Monday, July 27, 2009
The 2009 Tour de France wrapped up yesterday as it has since 1975 on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. And again I am somewhat depressed I don't have another month of TDF to look forward to. Televised coverage of the Tour is so much better now than it was 10-15 years ago, when we only got summary coverage on the the big weekend sports shows, like Wide World of Sports. Phil Liggett, Bob Roll and Paul Sherwin are mainstays of the event coverage now. Roll and Sherwin are both former pros who raced in Europe and Liggett is a cycling enthusiast of the highest order. Together they bring a wit, levity and insight to coverage that would be otherwise dull even for knowledgeable viewers or just plain impenetrable to the gran tour uninitiated.
The overall race winner Alberto Contador is an amazing rider. He is no doubt the best climber in the world and now he has become one of the best individual time trial riders in the world...a perfect combination of skills for a TDF rider. But for most of the world the big story was, of course, Lance's comeback to big time bike racing and to its biggest show.
How good is this guy? In his Late 30s, he's old for a cyclist. Only a year back in the saddle after a 3 year layoff from elite cycling...and he beats all but 2 guys in the most prestigious bike race in the world? Really an amazing feat. Yeah, he didn't look as snappy as the Armstrong of old on some of the climbs...the smaller, lighter Contador and Schleck brothers among others threw in mind boggling accelerations on climbs that either Lance couldn't, or prudently chose not to try to, respond to. Small matter. My feeling is, that given the loyalties and talents on the Astana team, had Levi Leipheimer not crashed out of the race, Lance would have had a loyal lieutenant on those climbs where Contador, for whatever reason, attacked his own team mates and dropped them. If Levi was there until the end, I think the podium would have been Contador, Lance, Levi...but obviously that's just speculation. Could Levi have pulled Lance to victory this year? Probably not. Next year? Who knows? Maybe Lance's coach.
In his last TDF newsletter posting, Chris Carmichael talked about how he originally envisioned a top 10 finish for Lance...but his training went well (despite the broken collarbone and surgery setback) and so a top 5 finish started to look feasible...but not even Lance's coach expected a top three podium finish. Carmichael predicted last year that in a two year comeback, the 2nd year would be the stronger of the two...so if Lance stays healthy and injury free next year should bring even more excitement. But that's just one part of the equation...physically Lance should be stronger, but who will he have around him for a team?
If Lance assembles his new Radio Shack Team as powerfully as the Astana squad was put together for this year's tour, watch out. Contador will have a hard time winning outright next year if he doesn't have a team close to the abilities of this year's Astana squad. If there is one thing Lance my be better at than riding a bike, it's the logistics of organizing a squad of racers that can win gran tour races. Contador hasn't demonstrated those particular leadership skills yet.
The really impressive thing to me is, if Lance wanted to, he could ride for another five or six years as the world's most savvy and accomplished domestique. It seems we as a culture have come to expect that an athlete should retire on top. No one likes to bear witness to the decline of a champion and no champion wants to tarnish his legacy or embarrass himself with bad performances at the end of a great career. But cycling is a team sport where every member brings a certain strength to the team. Riders like George Hincapie have made long, productive careers as team players in road cycling. Lance really could have it both ways: he could have his 7 Tour victories and several more years of being the MVP on winning Gran Tour Teams and no doubt even a few more podium finishes. I think it would not only increase the power of his legacy but also keep his advocacy for cancer research and the work of the Lance Armstrong Foundation in prominent view.