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Saturday, July 25, 2009

More Thoughts on the Tour de France 2009

¡Mark Cavendish racking up stage win número cinco!

More Thoughts on the Tour de France 2009

I have thoroughly enjoyed this year’s Tour de France after suffering through three years of drug scandals. I have to admit that being able to watch Lance Armstrong again was definitely a big reason for me to tune in this year. Ever since he was matched up with former Tour winner Alberto Contador on the Astana team sparks have been flying as to just who would be the leader of the team and who would take on the grunt work of being a domestique. Both Contador and Armstrong aren’t the kind of athletes who are used to taking a backseat to anyone and the conflict between them seemed to be about the only thing the press here in Spain really cared to cover during these first two weeks of racing.

For the most part the Spanish press treated Armstrong like a foreign invader or an unwanted houseguest. On the other hand, I just don’t think that Astana team director, Johan Bruyneel, really has Alberto Contador’s best interests at heart. He is, after all, Lance Armstrong’s longtime associate and friend. I think that both Armstrong and Bruyneel just expected Contador to take a back seat on the team. Contador isn’t just some young upstart; he’s a past Tour de France champion so why the hell should he even be on a team that has another rider vying for the top spot? Contador took an inordinate amount of shit from his teammates for an attack he made late in the day on stage 17 in which he left Andres Klöden behind. This left both Klöden and Armstrong off the podium at the end of the day and put in their place the two Schleck brothers who were riding with Contador in the breakaway. There is no doubt that Contador made a tactical error in his ill-planned effort to drop the two Schleck brothers but I think he more than made up for this in the next day’s individual time trial.

I wanted to see one of two things in this decisive time trial: either I wanted Lance to come from behind to take the stage and assure himself a comfortable position on the podium, or I wanted Contador to blow everyone else off the course and prove, once and for all, that he is the best rider in the race. I got option number two and a bit of option one. Contador won the stage by beating the world’s best time trialist, Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, by three huge seconds. All of Contador’s detractors can now politely shut the fuck up. He just about sealed his victory in the general classification and should breeze into Paris with no problem. Armstrong ended up overall at number 3. Now there is the problem of keeping Armstrong in the running.

Lance helped himself out in the time trial even though he came I 16th overall—not a very Armstrong performance. As I said, he did well enough to fight his way over Frank Schleck for third position. Whether he can keep that today in the grueling Mount Ventoux stage on the eve of the ride into Paris is another matter. It will make for a very interesting fight for third position and possibly even second if Andy Schleck has any problems. Andy Schleck is an excellent climber so I don’t see him unraveling today.

Lance was able to pick up four seconds in Friday’s race over his next rival, Bradley Wiggins, because organizers said that the peloton was split up enough at the end to give separate times. Lance will need every second he can get to begin Saturday’s tortuous climb up Mount Ventoux. It has been great to see Wiggins, an ex-Olympic pursuit rider—adapt his style to road racing. He has done an excellent job. He is a good time trailer and a great climber as well. He has all of the necessary elements to win the Tour some day.

The green jersey is still in contention as Mark Cavendish pulled off a surprise victory on Friday—if you can say that a rider who has won four previous stages is a surprise. It’s just that few people were predicting a sprint finish expecting there to be a successful breakaway leaving the sprinters somewhere back on the steep climb of the day. Cavendish gutted it out over the mountain and had a tremendous finish to give him five stages this year. Not a bad Tour for the kid from the Isle of Man.