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!