What we learned from the 96th Tour de France:
1. Alberto Contador must now be considered a threat to Lance Armstrong's record seven Tour de France victories. At the age of 26, he's won two Tours, and is only getting better. Borrowing from the Texan's trusted playbook, he dominated in the mountains and the time trials. Even Armstrong admitted that at his sharpest, he has never climbed as swiftly as Contador got up the Verbier in Stage 15. The Spaniard ascended that Alp at a reported rate of 1,850 meters per hour -- compared to Armstrong's 1700, which is still "pretty good," says Lance. In clinching last year's Tour, for instance, Carlos Sastre averaged 1,750 up the Alpe d'Huez. Contador is simply in a different league.
And then there is his dramatically improved time trialing. Contador won the race of truth around Lake Annecy in Stage 18 (although runner-up Fabian Cancellera griped that he'd gotten an unfair advantage by drafting off police motorcycles.) The truth is, he looked more like Lance than Lance in this Tour. Seriously, if he wanted to -- even he didn't have Johan Bruyneel in his earpiece telling he didn't need to attack to win the Tour -- I think Contador could've won four mountain stages. He was going for the victory, of course, when he busted that ill-advised move on the Col de la Colombiere, failing to shake the Schleck brothers, but succeeding in dropping his own teammate, Andreas Kloden.
As Armstrong said of his teammate/rival: "He can climb, he can time trial, but he's gotta leave the tactics to the director."
2. Armstrong still has serious game. You don't fake third place in the Tour de France -- especially not after taking four years off, then breaking a collarbone three months before the race. How the 37-year-old elbowed his way onto the podium, despite demonstrating vulnerabilities we never saw during his seven-year reign, was, for my money, one of the most fascinating elements of the 96th Tour de France.
Until it mattered most, with his podium spot in the balance Saturday the sinister Mont Ventoux, Armstrong lost time to the leaders on this Tour's most daunting climbs. He was slower than we remember in the so called Race of Truth, finishing 10th and 16th in the individual time trials.
But he raced smart. By sneaking into a Stage 3 breakaway while his rivals were snoozing in the bunch; by soloing away from fellow podium threat Bradley Wiggins on the Col de la Colombiere, Armstrong scrounged and cadged the seconds that pushed him onto the podium. While Old Lance would've scoffed at third, Comeback Lance declared himself "damn pleased."
He hasn't changed that much. After all but conceding victory last Tuesday -- "Alberto's too super" -- he added this: "Next year, different story."
3. Mark Cavendish is the most gifted, instinctive, explosive, natural sprinter since Mario Cipollini. Like Super Mario, he's the beneficiary of the best leadout train in the business. These sprint finishes are usually won by a half-wheel. On Sunday on the Champs Elysees, Cavendish capped his astounding performance -- he finished this Tour with six stage wins -- by routing the fastest in the world by 30 meters. It was the equivalent of Secretariat's 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont stakes. It just doesn't happen. The Manx Missile, just 24, now has 10 Tour victories in the last two years.
4. These are banner times for American cycling. After dropping a bunch of weight and discovering his inner climber, Garmin-Slipstream's Wiggins transformed himself into a GC contender, finishing just off the podium, in fourth. Tyler Farrar was the only sprinter, it seemed to give Cavendish a run for his money. Yes, the Garmen were cast as the villains of this race for their going out of their way to deny Columbia's popular George Hincapie the yellow jersey. But they still had a hell of a Tour.
And then there's Columbia. Between BobStapleton's men's and women's squads, this team won 33 races in June. You could've fielded a ferocious Tour team with the guys Stapleton left off his roster. Total embarrassment of riches there.
While covering the race, I ran into Andrew Messick, president of AEG and the Amgen Tour of California. Messick had a spring in his step, and it wasn't just because he was feeling his oats after bagging a bunch of big climbs over the last fortnight, including the Ventoux on Sunday. Three days earlier, Armstrong announced that he'd be riding for new squad next season. Get ready for ... Team Radio Shack. Clunky? Yes. But if we can get used to Team U.S. Postal Service (Presented by Berry Floor) we'll get used to this.
To subject riders to less rain, and take them higher into the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains, the Tour of California has moved from February to May, a ballsy move that conflicts with the Giro d'Italia. As Messick reasons, however, "For this sport to be truly global, there need to be important races outside of western Europe. And we think ours should be one of them."
In addition to tweaking his training and equipment, Armstrong spoke last week about making adjustments to his racing schedule. In other words, no Giro for Lance this year. He'll be riding the Tour of California. Which explains the spring in Messick's step.
5. We already knew this, but the lesson was driven home when Saxo Bank's roleur extraordinaire Jens Voigt hit the deck with sickening force in Stage 16. This is a hard, dangerous sport. Get well soon, Jens. See you at the Tour next year.