Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Return of the King Continues...

Today, in Monaco, a 15-kilometer individual time trial kicks off the 96th Tour de France. This is, arguably, the world's most grueling athletic contest. There are events that are more famous, and that bring in more money, but there are none that demand more of its participants. Between now and July 26th, riders will spend every day in the saddle, excepting only two rest days. One hundred eighty riders will start today. Only 140 or so will end up at the finish line in Paris.

I enjoy riding, but that's not why I love to watch the Tour. The scenery is magnificent, for a start. And I enjoy the subtlety of the riders' tactics. I like to see a small group of riders break away from the main group to try to win an advantage, although this almost never works. The heroics in cycling are different than in other sports. Case in point: back in February, we all marveled at James Harrison returning an interception 100 yards -- 100 yards! -- for a touchdown. For a linebacker, that was a heroic performance. But that took less than a minute. Last July, in the climb of L'Alpe d'Huez, the Schleck brothers executed a masterful rope-a-dope on the peloton while their teammate Carlos Sastre took off ahead of the main group, winning a lead he would maintain all the way to Paris. That was also heroic ... over a brutal climb lasting several hours. And they do this every day for three weeks.

The Tour isn't just about being fit enough, or strong enough. It's also about having the mental toughness to face down the pain and exhaustion. It's about finding the outside of the envelope of human endurance.

This year's race is ... interesting. Four former winners are in the mix, each looking to add to their totals. And two are on the same team, adding to the interest. Alberto Contador wears the top number for Team Astana, but it remains to be seen if he's riding for the win, or riding support for his new teammate, Lance Armstrong. We just don't know yet, and probably won't know for another week. By the time they hit the Pyrenees in the second week, we might have a better idea. But they can't delay that decision too long. They can't afford to waste energy, not with two other former winners nipping at their heels.

Carlos Sastre and Oscar Pereiro are each looking for another win, for Cervelo and Caisse d'Epargne respectively. And you discount Team Saxo Bank at your peril ... Sastre jumped ship last year, but the Schleck brothers are still there. The team boasts three national road-racing champions, and the Australian sprinter Stuart O'Grady. Those four teams are the ones to watch. No one knows who will win, of course, but if I were betting, I'd bet on one of those four teams.

Everyone's looking pretty good so far. Armstrong looks really good -- strong, good form, you'd never know from looking that he'd been away for a couple of years, much less that he'd broken a collarbone this spring. But the day's not done. And it's going to be a long, hard three weeks. No one knows that better than Armstrong. What he gives up in age, he gains back in experience, and he's going to give these youngsters a run for their money.

Ride hard, boys: the King has returned!

[Addendum, 4Jul09 2:17PM: Astana has four riders in the top ten after today's time trial, establishing them as the team to beat for right now. Further, Contador turned in the best performance amongst his teammates, making a fair opening bid for overall team leadership. I still think Armstrong has a good chance, but I would still not be terribly surprised to see him ride in support of Contador should he prove the stronger rider.]

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