The Tour is underway, and despite reams of editorial in the British press talking up its irrelevance, the first three days have been as noteworthy as any in its history. Which is not to say that they have been shocking, but traditionally the opening stages are a procession, a chance for the sprinters to flex and the rest to fine-tune ahead of the horrors of the Alps or Pyrenees ahead.
Not so this year. Fabien Cancellara monstered the prologue, with a ride so potent that the other contenders must have been a little shaken. Even though the short initial time trial is principally for bragging rights and the chance to spend a few days basking, somewhat irrelevantly, in early yellow, the manner in which he took the opening stage was impressive. He was at level pegging with Astana leader (and eventual second-place getter) Contador with five kilometres to run, but destroyed the field over the latter stages to win by 18 seconds. To put that margin in perspective, the next four riders finished within five seconds of one another.
The seconds stage was more prosaic, a group sprint won by Mark Cavendish, whose Columbia-HTC team look ominously adept at controlling the final kilometres thus far. Cavendish comes from the Isle of Man, about as unlikely an origin for Tour stage winner as Cyprus is for an Austarlian Open finalist, but he is clearly the dominant sprinter of our time, having just amassed his sixth win in the last two Tours, despite apparently sustaining punches in the lead-out of the second stage.
He won again today, on a stage which was terrifyingly dull for 168 kilometres and incredibly exciting for each one that followed. A large part of this was due to the way the dynamics quaked within the Astana team. They are nominally lead by 2007 winner Alberto Contador, but it’s his lieutenant which has drawn the most column inches in the lead up to this year’s race. Texan Lance Armstrong has returned to cycling at the age of 37, and the seven-time winner has made a large show in the lead up to this year’s event of deferring to the team, of being just another rider on Astana, and spoken reverently of his desire to serve under the team’s ostensible leader
“Out of respect for him, out of respect for the team and out of respect for the rules of cycling, I would do it with pleasure,” he told the Associated Press in the days before this year’s event began in Monaco.
The only problem being that the rest of the team seemed singularly unmoved by his magnanimous words. When Columbia-HTC launched an audacious, perfectly scripted attack 30 kilometres from La Grande-Motte and took a group of 24 riders with them, Armstrong was perfectly situated to join them, abetted by team-mate Yaroslav Popovych. With representatives from most of the key contenders alongside, and the yellow jersey of Cancellara also attached, there wasn’t a huge sense of urgency from the chasing pack, with only Australian Cadel Evans’ Silence-Lotto team shut out of the big players.
Cancellara’s Saxobank lead the chase, as despite their leader being in up the road, the lack of any support meant that a gear failure would have seen him back to the péloton and losing the leader’s jersey. Nothing makes a domestique turn their pedals like the guarantee of admonishment from the isolated leader – even if Cancellara gives every indication he could tow a Mack truck through stages like this. Surprisingly, though, Astana, whose leader was losing ground on key rivals, were noticeably absent from the graft into a biting headwind across the plains. It is too early to call their absence insurrection, but certainly the fact that Armstrong now sits in third place, 19 seconds ahead of his team-mate and erstwhile leader in fourth suggests he is unprepared to simply sit loyally by while opportunity sails on.
Today it knocked for Armstrong, and he took it with both hands. Tomorrow brings the return of the team time trial to the Tour, after a few years’ absence, and with it further opportunity for the contenders to show their hands when the great race has normally barely awakened. In the background looms the deep financial woes of Astana (only in cycling could the most prominent team in the world be made up of a conglomerate of state-owned Kazakhstani companies and be named after that Borat-defined nation’s capital) and an impending power struggle between Directeur Sportif Johan Bruyneel and the team’s former leader Alexander Vinokourov. Apparently Nike lie in the wings should the bills continue to be unpaid, and seeing as a cycling team is made up of little more than a few cars, bikes and some forward hotel bookings, their stepping in is not such an outlandish proposition.
All that will keep, however, until Sunday July 26, when the race rolls down the Champs-Elysée and the winner is crowned. Armstrong and Contador are by no means the only contenders, but they are short-odds co-favourites. One made a statement today, while another’s stature shrank. I’ll be journeying up to Andorra to watch the longest stage of this year’s event conclude in Arcalis, by which time this battle, as much of wits as of sinew, might have turned again.