2010 Tour de France – Lance Armstrong’s Last Stand

2010 Tour de France - Lance Armstrong

With the drama of Team Astana and the 2009 Tour all but a memory, we look forward to the 2010 Tour de France tomorrow with hopeful eyes and eager anticipation as the events that will unfold over the coming weeks will be an exciting, fast paced hammer through the mountains of France. With Lance Armstrong promising this is his last adventure through the historic roads of France (of course…we have heard that before) and Alberto Contador chasing that illustrious 3rd Tour victory, this year’s Tour de France is looking to be even more chair gripping than the last.

But…the big question on everyone’s mind is an easy one…

Can Lance Armstrong Really Win? Bill Strickland Explains

Lance Armstrong le Tour de France 2010

Photo: Armstrong's fitness looked suspect early in 2010. (AFP/Getty Images).

In an editorial on Bicycling.com, Bill Strickland explores the possibility of a Lance Armstrong victory. Are the odds stacked against him? Absolutely. While Lance is the best mind in cycling, he has stiff competition from strong riders with age on their side.

Bill Strickland’s Article on Bicycling.com (link credit)

From his first, unprecedented Tour de France victory in 1999 just three years after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, the seven-time champion’s ability to confound expectations has become legendary among the public and his fellow racers. On his way to a third victory in 2001, he used the now-famous “bluff” to trick his rivals into thinking he was weak and about to fall behind. Then at the base of the final climb, he exploded out of the pack to win the stage atop Alpe d’Huez. In 2003, Armstrong was the least prepared he’d been for any of this Tour wins, and was under the fiercest pressure yet from the other contenders when Joseba Beloki crashed in front of him on a high-speed mountain descent; Armstrong swerved off the road, bumped over a grassy field, dismounted and hopped a drainage ditch then neatly rejoined the pack on the road below the site of the carnage. Later that same year, knocked down on a climb when a spectator’s bag snagged his handlebar, Armstrong remounted then powered up Luz Ardiden to not only catch his rivals but win the stage-on a snapped bike frame.

In 2009, over the course of writing Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Lance Armstrong’s Fight to Reclaim the Tour de France, I witnessed his latest improbable comeback. Armstrong had unretired and returned to the Tour after four years off, to try to become its oldest champion at age 37. After a spotty early season, few people believed he could win the race. Even his team director and longtime friend, Johan Bruyneel, told me in confidence during the middle of the Tour that, “You can’t suddenly ride away from the best if you were unable to keep up with them a month earlier. I anticipated the most he could hope for was to keep up with the best.” As the race wore on and it was clear that even climbing onto the podium would be a victory of sorts, most close followers of the sport began to believe even that wouldn’t happen. By the final time trial, which occurred in Stage 18 out of 21, I compared Armstrong to his younger competitors, Alberto Contador (the eventual winner), Andy Schleck (who took second) and his brother Frank (fifth), and Bradley Wiggins (fourth). “Armstrong looks old and tired,” I observed as I watched him at the team bus after the time trial. “He came into the Tour de France as lean as his younger competitors. But instead of riding himself into the silvery, translucent spectral state in which everything is stripped from the body except the resilience at its core, he somewhere slipped into the plain state of being tired. He’s a had a horrible day at work and his kids are running around screaming, and for the first time since I’ve known him he seems just flat worn out the way I sometimes am, the way sometimes all of my friends are. He seems like one of us.”

But on the final mountain stage, which concluded with the horrendous 21-kilometer climb to the top of the 1,912-meter Mont Ventoux, Armstrong found enough of his old miracle-making to stay with the leaders and preserve his third-place podium spot. Trying to explain it to me afterward, Bruyneel could only say, “He was riding like . . . like . . . He was riding like Lance Armstrong.”

This time around in 2010, Armstrong is just a year older, while his competitors are still young enough to be considered a year more experienced. And even though he didn’t break his collarbone as he did last season, his initial lead-up to this year’s Tour looked equally bleak: In January he opened the season with an innocuous 25th place in Australia’s six-stage Tour Down Under. At the two-day Criterium International in March, he got dropped by the leaders on the final climb. In April he finished 27th in the Tour of Flanders then caught a stomach virus that kept him from racing again until May. His return came in New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila, a five-day race contested mostly by domestic American teams instead of top pro squads. Last year Armstrong finished second to his teammate Levi Leipheimer; this year he was 17th. In May, in the wake of Floyd Landis’s allegations of widespread and systematic dope use by Armstrong and other pros during their careers, Armstrong abandoned the Tour California after a crash. He required X-rays on his elbow (which ended up being negative) and six or seven stitches near one of his eyes. With six weeks remaining to the Tour, most experts began writing obituaries for Armstrong’s 2010 podium hopes.

But in the five-day Tour of Luxembourg in early June, Armstrong placed third. Then in mid-June at the Tour of Switzerland, he finished second overall. More significantly, in the final big mountain stage of the 9-day race, he rode at the front of the main pack of leaders, which had dropped such marquee stars as super-climber Andy Schleck.

Armstrong had risen from the ashes of his early season.

“What no one understands,” his longtime teammate and trusted lieutenant Chechu Rubiera told me for Tour de Lance, “except us who ride with him, is that improvements that take us two weeks, three weeks of training, he does in nine days. It has always been this way.”

We now know that Armstrong is ready for the 2010 Tour de France. What we will find out in the next month is if, at age 38, being ready is enough to win. It probably isn’t.

Even Armstrong admits that last year’s winner, two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador, is in another class. “He’s the biggest and best talent on the bike,” Armstrong told me for the book. “Maybe the best ever.” What’s more, Contador is riding this year for an Astana team that, instead of being split between himself and Armstrong, should unite and ride fully in support of its sole leader. There’s also the returning Andy Schleck, the gifted climber from Luxembourg who, at the end of June, won his country’s national time-trial championship, perhaps demonstrating his own readiness with an improved ability in the TT (always a factor in the Tour). Cadel Evans-an all-arounder who can TT and climb, and finished second at the Tour twice before stumbling badly last year-seems to have revitalized his career. He is wearing the rainbow stripes of the World Champion, won the early-season Classic race Fleche Wallonne, wore the pink leader’s jersey for a day in the Giro d’Italia in May, and for the first time in years will ride the Tour with the support of a team designed for stage racing. (His previous teams were established more for competing in intense, one-day races rather than the endurance-oriented stage races.)

Unless the Landis allegations or other breaking news result in a last-minute exclusion from the Tour (which has happened for other racers in the past, most notably the 2006 exclusion of favorites such as Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich due to the Operacion Puerto investigation into performance-enhancing drugs and blood-doping), the controversy probably won’t negatively affect Armstrong. In fact, Armstrong uses resentment and anger to fuel his performance, a personality trait he often publicly disavows but is aware of and welcomes as motivation. About Contador, who disobeyed team orders during the 2009 Tour and angered Armstrong to the point that the two nearly got into a fistfight, Armstrong told me, “I couldn’t dislike the guy any more.” And “I can’t wait for July. I’m serious. I’m . . . man . . . I want to fucking . . . I want to beat him.”)

The layout of this year’s Tour favors an Armstrong miracle. Early in the race, the riders will be taken across 13.2 kilometers of bone-jarring, eye-shaking, crash-inducing cobblestone roads during Stage 3-a day that probably favors Armstrong’s heavier build and race experience over Contador’s lightness and youth. It could lead to a time gap similar to last year’s split in Stage 3, when Armstrong anticipated a change in headwind that Contador didn’t and finished in a group 41 seconds ahead. Besides the short, 8km prologue, which likely won’t impact the final standings, there’s only one time trial, the 52-km Stage 19. Both the lack of other time trials and this one’s late appearance favor Armstrong. He’s not as strong against the clock as Contador, and he tends to become stronger and fitter as the Tour goes on. Similarly, the key stages of the Tour are expected to come in the third and final week, starting on July 19 in the 15th stage, when the race enters the Pyrenees for three back-breaking days.

With my intimate relationship to last year’s race and front row seat to Armstrong’s comeback-I was able to ride in the team car during several races, including the Tour-I clearly understood then, as I do now, that Contador should win. I wanted him to win. He was, as Armstrong described him to me, “spectacular,” and deserved the victory. But I also found myself believing that, one more time, Armstrong would somehow find a way to win. I don’t believe that now. But sometime in July, I will.

Bill Strickland is the editor-at-large of Bicycling magazine and the author of Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Lance Armstrong’s Fight to Reclaim the Tour de France. He also writes a weekly blog about riding on Bicycling.com called Sitting In.

Do I think Lance can win? Honestly…not really. I think he is going to put on a fantastic showing and he will be able to leave the Tour on a high note, but the amount of speed that is hot on his tail can not be denied. However, you will not find me betting against him at Vegas…

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