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.