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Reasons to stay tuned into the Tour, even if Armstrong won't win

SAINT MAURICE, France -- Okay, people, you've had a couple days to come to terms with the cycling's New World Order. How's the grieving process going? Coping okay? Did we have a bit of a sulk on Sunday? For a lot of yellow-braceleted faithful, that day marked the death of illusions and wishful thinking; the moment Alberto Contador ("Contador le Matador" as L'Equipe dubbed him) rode into yellow. And he did in a voracious, merciless, effortless style that: 1) evoked a young Lance Armstrong; and 2) suggested very strongly that he'll be sporting the maillot jaune all the way to Paris.

While most of the podium threats in Tuesday's Stage 16 finished in a solid bunch, 59 seconds behind stage winner Mikel Astarloza, it's not quite accurate to say there was no blood. Sadly, the redoubtable Jens Voigt, who crashed heavily on the descent -- looked like his front wheel lost traction on a painted stripe in the road -- and was taken to the hospital. His Tour is over.

Figuratively, Cadel Evans was dropped by Voigt's Saxo Bank teammate Andy Schleck, who supplied the day's main drama by attacking on the whimsically named Col de Petit-Saint-Bernard. There was nothing puppy-like about the mountain (a first-category, 26-kilometer slog), or petite about his losses: the Aussie hemorrhaged another three minutes, and is now so far from the podium that it looks like a piece of dollhouse furniture to him.

Not so for Armstrong, who was initially dropped by Schleck's attack, but who fell a half minute behind before putting on the kind of show that used to come so often that it spoiled us: standing in the saddle, he attacked his group of hurting chasers, powerfully and dramatically bridging back up to Schleck & Co. By doing so, he preserved his second place in the overall classification, 97 seconds behind Contador, but just nine seconds ahead of the most improbable resident of the top 10: Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins, an eccentric Brit who has long excelled in time trials and in the velodrome (he's the two-time defending gold medalist in the Individual Pursuit), but who all the sudden is climbing as if he had wings.

If Armstrong wants to stand on the podium with Contador, he'll need to chase down more attacks tomorrow. Andy Schleck in particular will be desperate to gain time, and Stage 17 into Le Grand-Bornand is the nastiest of this Tour: five categorized climbs that will afford the talented Luxembourger many opportunities to test his rivals. A Saxo Bank source told me outside the team bus this morning to keep an eye on Schleck on the near-vertical Col de Romme, the fourth of those five mountains. Yes, it's come to this: we're discussing Armstrong's chances of finishing in the top three. Following Sunday's fireworks on the Verbier, the Texan graciously conceded what we'd seen with our own eyes: he can't climb with Contador, and gave his word to work to keep the jersey for his team, if not himself.

What happens now? Will stateside viewers tune out by the tens of thousands because an American isn't going to win the race? No way, right? We're not that narrow, that myopic, that incurious. Are we? Herewith, four reasons to keep tuning into Versus to hear honey-tongued Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen make sense of the terrible beauty that is the Tour:

1. Phil and Paul -- and Bobke and Craig Hummer and Frankie Andreu and the rest of the Versus crew. Before flying over here for the last week, I'd been devouring the coverage, and finding it top-notch, a dramatic improvement on even a few years ago. I like the money the network is spending to put remote cameras in team cars. And even though they make strange bedfellows, Andreu has done a terrific job debriefing Armstrong before and after each stage.

Better still, I'm seeing fewer Enzyte commercials this year. I get tired of my son asking, "What's that stuff FOR, anyway?"

2. The Feuds. First it was Lance vs. Alberto. And how tongues wagged after Stage 7 on the Andorre Arcalis! Remember? When Contador unceremoniously dropped the best riders in the world -- including his Texan teammate -- the talk was all about how he'd somehow been insubordinate; committed some vague treason. This wasn't the strategy the Astana boys had discussed on the bus before the stage! Contador was freelancing. It wasn't cricket!

All that discussion of the Spaniard's alleged treachery, combined with LA's explanation that as a loyal teammate, he couldn't chase Contador, created a fog around a truth that was stripped bare on Sunday: The 37-year-old no longer has the legs to climb with Contador, who is 11 years his junior, and who will have screw up royally to avoid winning his second Tour de France.

That contretemps has been eclipsed by the blatant ill will between Garmin and Columbia High Road, whose George Hincapie slipped into a breakaway in Stage 14, and was poised to claim the yellow jersey. Even if the Big Hink had only worn it for a day, as was likely, it would have been a career highlight.

Instead, Garmen got on the front and not only drove a relentless pace, but, according to one Columbia team member, recruited other teams to help them work. Hincapie, one of the most selfless, popular guys in the bunch, missed out on yellow by five seconds, and was visibly crushed. One of the first guys I saw when I got here was Garmin GM Jonathan Vaughters, who had nothing to do with his director's call to drive the pace up front, but who nonetheless had some pretty spicy hate mail on his Blackberry.

3. The British are Coming! If it isn't the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish of Columbia, bagging four more stage wins in this Tour -- he's won eight in the last two Tours de France -- it's Wiggins, the former flatland specialist who dropped 20 pounds from his 6-2 frame (he now goes 152; his rib cage looks like a xylophone) and is always among the leaders in the high mountains. The speculation was that, since he's never been a podium threat in the third week of the Tour, he'd be in terra incognita in these last five stages.

Wiggo may crater tomorrow, but he was one of the strongest guys in the mountains today. Don't forget, Thursday's stage is a flat-as-Olive-Oyl, 40-km time trial around Lake Annecy. If Armstrong can stay ahead of Wiggo tomorrow, he may be leapfrogged by the Englishman in the TT, which should reshuffle the standings, but not as much as Saturday on ...

4. Mont Ventoux. Never have Tour organizers been so cruel -- or inspired -- as to put an hors categorie mountain on the race's second-to-last day. With eight of its 21 kilometers pitching up at over nine percent; with its malevolent appearance and tragic history -- British cyclist Tom Simpson died on this climb in the 1967 Tour, his bloodstream adulterated with amphetamines and alcohol -- this is sadistic obstacle, indeed, to cast before a bunch of guys already 20 days in the saddle. It's going to be electrifying.

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