Before the Tour has vanishes entirely from memory, I just want to set down an impression or two. But not before a detour to take notice of the “war of words” between the winner, Alberto Contador, and his teammate, Lance Armstrong. To boil the thing down, Contador said he respects Armstrong the champion and the racer, but doesn’t like or admire Armstrong as a person and never has. Armstrong responded Tweet-wise, unloading pearls like “there’s no ‘I’ in team.” Pretty mild stuff, really, but it must delight the organizers of the Tour, who now have a grudge match to promote as next year’s premier attraction.
But back to this year’s race. Yeah, there was a little drama on the road, what with Contador unable to rein in his urge to show he’s the best and Armstrong and Team Astana clinging to the flimsy public fiction that leadership of the team was unsettled. That was always bull, and here’s why: Johan Bruyneel, like his riders, lives to win. For him, that meant an Astana rider in yellow on the Champs-Elysees as the Tour rolled across the finish line. He had one horse, and only one horse, who would get him there: Contador. Bruyneel was never coy about who he thought his strongest rider was, and Armstrong, after Contador’s decisive attack on the Verbier in Stage 15, conceded the point.
Yeah, you can talk about Contador’s ill-timed attack on Stage 17 that dropped teammate Andreas Klöden, a move that later prompted Phil “Pot Calls Kettle Black” Liggett to question whether Contador was intelligent enough to win on another team. But look again at what happened. Contador sat up as soon as he realized he and Andy and Frank Schleck had gapped Klöden. By then, though, the Schlecks had seen Klöden fall off and taken the initiative, and Contador had no choice but to follow them. There was a lot of talk that Contador’s move had cost Astana a one-two-three overall placing. Maybe. But that argument assumes the Schlecks would never have attacked themselves or would have done it too late to create the time gaps that relegated Klöden to a lower placing. They certainly showed they had the ability to attack in that moment: their pace finished Klöden, and their descent to the finish, with Contador as passenger, gained them even more time on all the chasers. The favor Contador did the Schlecks was to remove the need to decide for themselves when to jump. How much damage they would have done to Astana without Contador’s move–and, presuming they weren’t content to let Astana dictate pace all the way to the finish, they would have done some–we’ll never know.
But back to that impression.
It comes from Stage 16, a mountain stage on which Armstrong had become separated from the leaders’ group. He made a long solo attack from a trailing group to rejoin the leaders. And for several minutes, there he was, the Lance we remembered from all those years of dominating the race. Standing, accelerating, holding a high pace forever. It was thrilling, it was beautiful, as he passed one rider after another and gained on the official cars convoying the leaders to the top of the climb. On the team radio, Bruyneel sounded almost as surprised and excited as the people in the cafe where I was watching the race: “Lance is coming! Lance is coming alone!”
Not a race-winning move, to be sure, but a flash of strength that reminded you of how stirring this race and this racer have been.