Watching the end of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France title chances yesterday was strangely sad. That’s quite a statement from me. I am not a fan. In years past, by the end of the first week of the Tour de France, I would have been ranting and raving against Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong was such an easy target. In his glory days, Armstrong controlled everything. He had money, the best equipment, testing and doctors, an entire nation blind to the true realities of doping in cycling and a vicious nature that ran opposite to all of his philanthropic cancer work. There can be no doubt of his greatness as the best Tour rider ever. It was just the way he went about it. Bully another rider, sue someone, control the media and whine as needed. Armstrong had perfected the recipe.
Last year’s Tour was a merciless example. Because his fellow teammate Alberto Contador bolted off on his own, Armstrong moaned and groaned how cycling rules had been broken. Riding for a team that in no way supported him, Contador only broke the “Armstrong Rules” setting off a rash of curt Armstrong remarks.
Somehow the first week of this Tour has been different. Armstrong’s training leading into the race had not gone well. The harsh realities of growing another year older further set in on his mind and overwhelmed the aspirations in his heart. There was just a look. No, it was not the fierce stare he once used on Jan Ullrich and other threatening opponents. It was a look of uncertainty.
Even the Tour’s route did not compliment Armstrong’s diminishing talents. Last year, the Team Time Trial (TTT) allowed Armstrong and Contador to put a big chunk of time into their chief rivals. That came in part thanks to a team of riders sworn to unquestioned dedication to Armstrong. After the TTT, the only real battle that remained was between the two. Armstrong took time early, but no one could contain the young colt that is Contador. He pranced up the big mountains, and the race was over. In the 2010 edition there would be no TTT to help Armstrong’s new Radio Shack team.
The reality was that Armstrong’s ride this year seemed over almost before it began. A quick effort in the opening Prologue spurred Versus channel announcer idolatry to a fever pitch when Armstrong topped Contador by five seconds. However, by Stage 2 the harsh truth became very real. On the crash-marred stage, Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara demonstrated he had become the “patron” of the peloton when he called for the final sprint to be neutralized with all riders crossing the line together instead of contesting a final sprint. In years past, that decision could only be made by one man, Lance Armstrong. The fear factor had clearly disappeared in the peloton.
Then Armstrong hoped the stretch over the brutal cobble roads of northern France in Stage 3 would be his chance to put time into his rivals and Contador. Somehow it was overlooked that Armstrong had avoided the cobbled roads used in spring classic races throughout most of his career for fear of crashes and mechanical failures that can ruin anyone’s hopes. A flat did just that to Armstrong. Contador did not falter at all as hoped despite a broken spoke and flat, and the mountains the Spaniard loves awaited. On top of that, Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck looked to be an even fiercer competitor after finishing second and ahead of Armstrong in last year’s Tour.
A foretaste on Saturday did nothing but strain the legs. Sunday’s stage was the first real test – one Armstrong failed. Crashes will be blamed, but the truth was right there to see. No real fight was left. While many will bemoan the end of the Armstrong threat, my hope is that others will cherish would should be an fascinating battle between Contador, Schleck, BMC’s Cadel Evans and maybe a few others for Tour title.
Walking away is never easy. Success is an athlete’s identity. The need to reclaim their addiction to dominance has brought far too many athletes back with false hopes that never should have been. That shake of the head in resignation from Armstrong as he slogged his way up the Alps Sunday was that harsh realization hitting him in ways no opponent ever could.