Many of you will likely find this post as intersting or exciting as my recent, and rediculously self-indulgent, thoughts around the Blackberry, other handsets, and people that use them. But, I am passionate about cycling, and, of course, most extreme sports. And, I know you will stick with me.
As I write this post Lance Armstrong had dropped to fourth place in the Tour de France.
As dire as that may read, it’s really not that big a deal. There are dramatic mountain stages ahead, as well as time trials, and the potential, at any moment, for tour standings to suddenly change with falls, and the potential for scandal to rear it’s nefarious head.
Armstrong is currently eight seconds behind Rinaldo Nocentini of Italy who has managed to hold onto the coveted yellow jersey for eight consecutive stages – but, is not expected to end up winning the overall race.
In a post from last week, lance is a Yellow basterd, I predicted that Armstrong would end up working tactically with Astana teammate Alberto Contador going into the final stages of the race, and and then slug it out one-on-one with the 2007 tour winner, probably in the second to last stage.
I believe this remains the ultimate plan. However, the strategy is likely changing daily.
Early in the tour, team Astana demonstrated both power and unity as they blew away everyone else in a team time trial. The result was three Astana team members positioned to attack for the lead. Contador was second overall six seconds behind, Armstrong was third at eight seconds, and Levi Leipheimer was fourth, and fifty eight seconds off the leader.
It should be noted that Leipheimer and Armstrong are great friends, comrades, and countrymen. I am convinced Armstrong was counting on Leipheimer to pull him (and Contador, if it made sense) through some break away stages for the yellow jersey. This adds the element of potential for an unprecedented one-two American rider finish in the Tour de France – something that many pundits, French journalists, and team Astana itself, has down-played. And, let’s not forget American George Hincapie as he finds himself in second place overall after todays stage. So, an American sweep? Armstrong, Leipheimer and Hincapie were all Discovery team members during the majority of Armstrong’s seven tour victories.
In any event, there is tension amongst the Astana riders polarized by loyalties to Armstrong and Contador.
Contador, a Spaniard, probably has a chip on his shoulder because it can be argued the only reason he won the 2007 Tour de France is because Armstrong wasn’t there. Like many Mediterreanean men, Contador comes across with a sense of entitlement, and often acts like this is his time, while Armstrong has had his day. However, Armstrong is chomping at the bit to prove his seven prior tour victories should not be tainted by any suggestion of drug use. The French media is relentless in their spite and greatly evident domination Armstrong has over their tour and, of course, numerous French riders that often languish in Armstrong’s shadow.
So, both Armstrong and Contador are contending with unstated asterisks by their mighty accomplishments – and, are faced with a dramatic need, one for the other, in this current tour.
The dynamic changed, however, when Leipheimer fell off of his bike and broke his wrist. He withdrew from the tour Friday. This leaves many questions about both the Astana team victory and the special interests of both Armstrong and Contador. And, as I alluded to above, there was also a question in my mind wether Armstrong and Leipheimer might try for a break on their own (this will be discussed and evaluated in an entirely different post after I speak with Levi).
In theory, it’s generally a teams best interest to support the eventual winner of the Tour de France. The yellow jersy brings glory to the entire team. It might be surprising for readers to learn that, in many respects, cycling is oft considered a team sport. Teams are built around one star supported by climbers and break away-capable speedsters recruited to get them though specific stages of major races. Leipheimer, for example, was recruited for his “chemistry” and prior experience with Armstrong. Along the way these specialists can earn distinctions and individual honors that include “King of the Hills” (polka dot jersey) and top Sprinter (green jersey) – all by accumulated points and stage wins.
Certainly, there are other riders that can win the tour. But, I feel Astana is loaded and capable of managing their own destiny both this year, and likely the 2010 event as well (when Armstrong buys out the current sponsors and replaces them with companies from the United States – I hope to be part of that).
So… Armstrong or Contador?
Leipheimer was the “wild card”. And, another individual time trial in the next few days after several grueling stages in the Alps will be more than telling. My thinking has been that Armstrong and Contador (and Leigheimer) – all of team Astana, for that matter, have only been biding their collective time monitoring the strengths of individual riders and their own collaborative efforts with lesser teams. I expected the Astana riders to make a break in the Alps, working together in a team time trial fashion to put minutes between Armstrong, Contador and the peloton – where Nocentini wold be helpless to keep up with the Astana attack. Obviously the peloton would recognize the tactic and give immediate chase. But, team Astana proved they can drop everyone in that earlier team time trial. So, I really think losing Leipheimer at this point is crucial. He was a utility rider with great time trial speed and and pull-through strength. It’s surprising what a difference only one man can make in a five to seven man break away. And, the team’s polarized loyalties could prove definitive in the final two thousand meters in the mad dash to the finish line.
I can see Armstrong and Contador baring down wheel-on-wheel with Armstrong swerving to the side in the final meters, and with a grand flourish, giving the tour to Contador. This would make Armstrong an even greater legend – espcially amongst the purists of the sport where valor and good sportsmanship might be valued above everything else. But, it would also humiliate Contador, and tarnish his victory. The asterisk would remain, but forever benefitting Armstrong as he tests his character vs. integrity. And, ever the canny businessman, willing to brandish American bravado with Texas swagger, the book deals and speaking opportunities generated by such an, ironically, selfless act, would be wildly lucrative.
Then he turns around and wins the 2010 tour in fine form – pushing any asterisk up the French media’s collective butt.
So… It’s going to happen in the Alps or a long flat course. The Astana riders will break and pull Armstrong and Contador through a sustained effort to distance themselves from all other riders in contention for the yellow jersey. Armstrong and Contador are, without question, legendary climbers and can break the will of everyone else in the Alps. But, with a team of determined speedsters around them it probably makes sense to watch for this development in one of the three stages leading up to the final time trial where the standing will likely find themselves carved in proverbial stone, with only a freak accident having the potential to change the outcome of the final approach to the Arc de Triumph come September 27th.
Peace be to my Brothers and Sisters.
Brian Patrick Cork