09 July 2009

Le Tour en France

Despite being in France this year at Tour-time, I wasn't much looking forward to it. I'd rather be exploring France by bike myself, frankly. But despite invites to go ride the great mountain passes with a friend each week through the summer, I'm stuck here in Paris with tendonitis around my knee and riding the local hamster wheel, instead. And so, to get my fix, I've been watching the Tour on TV.

And, surprisingly, it's been a real barn-burner. The opening TT was long enough to create some real gaps, and Fabian Cancellara crushed the field with what looks like a return to his normal form after a tough spring. Then we had a split in the crosswinds in stage 3, reportedly an on-the-fly decision made by the Columbia-HTC team, put out that the other sprinters' teams wouldn't come to the front and help catch the break. Strategies born of anger are rarely good strategies, bike racing or not, but the split in the peloton they created happened to separate Lance Armstrong (in the front group) from his teammate and potential rival Alberto Contador (in the 2nd group), and so made for great television and fueled a press feeding frenzy, especially when Armstrong and his 2 teammates in the front groups started contributing to the split's success. Never mind that Columbia and their general classification leader, Michael Rogers, would give back as much as much time in the team time trial to the Astana boys as they took the day before.

Then the team time trial, for sure another marketing and TV spectacle, where the powerful Astana team took 40 seconds out of Cancellara (and technically his team, although the big Swiss seemed more hampered than helped by his 8 teammates). Cancellara went into the TTT 40 seconds up on Armstrong in the general classification, so the calculations for the leader's yellow jersey went to the tenths of a second, with Cancellara holding on to his jersey for at least a little longer. It seems to this observer that this might have been Mr. Armstrong's only real chance at the yellow jersey in this tour: while impressively fit after several years out of racing and just a couple of months after a broken collarbone, he doesn't seem to have the horsepower to out-climb, or even time-trial, Contador, or his other teammates Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden, for that matter. Armstrong appeared content with his team's performance, which was impressively well-drilled on an extremely technical and challenging course and a day where crashes dominated the TV screen. But he'll have to be disappointed to come so close to yellow if he doesn't get it the rest of the Tour.

Contador, who has been prickly about the incessant questions about his leadership on the powerful Astana squad, seemed genuinely sorry Armstrong didn't take yellow in the TTT (and Contador could be seen pushing the pace in the closing kms, so it didn't seem like false regret). Without the yellow jersey on Armstrong's shoulders tomorrow, when the Tour hits the Pyrenees and has its first mountain-top finish, Contador has more room to maneuver and attack as the leader of his team, if he chooses or needs. His disappointment seemed a little patronizing (paraphrasing: "it means a lot to Armstrong"), but maybe he was disappointed for Armstrong because he wouldn't have the honor of ripping the jersey from Armstrong's shoulders? One senses there isn't a lot of love lost between those two.

Through the tour, Eurosport continues their amusing Planet Armstrong spots, still best for their silly animations. For all of their promotion of the spots on TV, however, Eurosport does a horrendous job of making the short videos easily accessible on their website. But if you understand French, you can find the translated versions here. Heaven help you if you try to find them in their original English format.

And in case you think Armstrong's got an easy ride with his celebrity, check out the chaos in the background of this interview. Is there a single second where somebody isn't yelling in the background to get his attention?

That's exactly why I've never bothered to ride the Tour...

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