The Tour de France organizers stacked the deck for the last week so before the fireworks begin tomorrow, let’s take a look at where we are.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
As the kilometers go by, Lance is looking more and more like he never lost a step, er stroke. He looks strong in the mountains, mostly. He also is acting like the leader of Astana, not a leader of Astana. Listen to Lance’s measured reaction after Contador’s attack on the Arcalis. Compare that to the same parental tone he had in previous Tours when he was disappointed in his team. It also seems that in the battle for team support, the deck is stacked in Lance’s favor. Lance suffered a big setback when Leipheimer broke his wrist and was forced to abandon.
To win, Lance needs to keep Contador close tomorrow. Someone, probably Schleck will attack. Be first on the wheel. Even if Contador follows, you stay together. Second, ride like the wind in the final TT. Channel your past Tour TTs to grab yellow at this critical juncture. You need to be in yellow at the base of the Ventoux. If not, all bets are off.
Johan Bruyneel knows that he has the two strongest riders in the Tour. Any doubts about Lance Armstrong are gone. Externally, no contender has stepped up to challenge the team and its two men. Evans and Menchov have fallen away. Only Andy Schleck has stayed around this long. His problem is he can’t stay too much longer. With the TT ahead, he needs to begin to ride like he is 1:30 – 2:00 behind because he is. I can even see a scenario where Schleck loses three minutes in the TT.
With two riders on the same team that can win the tour, the decision falls to the Director. Johan has to decide who he will make king. While it is not a no-brainer, it is an easy decision. Alberto Contador is the strongest rider in this race and currently the best stage racer in the world. That should make Johan pause for a second or two. Balance that with the persistent rumors that Contador was looking to leave Astana and go to Caisse d’Epargne or Garmin. Regardless of why, Johan must feel that Contador is disloyal. On the other hand, you have a seven time winner and close friend. Done, decision made.
So how does a Director give the win to Lance. While I said that Lance looks strong in the mountains, he has one weakness, speed. He has strength and stamina but when attacks came, he was the slowest to respond. Not really a problem since most contenders do not have the pure climber’s acceleration. One contendor does and that is Contador. Even though tomorrow is the second of three stages with a mountain top finish, I expect Johan to try to get his team to be conservative tomorrow. Knowing the current Yellow Jersey holder will crack, let the other teams attack. Astana does not have to. I really believe this strategy, which sounds rational, is designed to delay a Contador attack for as long as possible. Like Arcalis, a late attack by Contador will only net small time gains. Should Contador attack early, look for Lance to get a free ride off a panicking Schleck’s wheel.
At the end of tomorrow, the Director will have his man in perfect position to take yellow in the time trial. The time trial is the only place where you can “attack” a yellow jersey worn by your own teammate. With Lance in yellow on the Ventoux, Contador is muted. The only potential problem with this strategy is if Schleck attacks early and Contador, with his bigger acceleration, get’s his wheel first. Look for the two to work together to put time into everyone else. I’m sure Bjarne is thinking about this stuff too.
Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.
The world’s best rider with the world’s worst nickname, Alberto “El Pistolero” Contador can’t seem to win a Tour and enjoy it at the same time. His first victory was gained in the wake of the Rasmussen and travelgate. Now, he is on perfect position to win his second and he has worry more about the enemy within than any other challenge. I can even see the team party where champagne glasses are raised and accolades are professed through gritted teeth. If you take lemons and make lemonade, let’s say that this one will be the sweetest because of how much he overcame to gain the top step of the podium.
To get there, you need to ride well two more times. The first challenge will be tomorrow. Lance should not attack. He has shown he does not have the breakaway ability he once had. Combine that with the category one climb and it is not a good launching pad. If you are in yellow Sunday night, then Phase one is complete. Phase two is the TT. I know you are the Spanish Time Trial Champion. That means nothing in the final TT of the Tour. Someone will do something special, someone always does. One person in the race may be the best final time trialist the Tour has ever seen. Expect something special from him. You need to perform beyond yourself. If you end the TT in yellow, then you have won the Tour de Astana. The Tour de France victory will be much easier.
One note of advice. Lose the nickname. Whenever you give yourself a nickname, it can’t be good. Just ask “The Hoff.”
I can’t wait.
Editor’s note. While I don’t get many comments, I get a fair number of emails. Some have suggested I have it in for Lance Armstrong. Quite the contrary, I am a huge Armstrong fan. Armstrong is a true champion. If you look at the greats they all have that drive to succeed. Lance’s face is not unlike Tiger Woods expression at a major event. I am just commenting on asking that type of person to take a role that runs against his very DNA. For a guy who looks for the humor in life, this is a situation that is too good to pass up.
While I don’t mind the emails, I’d rather have the comments since that can spark a discussion which will probably be more interesting than my actual posts.