The Old Man And the Mountain

Alberto Contador won his second Tour, but on a thrilling final Saturday, Lance Armstrong held his own on Mont Ventoux and confirmed that, at 37, he's back in gear
August 02, 2009

There was LanceArmstrong on the Champs-Élysées, describing his relationship with soon-to-beex-teammate Alberto Contador as "complicated." Which you should feelfree to interpret as, "I would run down the list of mind games I've triedto play on the guy, but it's complicated." Blink, and you missed theirlet's-get-this-over-with handshake on the podium on Sunday. Next to these guys,Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini at midfield is a veritable bro-down. ¬∂ Contadorwon the 2009 Tour de France the way Armstrong used to win it: by demoralizinghis rivals on the first beastly mountain stage, then blowing their doors off inthe final time trial. (And just as the Texan's dominance raised suspicionsabout whether he won his seven Tours clean, the Spaniard found himself on thedefensive with reporters last week, no-commenting three times during a singlepress conference.) The truth is, Alberto looked more like Lance than Lance.

Two months shy ofhis 38th birthday, six months after his return to the sport from which he'dretired in 2005, Armstrong bore no more than a passing resemblance to theVelo-Terminator whose M.O. for seven years was to bleed the suspense from thisevent before it reached its midpoint. That Armstrong is gone. Until themountain that mattered most, he was dropped on the most daunting climbs. Hefinished 10th and 16th, respectively, in the two individual time trials. Buthis ability to elbow his way onto the podium despite those deficiencies, tocadge precious seconds using his veteran's guile, was one of the most sublimeelements of this Tour.

Even as it gaveArmstrong more than a few moments in the sun, this Grande Boucle served as acelebration of youth. Armstrong finished 5:24 behind Contador, 26, who has nowwon a pair of Tours de France, and 1:13 behind runner-up Andy Schleck, a24-year-old prodigy from Luxembourg whose sharp, repeated attacks before ahalf-million people on Mont Ventoux on Saturday neither ruffled Contador'scomposure nor propelled Andy's older brother, Frank, ahead of Armstrong andonto the podium.

For the secondstraight year the flat stages were owned by Team Columbia Highroad's MarkCavendish, 24, cycling's best pure sprinter in a generation. The former trackrider from the Isle of Man won an ungodly six stages. Field sprints are usuallydecided by inches. Cav routed the field on the Champs by a Secretariat-like 30yards. The Manx Missile might have taken the green sprinter's jersey had he notbeen sent to the back of the pack in stage 14 for trading paint with his rivalThor Hushovd of Team Cervélo. Cav was cited by the race commission for"irregular sprinting," a catchall offense that implies, incorrectly,that there is anything "regular" about the rolling street brawl that isa field sprint.

This punishmentled to a measure of bad blood between Columbia and Cervélo. But juicy as itwas, that contretemps didn't have anything close to the staying power orentertainment value of Lance versus Alberto.

You could see itcoming last September, when Armstrong announced his comeback. The news brokewhile Contador was dominating the three-week Vuelta a España, and it put theSpaniard in the absurd position of defending his stature as Astana's leadereven as he was winning his third grand tour in two years.

All along, bothriders said the right things. In February, Armstrong denied that a subpar Tourperformance might dim his legacy. "No," he replied. "If I go to theTour and ride selfishly, if I ride against somebody, and we all lose, that willhurt the legacy."

Armstrong andContador arrived in France preaching team tactics, all the while eyeing eachother warily. Armstrong drew first blood, alertly slipping into a 29-manbreakaway at the end of stage 3. That group—which did not include Contador—tookadvantage of a sudden gusting crosswind to gain 41 seconds on the main bunch.Had Armstrong intended to gap Contador? Not in the slightest, he said with astraight face. "I turned around and was surprised there was asplit."

Contador joinedthe battle with a bit of unauthorized freelancing in stage 7, which began withArmstrong a fraction of a second off the lead, poised to ride into the yellowjersey. Gambling that he could leapfrog the Texan and grab the jersey forhimself, Contador attacked in the final kilometers of the climb up Andorra'sArcalis mountain. Bound by cycling's unwritten rule that you don't chase down ateammate, Armstrong hung back, watching his last, best chance for yellow fadewith each pedal stroke. Contador's attack "hadn't really been part of the[team] plan," Armstrong said later, "but I didn't expect him to go bythe plan, so—no surprise."

Less defensiblewas Contador's machismo-fueled gaffe on stage 17. On the final climb of afive-mountain stage, the Spaniard found himself at the front of the race withthe fr√®res Schleck and Andréas Kl√∂den, a German teammate on Astana. Knowing theSchlecks would "go full gas to the finish," Astana manager JohanBruyneel says, he instructed Contador to sit on their wheels. "You don'thave to attack [today] to win the Tour de France," Bruyneel told him.

Contadorattacked. His surge succeeded brilliantly ... in dropping Klöden, who fell backlike a spent rocket booster. He never caught back on, even though Contadorrealized his mistake and slowed down. That decision was made easier by thevoice in his earpiece. Bruyneel "went ballistic" in the team car,according to a source close to Astana. Klöden ended up losing 2:27 on the day,and Contador's ill-timed attack might have cost Astana a clean sweep of thepodium.

There was anotherpossible interpretation of Contador's controversial move. Teammate thoughKl√∂den was, he also threatened Contador's ambitions. Disposing of him on theColombi√®re may have been Contador's way of saying, I don't trust any of you:Bruyneel, Armstrong, Kl√∂den—none of you. So I'm going to ride my own race.Asked after Saturday's penultimate stage if he ever got the impression thatBruyneel wanted Armstrong to win, Contador replied, "It is indeed a verygood question. In the end, things worked out for me."

Astana ended uptaking first, third and, with Kl√∂den, sixth—a tremendous result for a team thatwill now begin disintegrating. Shortly after Thursday's time trial around LakeAnnecy, Armstrong made it official: He will ride for a new team next season.Get ready for ... Team RadioShack! If that sounds clunky, don't worry. You'llget used to it, just as you got used to Team U.S. Postal Service and TeamAstana, which is sponsored by a consortium of Kazakh industries and whoselight-blue jerseys symbolize "Kazakhstan's broad blue skies for freedom andsuccess," to cite a passage from the Astana website that may or may nothave been written by Borat.

Armstrong droppedfrom second to fourth on the day of the Colombière. But the more he struggledon this Tour, the more the French warmed to him. This, after all, is a nationthat lionized Raymond Poulidor, a brilliant but star-crossed cyclist whose famederives from the fact that he could never quite win this race. (He finishedsecond three times and third five times.) When out on one of the long, doomedbreakaways that are their specialty, French riders know to contort their facesinto masks of unsurpassed anguish: Their public demands proof that they aresuffering for the sport. One of the problems the French fans always had withArmstrong was his cyborg's mien on the way to victory.

This timeArmstrong presented a more human face, and not just when gasping for breath onsteep climbs or suffering through mediocre individual time trials. Heapologized to riders Carlos Sastre of Spain and Christian Vande Velde of theU.S., who finished first and fifth, respectively, in last year's Tour. Afterthat race ended, Armstrong had belittled them, citing their success as onereason he came back. "I didn't give enough respect," he admitted."Not a cool thing to do."

And, followingContador's emphatic stage 15 victory atop the Verbier ski station, the sweathad not dried on Armstrong's forehead before he displayed a graciousness thecycling world had never seen from him. The battle for Astana team leadershipwas over, he admitted. He would henceforth work for the younger rider, for thegood of the team.

"I thinkpeople expected me to be devastated," Armstrong said, "but that's notthe way I felt. It wasn't, Oh, God, my life is over. [Contador] was better. Itwasn't a big downer for me. I did my best."

I did my best?Who are you, and what have you done with Lance Armstrong? The Texan's longtimeagent, Bill Stapleton, is a former Olympic swimmer, hence his propensity toquote swimmers. "[Olympic breaststroke champion] Steve Lundquist used tosay, 'First is first. Second is last,'" Stapleton says. "And that's howLance lived those seven Tours. Here, now, that's not how he sees it."

His clientconcurred, describing himself as "damned pleased" with third place,considering his status as "an old fart."

Picking up on hisattitude adjustment, the French came around to Armstrong, from editors of hislongtime nemesis L'Equipe, whose Sunday headline offered both an olive branchand tip of the cap (CHAPEAU, LE TEXAN), to fans lining the course. Not all wereemphatic. ARMSTRONG—POURQUOI PAS? asked a sign held by a man who'd escaped,perhaps, from a Camus novel. But Le Texan took what he could get.

He went into theAnnecy time trial sitting fourth, behind Contador and the Schlecks. Should hepull back enough seconds in the TT to regain third place, Armstrong was asked,how big a cushion would he need to keep the Schlecks at bay on Saturday? Thenext-to-last stage would go up the mountain known as the Giant of Provence.

"Onesecond," he replied.

"Onesecond?" he was asked by a skeptic. "As well as they'reclimbing?"

"Trustme," he said. "I've been letting them go, when I'm sitting therefeeling good. That's not gonna happen on the Ventoux."

Mont Ventoux isnot so spectacular as it is sinister: an ominous, anomalous hump of cretaceousrock rising 6,273 feet above Provence. After baking riders on its early slopes,it climbs past the tree line, subjecting the peloton to a scene out of Mordor:vast fields of dun-colored scree, and no shelter from wind or sun.

The Giant ofProvence is so nasty that Tour organizers use it sparingly: Last Saturday wasonly its 14th appearance since 1951. Armstrong never won here, although he didsoft-pedal the final meters in 2000, gifting the stage to the late MarcoPantani, who took the win, then had the cheek to complain that Armstrong hadpatronized him.

Now the Ventouxwould determine whether Armstrong, who had moved up to third and built a38-second lead on Frank Schleck in the previous two stages, would mount thepodium in his comeback Tour. The Schlecks weren't coy about their tactics.Again and again—eight times in all—Andy launched off the front. Nothing doing.Contador marked each attack with ease, and Armstrong spot-welded himself toFrank's carbon fiber Specialized frame. "It was kind of simple,"Armstrong said. "Follow Frank Schleck, and I had the legs to dothat."

As themountaintop's rocket-shaped tower grew larger, it became apparent that Frankand Andy were running out of road. The quartet finished the stage within fiveseconds of one another. Armstrong was back on the podium.

After a visit todoping control, he was hustled through the throng to a car. As it inched downthe mountain, he lowered the window to remind a reporter, "Told you, bro.One second."

The next day, onthe podium, Armstrong looked a tad, well, intense, and if he seemed to avoideye contact with Contador, it was because he's still Lance. It became clear, inthose uncomfortable moments, that someone's preparations for the 2010 Tour hadalready begun.

Now on SI.com
Check out a gallery of the best moments from the Tour de France atSI.com/bonus

Armstrong and Contador preached team tactics whileeyeing each other warily.

Again and again, Schleck launched. Nothing doing.Contador marked each attack.

PHOTOPhotograph by FRANCK FAUGERE/DPPI/ICON SMIUPHILL RACERS From left: Contador (in yellow), Armstrong and Andy Schleck stuck close together on the grueling ascent of the Ventoux. PHOTOFRANCK FAUGERE/DPPI/ICON SMITUCKED AWAY Contador was so superior to his rivals that by stage 16, in the Alps, his victory was all but assured. PHOTOJEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/REUTERSBRIT GRIT Cavendish (below) won six stages but did not join Contador and Armstrong on the podium. PHOTOIAN LANGSDON/EPA[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)