. He lost 51 seconds to Jan Ullrich. And he still finished the stage in second place. For him to finish 10th on a day in which he’s feeling relatively fit is unheard of, unthinkable.

    So maybe you can forgive me for thinking that his chances of winning the Tour hover somewhere between slim and none.

    What I didn’t take into account is just how wily his experience has made him. It gives him an edge that his legs may not be able to give him any more.

    Just look at what happened today. With about 30 kilometers to go in a stage no one expected to change anything, the Columbia – High Road team rounded a corner, detected a cross-wind favorable to opening a gap and took off. Most of the race’s general classification contenders were caught flat-footed and were left behind. Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer, Cadel Evans, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre…all left behind.

    But not Lance. Lance was right there to take advantage of the split, putting 39 seconds into his main rivals. The first thought I had when as I watched is that Lance was tipped by Columbia rider George Hincapie. Hincapie rode with Lance for all of his Tour wins and they remain good friends. Lance denies George told him anything but it was a very fortuitous circumstance for Armstrong, certainly.

    Even more fortuitous was the fact that Armstrong had two teammates along for the ride. And that fact is where it gets interesting for me. Generally, in these kinds of circumstances, members from one particular team stay with or fall back to their leader, helping to chase down any break or escape and making sure the team leader doesn’t lose any time on rivals.

    What they don’t do is spend time at the front end of a break pushing the pace trying to widen any time gaps. But both Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia did just that. At one point, the gap between the first peloton containing yellow-jersey Fabian Cancellara and Lance Armstrong and the second peloton was 41 seconds. That was the point when Popovych and Zubeldia were setting the pace instead of team Columbia. You think Alberto Contador noticed? With teammates like these…

    What does that all mean? Putting it all together, it means, I think, that Lance Armstrong has at least two team mates on Astana that will help him against nominal team leader and rival Alberto Contador.

    The question is whether there are more. I think that there will be more if Lance can jump two more places and put on the yellow jersey. Once he’s in the yellow jersey, the whole team falls in line behind him, at least for the short term. The pressure would be on Astana to defend the yellow jersey, no matter who is wearing it. If Lance puts it on, he’ll become the defacto leader of Astana until the jersey is taken away. That is huge. Without the team support, Lance has no chance. With the team to support him, he just might have a shot.

    And that goes to show just how cunning Armstrong can be. He had to know all this when Columbia made their break. He has to know that tomorrow is the team time trial and his Astana team is expected to win. The Astana team is a behemoth of talent compared to the rest of the field. Their main rivals will be Saxobank, the current defenders of the yellow jersey, and Columbia-HTC. If Astana puts 41 seconds into Saxobank and 8 seconds into Columbia, Lance wears the yellow jersey as soon as tomorrow night.

    From then on, the problem of divided Astana loyalties becomes lessened, at least until the mountains or until someone else wears yellow. If Lance is still wearing the yellow jersey when the Tour enters the Pyrenees on Friday…well, I don’t know what will happen. We may see Lance attacked by his own teammate, Contador. Or Contador might bide his time, waiting for the next individual time trial and the Alps.

    At any rate, an already interesting race got more interesting today, and not less. The plots and subplots run deep and this is easily the most exciting tour since Lance retired. I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

    Which brings me to a logistical note. Versus does indeed have the live race broadcast available online for free. I thought they only did pay per view. The apparent difference between the free and pay version is the quality of the video. I can live with a grainy video as long as I get to watch and listen to Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin. Those guys rock.

    Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be providing more informal tour coverage and analysis over the next three weeks. Come back and visit and feel free to drop a comment. Hope you guys are enjoying the race as much as I am.

    Go Lance!

    2009 Tour de Lance: Begun and Done

    The opening stage of the 2009 Tour de France is in the books and it looks like Lance Armstrong’s comeback is done as soon as it’s begun. It may sound like it’s a bit defeatist to call it done after one stage but I think it’s realistic.

    Lance Armstrong built his Tour de France wins on the strategy of winning the time trials and then holding off his rivals in the mountain stages. Lance finished a very pedestrian 10th in the opening time trail and I’d be stunned if he were a good enough climber to gain all that back in the mountains, especially against a rider like Alberto Contador. Contador finished second in today’s time trial, twenty-two seconds ahead of Armstrong, proving his all-around strength as a rider.

    Even more damning is the fact that Armstrong was beaten by two other teammates, American Levi Leipheimer and German Andreas Kloden. Armstrong is not the first, second or possibly even third best rider on his own team, never mind the rest of the field. I think that, once the tour reaches the mountains and it becomes clear that Armstrong’s chances are slim, he’ll fall in line and ride for Contador. I am not sure of this, as I think it will be difficult for him to give up his pride and a shot at the podium, but it would make sense.

    As an aside, the Astana team looks incredibly strong and it will be shocking if they don’t win the team time-trail, a stage making a comeback of it’s own, having been left out of the last several tours. Putting four men into the top 10 of the opening time-trial is amazing. Leipheimer had a great ride in the Giro d’Italia and Kloden has finished on the podium in the past. It’ll be an interesting to see if Astana can hold together as a team given they have so many strong riders, several of which are capable of finishing on the podium.

    I know there will be many who disagree with me and who will say it is early yet. As a huge tour geek and Lance fan, I am pulling for Lance but have to be realistic about his chances. I think he’ll pull out a stage win or two but this year’s race is designed to favor the younger, better climbers like Contador, Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. The race ends, for all intents and purposes, on an uphill climb to the summit of Mount Ventoux. If Lance is still contending by then, I’ll be surprised.

    Given all that, it is possible to pull back remarkable amounts of time in a single climb. Even the best climbers have bad days and can crack under the heat and strain. Even if Lance is a minute or two back, it will be possible for him to pull off the upset on Ventoux. He’s never won a stage on Mount Ventoux, finishing second in two tours and one Paris-Roubais.

    I guess there’s a first time for everything and the last mountain stages guarantee the drama remains high until the very end. Armstrong tends to improve as a rider in the second and third weeks of the tour so anything is possible. But, after today, it looks like he’s only human after all.

    Post Script: If you’re an American like me that doesn’t have cable or who wants to follow the Tour when you can’t be in front of a television, you can watch live video of the race via SBS.com out of Australia. You’ll miss Bob Roll but you get to listen to Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett call the race. And you’ll get to spoil the day’s stage for any of your friends who have to wait to go home to watch the Versus coverage.

    Update (07/05/09): It looks like SBS has blocked the US from viewing their live video feed. I’m looking around another free and live video stream but haven’t had any luck. Bummer.