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!