Well, that was a trifle anticlimactic, no?
Sunday's Stage 9, our third and final day in the Pyrenees, dispatched riders up the
Astana's odd couple is separated by two seconds in the standings (Contador, sitting in second place, is a scant six ticks off the lead, with Armstrong two seconds behind him), and a moat of mistrust that widened last Friday. That's when Contador, apparently in defiance of team boss
While Contador failed to unseat Nocentini, his impetuous grab at the jersey succeeded in pulling back the curtains on a house divided against itself.
Who's it gonna be: Alberto or Lance? Instead of resolving that conflict, Sunday's stage merely kicked it down the road. Despite speculation that other teams might take turns attacking, forcing the powerful Astana squad to spend energy chasing breakaways, the ride up the
It was left for
It's long been an uncomfortable truth in this country that the French tend to struggle at their own event. The last native son to win it was
In response to the Tour de Dopage, as it was nicknamed, the French cycling federation instituted tighter doping controls, requiring riders to submit to 12-times-a-year longitudinal testing. That system prefigured the bio-passport program instituted last year by cycling's governing body, the UCI.
To summarize: As soon as riders from other countries were forced to undergo the kind of comprehensive testing to which French riders have been subjected for a decade, French riders became suddenly stronger.
Or is that their colleagues from other countries have, for some reason, become slightly weaker? Feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Only slightly less gripping than Lance versus Alberto is this year's battle for the green jersey, awarded to the leader in the sprinter's competition. With two stage wins in the first three days, British wunderkind
The oft-maligned Amaury Sports Organization, which puts on this event, has been criticized for everything from banning Astana from last year's Tour to it's quixotic decision to ban race radios in two Stages -- 10 and 13 -- of this year's race. (The idea is to return, however briefly, to the days of old, when riders made tactical decisions on the fly, rather than simply obeying -- or, in Contador's case, ignoring -- instructions radioed from the team car).
By de-emphasizing the three Pyrenean stages, by back loading this Tour with Alps, by sending the peloton up Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence,
The uneasy coexistence of Contador and Armstrong devolved, following the Spaniard's bit of free-lancing on the Arcalis, into something more overtly unpleasant. No, the Texan told reporters following that stage, Contador had not stuck to the team plan, "But I didn't expect him to go by the plan, so [it was] no surprise." On Sunday, Armstrong copped to the fact that "there's a little tension" between himself and his young teammate/rival.
Back in Stage 3, Armstrong used his veteran's wiles to steal 40 seconds from his main GC threats. He'll need to keep his thinking cap close at hand, because Contador looks to be the stronger rider. While we've yet to see the kind of wide-open, wild and woolly steel cage match of a climb like last year's free-for-all on the
Still, what sane person would rule Armstrong out? At 37 years and 10 months, after nine days of Tour de France racing, he is sitting eight seconds off the lead. Continuing with the pattern we saw at the Giro, his climbing will improve as the race progresses.
"We'll have more moments," he told reporters Sunday, "and we'll see who's really the strongest." So we will, but not until the final week -- and possibly the penultimate stage -- of a Tour designed to save its best for last.