The question from this year's Giro d'Italia is no longer whether Levi Leipheimer can cling to enough of his early-season form to win the centenary edition of this storied grand tour.
That verdict came in last Monday. On the final, obscene climb of Stage 16, an instant classic, 147-mile, eight-Apennine, seven-plus-hour ordeal during which temperatures hovered around 100 degrees and the Astana team car ran out of water bottles, Leipheimer cracked like the Liberty Bell.
The 35-year-old was unable to match the accelerations not only of the men who are looking like podium shoo-ins -- Denis Menchov and Danilo DiLuca, in that order (with third place more of a crapshoot) -- but also of his own super-domestique, a certain Texan who has improved steadily and markedly every stage for the last two weeks.
That's right, when he isn't fetching bottles for his mates, Lance Armstrong is beginning to show flashes of his old, predatory form. While he's won no Giro stages and is still not yet his former self, he's getting close enough to be making people nervous -- including, I am guessing, his Astana teammate Alberto Contador.
Barring a meltdown in Friday's climb up Vesuvius -- yep, they're sending 'em up the volcano; is this a cool race or what? -- or Sunday's tour-ending time trial in Rome, Rabobank's Menchov will win his third grand tour.
The question for stateside cycling fans now becomes: For whom will Leipheimer be riding six weeks from now in France? I doubt that Contador, who won this race in 2008 but isn't here this year, shed any tears upon seeing Levi crater on the Monte Petrano. With Astana rider Andreas Klöden now preoccupied with a recent batch of ill-timed accusations, Contador now has but one legitimate rival for the role of team leader at this year's Tour de France. (Provided, you know, that the Astana team still exists. But that's another story.)
Ever since Armstrong coughed up nearly three minutes on the Alpe de Siusi on May 13, foreclosing his podium possibilities, he's looked sharper and feistier with each passing day. By the end of Monday's hellish Stage 16 -- many riders called it the hardest day they'd ever endured in a stage race -- he had more in the tank than Leipheimer, for whom he sat up and waited, before pacing his teammate up the remainder of the climb, helping limit his losses. (Levi now sits sixth, 4:32 off the lead; Armstrong is 12th, 12:17 back).
And there was the Texan on Wednesday, surging from the main bunch on a punishing climb called the Blockhaus, nipping at the heels of eventual stage winner Franco Pellizotti, before falling back to finish in a group with '08 Tour de France champ Carlos Sastre.
After crossing the line, a spent, sinewy Armstrong was approached by a reporter. With a curt shake of his head, the Texan shut him down, as he has shut down all such requests for the better part of the last two weeks. Having kicked off this comeback with vows to open himself to reporters as never before, Armstrong now seems intent on executing an end run around them. Between his Tweets (@lancearmstrong) and daily videos posted on Livestrong.com he is attempting -- as his former mountain biking partner George W. Bush attempted -- to bypass the "media filter," preaching directly to the choir of his fan base.
While the production values aren't what you would call exacting -- think middle school video tech class -- Armstrong deserves credit for having the discipline to churn them out regularly, and for his apparent determination to never resort to a second take. (The team car's warning tone goes off repeatedly during your analysis of Stage 16? Roll with it, bro!)
Nor is he daunted by taping segments with subjects who are, shall we say, less than voluble than himself. Levi is no one's candidate to conduct a filibuster, but the dude is Frederick Douglass next to Yaroslav Popovych, a Ukrainian whose limited English was on full display in this opus.
In "Lance Tour of Truck," Astana's quiet, behind-the-scenes heroes are afforded, at long last, their star turn. It is inconvenient for director/producer Armstrong that they couldn't be less interested in it, which is how we end up with such sequences as:
LA: "Here's some of the crew. Ryszard you've met before." [Soigneur Ryszard Kielpinski then says something in Polish.]
"There's Craig" -- Armstrong motions to a nervous, balding fellow who replies, "Yep." Rejoins the host, "Craig doesn't say much."
The camera pans to a husky man flashing a "hang loose" sign that is completely out of place, frankly, around any Johan Bruyneel-led outfit. "There's Alan," continues our indefatigable guide. "He's over there cleaning some glue off that wheel, right?
"Correct," replies Alan. And so on in this vein. The video runs 3½ minutes but, like the Blockhaus, seems much longer.
Cycling's foremost cancer crusader and filter evader is doing video segments with riders requested by followers of his Twitter feed. Here's my suggestion: Sit down with Contador, Lance, and ask him who should be the team leader at the Tour. As long as you're climbing this well, you might as well try climbing into his head.