July 21, 2009 Leave a comment
Well, well, well.
Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Mikel Astarloza won his first ever stage at the Tour de France in Bourg-Saint-Maurice this afternoon, timing to perfection a solo attack off the front of the day’s breakaway.
But that was just a footnote on a day when Alberto Contador withstood, with apparent ease, everything the Schleck brothers could throw at him, and Jens Voigt, one of my favourite riders – a German who rides with tireless effort and a sense of humour, what’s not to like? – crashed heavily on the descent of the Petit-Saint-Bernard, a reminder of the perils of descending an Alp at speeds which can exceed 100km/h. (Fortunately, according to Lance Armstrong’s Twitter feed at least, Voigt seems to be okay. And Voigt’s teammate Andy Schleck has just tweeted that he has a broken cheekbone and stitches, but nothing worse.)
What caught my eye today was two unexpected displays of climbing strength: one from the still-effervescent Bradley Wiggins, who is visibly growing in confidence with each passing day and had no problem staying with Contador and Andy Schleck; the other from the old patron himself, Lance Armstrong.
Having been dropped by the repeated one-two attacks by Frank and Andy Schleck on the slopes of the Petit-Saint-Bernard, Armstrong and a group containing several other top GC riders quickly fell 30 seconds behind the yellow jersey group containing Contador, Andy Schleck and Wiggins. But then, just as the journos were firing up their laptops to write his obituary, Lance kicked hard and decisively to bridge the gap. It was a hugely impressive recovery, doubly so because Christian Vande Velde and Kim Kirchen followed but were unable to sustain Armstrong’s tempo and soon fell away.
Maybe it was just the last hurrah of a once dominant champion now rendered merely very good, but for a few brief minutes it was like watching the man who fixed Jan Ullrich with ‘the look’ before riding contemptuously away from him in 2001, or the one who charged through the field to win on Luz-Ardiden in 2003 having been felled by the handles of a spectator’s bag.
It was like watching the real Lance Armstrong again. To see him rekindle that dying spark at the age of 37 was, for me, a moment as special as any during his seven winning Tours. And it has kept his hopes, however slim, of wearing the maillot jaune in Paris on Sunday alive.
Tomorrow’s stage to Le Grand-Bornand – four category ones and a category two climb – is this year’s toughest in terms of cumulative ascent on a single day. Contador and Wiggins would both probably prefer to defend tomorrow to save the maximum amount of energy for Thursday’s time trial, in which they would expect to have an advantage over virtually all the other lead contenders. Therefore expect further attacks from the Schlecks, moderate time-triallers both, on either or both of the final two climbs.
As for Lance, who knows what he will do tomorrow? Will he play the faithful teammate and fulfil his promise not to attack Contador? Or will he find the legs and a convenient excuse to jump away with the Saxo Bank pair, one final roll of the dice before Paris? Probably the former, but the latter remains a mouth-watering, if unlikely, prospect.
For now at least, there’s life in the old dog yet. Rumours of his demise may yet prove to be premature. But no matter where he finishes, Lance Armstrong’s performance in the 2009 Tour de France has already been nothing short of stellar.