Farewell, Tour de France

I’ve mentioned it a few times over the last three weeks, so if you read this blog the you have probably guessed I am a big fan of the race. I haven’t always been. I watched the last three or four Armstrong victories pretty closely, lost much of the interest when he retired, and became far more obsessed by it than I would have guessed this year. I’m a huge Lance Armstrong fan for a lot of reasons. I think he’s the most ridiculously talented, freakish athletic there is. I am in awe of his competitive fire and his will. I’m also pretty loyal to his cause – my mom died of cancer last year when she was far too young, so I’m not a huge fan of the disease.

You can take what I say with a grain of salt if you want because I am such a fan, but if you haven’t been paying much attention to the Tour then you really need to take a second to realize just how impressive Lance’s third place finish was. There are a pile of reasons to be in awe of it. Among them:

– He’s almost 38 years old – truly ancient in a young man’s sport.

– He was retired for three full years. That important not just because he got older, but because he wasn’t training at all during that time. An ultra-endurance sport like cycling requires a fitness base that takes years to build and near-constant attention to maintain.

– He only made his decision to return officially last September. Going from just another guy to an elite athlete in less than 10 months should be almost impossible.

– He broke his collarbone in March. He could scarcely afford any setback, and this was obviously a significant one. The collarbone is subject to a lot of pressure because the riders use their handlebars so much and in so many different ways.

– He had a son, Max, born on June 4, 2009. He left training to be there for the birth, and has dealt with the distractions of that situation.

– He and teammate Alberto Contador did not get along well at all. Both are extremely competitive, and Contador has an approach to his team and its management that clearly rubs Armstrong the wrong way. Cycling is very much a team sport, so Armstrong was clearly faced with a team that didn’t provide him all of the support t could – partly because it had two stars, and partly because of the distractions the tension caused.

– He wasn’t his team leader. Cycling is filled with tradition. One of those traditions is that you can’t chase your own teammate. On at least two occassions Contador launched breakaways to build his lead. Though Armstrong had been riding right with Contador both times, and was looking fit and energetic, he was unable to move with Contador, and fell further behind Contador as a result. In another stage, Armstrong intentionally stayed behind Contador with the goal of wearing down Bradley Wiggins, a dangerous contender for Contador’s crown. If Armstrong hadn’t needed to do that he would have been free to use that energy in a way that would have helped his cause. That’s at least three times when Armstrong was forced to give up time to the winner.

– He was drug-tested a ridiculous amount – more than a dozen times during the Tour alone. He was subjected to far more testing scrutiny than other riders. Recovery time is crucial during the Tour, and that testng had several effects on that recovery time.

Armstrong would have had a million reasons not to succeed like he did. Riders with far more going for them this year than he had finished well behind him. This is just proof of how much natural talent the guy has. He’s truly a machine. Winning this year would have been incredible, but finishing third is remarkable – more than anyone, likely including him, would have guessed he would have been able to accomplish if they were being totally honest.

Next year has the potential to be a different story on several fronts. He’ll be another year older, but he’ll also have had another full year of training. Cycling is like most sports – you can’t really get in shape for the race without competing in top level races. Armstrong was not totally race-fit this year, and he still finished a solid third. Next year will be different. He’s building a new team,and you can bet that that means that he’ll be surrounded by an impressive combination of talented young riders and savvy veterans willing to make huge sacrifices to get their leader to the finish line in yellow. He’ll also almost certainly steal Johan Bruyneel, the Astana team manager, Lance’s manager for all seven Tour wins, and the top race tactician and team manager in the world. He’ll also have the ultimate motivation – he knows that next year is quite possibly his last legitimate chance to win the Tour, so he’ll give it all he has. Alberto Contador, the two time winner, is much younger, and is brilliant both at climbing and time trials. Armstrong may not be able to compete with him physically (though I’m not totally convinced of that), but he does have one major advantage – Contador is a tactical idiot, while Armstrong is the most brilliantly savvy rider in the field.

It all boils down to this – the Tour next year is going to be absolutely fascinating theater. It will truly be drama on the highest form. This year’s version has only been over for about 13 hours, and I already can’t wait for the next one to start. I’m obviously biased, but I wouldn’t bet against the Texan. How many days until July 3, 2010?

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