Tag Archives: Lance Armstrong

Le Boss, C'est Contador

Alberto Contador powers to a win in the 2009 Tour time trial

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.

– Duncan

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Deadball is sleeping with the Maillot Jaune Tonight

Nocentini

I can´t tell whether the Tour´s arrival in the Pyrenees was impossibly dramatic, or if that´s just the Yellow Jersey talking. A few minutes ago the Maillot Jaune walked into the immaculately named Hotel Coma, and on a whim the cycling groupie in me asked if there was a room available. Would you think you could get a room in Orlando at the Lakers´ hotel during The Finals? Or Barcelona at Man U´s hotel?

Exactly. But the strange, circus-like atmosphere of the Tour means that a relatively unfancied team´s leader somehow ended up in yellow tonight, and when we inquired at reception about the possibility of the room, we were greeted with the expected pained expression, but the words that followed stretched belief to the limit.

¨Sir I´m so sorry, but the only room we have available is a family room. It sleeps four people…¨

How much are you charging?

¨110 Euro, sir. It´s the only room we have available.¨

So for a little over NZ$200 and some sweet-talking of the recptionist, we´ll be sleeping under the same roof and dining in the same room as the most coveted prize in all cycling. I´ll be posting a full report, complete with photos, autographs, and whatever else the night brings, from our home base, but for now, these are the day´s events as they transpired.

We drove up from Lla Franc, a small village on the Costa Brava this afternoon. The crew was my father and I, plus three Norwegians who followed us up into the foothills and into the Pyrenees  proper, as the motorways disolved into country roads, and a seemingly endless succession of hairpins propelled us ever higher.

Local knowledge had us scythe up over the high mountain pass at Canillo, through Soldeu and Encamp and across to Ordino by mid-afternoon, where we ate a reasonably edible menu del dia and listened to the crowd rise and fall, and the cacophony of helicopters, motorcycles, team and tour vans and all the rest rumble past the door.

When we stepped out the lead group retained a reasonably impressive margin over the peloton, 12 minutes with around 80 kilometres to go. The fact that those 80 kilometres would see the road rise more than 1500m to the finish at Arcalis was less relevant than the chilling sight of Astana in full flight at the front, stretching the chasing bunch thin and seeing it disintegrate at the close. We picked up this information at Pas de la Casa on the way over, and by the time we got into position the lead was apparently the same.

I say apparently because information is an oddly scarce commodity when you´re watching the Tour in person. Most of the crowds, which were two or three deep at Ordino, are tourists, and few had radios. We all waited, increasingly impatiently for the first concrete proof that a race was on, and the sight of the lycra-clad madman flying up the mountain sides at speeds you and I would struggle to match along Mechanics Bay with a tailwind.

It arrived with the lead group, seven riders, all in clear pain, but still with a good break on the field. We´d bumped into a group of New Zealanders, who mentioned that they were staying at the Hotel Coma, a hundred metres or so away, and that a couple of riders from the lead group were part of AG2R-La Mondiale, and staying at their hotel that night.

We thought little more of it, and instead waited with unbearable anticipation for the Lance and Alberto show, which powered through around eight minutes later. They were clearly going for the jugular, and we noted the yellow jersey of Cancellara toward the back of the field – an ominous portent of what was to come for him.

After the last rider limped past around 15 minutes back we raced up to the Coma to watch one of the more enthralling finishes I´ve seen in a while. Brice Feillu broke away from the lead group and won the stage handsomely, before being emotionally embraced by his brother during an extremely shambolic interview for French TV.

Further down the track a brutal staring match was taking place between Armstrong and Contador, with the latter seeming to wilt under the steely, questioning, undeniably arrogant gaze of the Texan, while Cadel Evans leapt up and down like a spoilt child, without remotely impacting upon the form of the Astana warriors. Cancellara cracked in a monstrous way, flying backwards while the Astana pair tried their best to look impervious to the pain.

Then, with less than two kilometres to go Contador let his talent sing for the first time on the Tour, launching a breathtaking attack halfway along the straight leading up to a hairpin. Evans and Armstrong attempted to respond, but found nothing which could match the acceleration of the Spaniard.

He ended up taking 19 seconds out of his bitter rival, leaving Armstring again in the strange position of being separated by tenths of a second from a higher spot on the podium. This time, though, it was third, as a little-known Italian named Rinaldo Nocentini stole the Maillot Jaune by a mere eight seconds.

And so it goes. Feillu emulated Virenque, and might have become a national hero to the French who´ve been so starved of late, and the Astana battle just went from diverting to enthralling, but they must all bow for tonight to a slender, slight Italian from an unfashionable team.

Tonight we´ll dine and drink alongside him, and as soon as I can I´ll post the rest. He strolled through the hall of this three star hotel a few minutes ago, pausing to acknowledge the applause, and the whole place is aflame with his exploits. Right now, he´s the toast of all cycling, and that´s all a man can hope for in this beaten but still defiant sport.

– Duncan

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Armstrong asks Astana to Make a Call

Tour de France

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.

– Duncan

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Following Those Men Into Hell

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Today Lance Armstrong commences his pro cycling comeback in the sunny, laidback Tour Down Under, screening on Sky from 10.30 this morning. Last night half of DeadBall watched a very different kind of race, Jorgen Leth’s semi-legendary cycling documentary A Sunday in Hell, which follows the 1976 Paris-Roubaix from the first stirrings of the mechanics to the showers following the race. In between times it covers the race with a slow, poetic sensibility, focussing less on the indivduals than on the hardships they endure.

The Paris-Roubaix is the most notoriously inhuman of the spring classics, run north from the French capital to Roubaix near the Belgian border. Its first 100 miles are relatively harmless tarmac cycling, but the final 60 or so are run over a cobblestone cattle track, bone-jarring and dusty n the dry, lethally slippery in the wet and never less than ferociously difficult. By the mid-’70s the race had become a Belgian benefit, with no Frenchman getting a look-in for 20 years, and the bullying power of Merckx and De Vlaeminck very much to the fore. Continue reading

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Guest Post: Humble Lance, The Domestique?

This is not the filthiest thing Armstrong's ever done.

This is not the filthiest thing Armstrong's ever done.

The recent announcement from Astana that Lance “I’ve never taken performance enhancing drugs in my life” Armstrong will definitely start the Tour de France next year has reignited the debate about his place in the team, or rather the place of 06 winner Alberto Contador.

Word from the camp is that Lance was the 3rd strongest rider during the first few rides. During the training camp in Tenerife, Armstrong pledged his support to Contador who he described as the best rider on the planet at the moment. But many (probably including Alberto) doubt whether the ultra competive, 7 time tour winner and part time douchebag will fully accept the roll of superest of the super domestiques.

443490974It will certainly make for an interesting tour and I’m sure have other teams hoping the super team will implode over conflicting loyalties. Contador must be pissed: just turned 26; approaching his prime; only the 5th man to ever win all 3 grand tours; leading the strongest team – having had to sit out last year’s tour he must have been dreaming of making up for lost time with another victory on the Champs Elysee. Then Armstrong rolls back into town. Continue reading

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