Sunday's Stage 9, our third and final day in the Pyrenees, dispatched riders up the hors categorie Col de Tourmalet, the mythic, 7,000-foot beast starring in its 48th Tour de France. Surely, with Team Ag2r's little-known Rinaldo Nocentini renting the yellow jersey, there would be drama: attacks and counter-attacks, a reshuffled leader board and perhaps, if we were lucky, some resolution to the biggest question hanging over this race: Who is Astana's team leader, Lance Armstrong or Alberto Contador?
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 Johan Bruyneel's best-laid plans, decided to fly by the seat of his Lycra shorts. Gambling that he could leapfrog Armstrong and grab the yellow jersey for himself, the Spaniard bolted from the lead group in the final moments of the climb up Andorra's Arcalis mountain. Bound by one of cycling's unwritten rules -- you don't chase down a teammate -- Armstrong hung back, gritting his teeth. (Had he chased, it would've been interesting to see how much ground, if any, he made up).
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 Tourmalet was notable for its absence of malice. The tens of thousands of aficionados camping out on its slopes -- a clear majority of them orange-clad Basques from just over the Spanish border -- were treated to sight of ... an exceptionally brisk Sunday club ride. Or so it appeared. The decision by race organizers to stick the Tourmalet 70km from the finish in Tarbes virtually guaranteed that no attack by a bona fide contender -- any of four Astana riders, Saxo Bank's Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank; Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto -- would survive.
It was left for Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) and Pierrik Fedrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) to provide the day's drama. Rocketing into Tarbes a half-minute ahead of a hungry peloton, the escapees stayed clear. Snatching the victory with a heady counter-attack, Fedrigo became third Frenchman to win a stage at this Tour. With that in mind, and with Monday serving as the first of two rest days, let us reflect on the biggest stories of the Tour so far:
Revenge of the French
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 Laurent Fignon, 22 years ago -- a stretch of futility that has left the Badger a little cranky. Dating back to 1999, French riders had won a total of 18 Tour stages -- a drought compounded, many suspect, by the events of July, 1998. That year's Tour was marred by the doping scandals referred to, collectively, as the Festina affair.
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.
It's Not Easy Being Green
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 Mark Cavendish of Columbia High Road looked like he might run away with it. But Thor Hushovd of the Cervelo Test Team won a rain-slick Stage 6, then bagged maximum points in a pair of intermediate sprints two days later to relieve Cavendish of the jersey. Shut out so far: Rabobank's Oscar Freire, Daniele Bennati of Liquigas and -- perhaps not surprisingly -- Quick Step's Tom Boonen, who'd been kicked out of this Tour for testing positive for cocaine -- his second such positive test in a year. Reinstated by an arbitration panel on the eve of the prologue, Belgium's best-known party animal has had a miserable Tour, failing to contest the first field sprint, suffering two punctures on the run-in to the finish in Stage 5, then crashing heavily in sight of the line the next day. They will have ample opportunities to break up the Cav-Hushovd cartel in the Tour's second week, which starts Tuesday with four flat stages.
The ASO Got It Right
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 day before its ceremonial promenade into Paris, the designers of this course will succeed, brilliantly, in preserving the suspense of the race until the last possible moment. They got it right. As did observers who predicted more than a few tense moments around the dinner table at the Astana hotel.
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 Alpe d'Huez, in which Carlos Sastre grabbed the yellow jersey for good, it would appear, based on his extraterrestrial burst on the Arcalis, that Contador is the finest climber at this race. Nor can the yellow bracelet set be heartened by the results of the prologue, in which Contador beat Armstrong by 22 seconds.
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.