That was the headline of French sportspaper L’Equipe the day after Contador’s commanding, insolent stage win at Arcalis in the Pyrenées. If that was the first sign that the Spaniard wasn’t buying the story which Armstrong had been trying to sell the world in the days prior, of the Tour’s rightful owner returning for what was rightfully his, this morning Contador emphatically proved himself the most complete rider on the tour.
After seven Tours which saw him impose his will on European cycling, it’s been interesting to watch Armstrong respond to his demotion. I gotta say, for someone I actively loathed throughout his reign, I admire the character he’s showing now. He’s playing second fiddle (arguably third when Kloden’s on song), and has undeniably lost minutes as a result.
On yesterday’s brutal stage into Le Grand-Bornand Armstrong was, yet again, unable to match the exquisite acceleration of Contador, who danced away up the road behind the indomitable Schleck brothers. Armstrong remained stuck with Wiggins and company, non-climbers doing it on will alone, and when the latter couldn’t be shaken from his wheel he dutifully sat back and let the pace dwindle, his last fading hopes of an eighth tour with it.
You get the feeling he’s writing off the 2009 Tour as a PR exercise now, a chance to rehabilitate his appalling reputation in France and play the magnanimous loser and Livestrong charity man. Make no mistake, this is gnawing at his insides, and the fact that he’s confirmed a return next year indicates that unequivocally. In some ways he’ll be in better shape next year, with thousands more kilometres of comeback in his legs than he was in ’09. But I have to say I foresee an entirely different outcome.
Armstrong has the potential become a Holyfield-like figure, obsessed with extending a record he already owns, such a slave to his competitive nature that he’s unable to recognise his own sporting mortality when it’s staring him in the face. He seems an extremely competitive guy, very driven and determined, and his incredible successes might have made him complacent to the threat Europe poses.
Because Contador is unquestionably Le Boss now. And frighteningly, he’s about to take home a second Tour at just 26. At that age Indurain was still searching for his first, as was Armstrong – of the other great riders Merckx had his second, as did Hinault, while Anquetil had a lone win. All that is by way of pointing out that Contador is positioning himself extremely well to become the next great Tour champion. If he is able to keep riding well into his thirties, as both Armstrong and Indurain did, then the records will inevitably fall.
Standing in his way are those pesky Schlecks, both brilliant climbers, both just average time trialists (though Andy rode very well this morning to retain second place, and could improve into a genuine challenger). Unfortunately Contador looks like the best at each discipline in the world for the time being. It’s hard not to call this the beginning of a dynasty. Watching Contador blast around the lake at Annecy this morning you could draw no other conclusion.
Just a day after toying with the field over four first category climbs, and gifting Frank Schleck a stage win simply to keep the peace, when he should have had legs a mess of lactic acid, he beat out Fabian Cancellara by three seconds in a performance which should have convinced Armstrong to retire right there. The Swiss powered home ferociously, and it was all Contador could do to hold on to his 30 seconds at the top of Côte de Bluffy. He eventually won the time trial by three seconds, but it was more that he had no need to ride like he did which impressed.
The main reason Ventoux holds so much fear for the remainder of the Peloton (apart from the fact that it’s the most terrifying climb in all cycling and callously killed Tommy Simpson on a scorching day in 1967) is because they have to follow Contador up it, and are subject to his whims and weightlessness. So Contador could have cruised round the lake to a 50 minute time trial, lost no time to any of his challengers bar Wiggins (who will be aiming to limit his losses on the great mountain), and still won the 2009 Tour at a canter. In some ways slowing down a touch might even have been a wise tactical move, a way of blunting the ability of the Schlecks to attack him the next day.
Instead he tore up the tarmac, sent a blunt message to every other rider in the Tour (and any coming up in the next decade or so) that he is its master, and the road to Paris goes through him. In a few short weeks he’s gone from a strong contender to the Boss, and everyone in cycling must bow to his rule.