As Wednesday’s morning sun rose over El Cajon’s In-N-Out Burger, Lance Armstrong is holding third place with 11 stages to go in the 2009 Tour de France.
For those who don’t follow professional biking (and that includes everyone around here), allow me to present a condensed timeline: The Tour de France began in 1903 amidst charges that riders were spiking their coffee with cocaine and strychnine. One hundred three years later, at the 2006 tour, four out of the top five finishers from the previous year were expelled from the race due to an ongoing doping investigation. The fifth man retired. Postscript: The 2006 tour champion was stripped of his title for doping.
But things are better now, or at least things are better hidden, which will do under the circumstances. And it is an irresistible story. Lance Armstrong, testicular cancer victim — indeed, cancer was found in his testicles, brain, and lungs — recovers, goes on to win seven tours in a row, retires, comes back, and is now racing in the Tour de France four years after his last visitation.
Unbelievable. The guy is 37 years old. Hasn’t raced in nearly four years. Can’t be done. Hmm… Why does that sentence sound so familiar?
The doping authorities in France loathe Armstrong because they know he cheated and can’t prove it. Here’s this arrogant American, a Texan, who won seven of their tours while on drugs, and nobody has been able to nail him.
Not for lack of effort.
Regard Roselyne Bachelot, the sports minister of France (which is a cabinet position, by the way), who said on French TV, “The [doping] controls will be multiplied, and I tell Lance Armstrong that he will be particularly, particularly, particularly monitored.”
France’s antidoping agency and the International Cycling Union have said they will conduct more than 500 tests during this year’s tour. Armstrong will be tested 499 times.
This is not new. The French Ministry of Youth and Sport held a random drug test one day before the 2005 Tour de France, Armstrong’s last race. Turned out the random drug test screened one rider: Lance Armstrong.
Story One: Will He Be Busted This Time?
Story Two: Team Astana. The mighty Kazakhstan team is proving money can buy you happiness. The team is owned by an assortment of Kazakhstan state-owned industries, formed in 2007 around Alexander Vinokourov, local biking hero, who was subsequently banned for doping.
Now what? Well, the state industries in Kazakhstan worker’s paradise hired Johan Bruyneel, former manager of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal/Discovery Channel team. Astana goes into this year’s tour loaded to the tits with thoroughbreds Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Andreas Klöden. After stage 10, Astana team members held four of the first five positions in individual race standings.
Story Three: This Team Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us. Armstrong is taking no pay or bonuses because he loves you. Across the bus aisle sits Alberto Contador, considered to be the best climber in the world and 2007 winner of the Tour de France, 2008 winner of Giro d’Italia, and 2008 winner of Vuelta a España. This makes him, at the age of 26, only the fifth man in history to win all three grand tours. Alberto isn’t scared of Lance.
Old vs. young. Cunning pro versus young champion. Both fighting for team leadership and the win. It has been a riveting soap opera. Armstrong was in tenth place as the third stage began. It’s a 122-mile run from Marseille to La Grande-Motte, the wind was up, and with 18 miles to go, the peleton split due to brutal crosswinds. Armstrong was the only Astana rider in the forward 27-man split. At day’s end, he was in third place, 40 seconds behind the leader, but with a 19-second lead over Contador. Suddenly, Armstrong was back in the game.
Contador returned serve four days later in the seventh stage, a 139-mile run from Barcelona to Andorra, finishing with a beyond-category climb to the Arcalis summit. At race time, Armstrong was in second place, still 19 seconds ahead of Contador. With two kilometers to go, Contador, ignoring his team’s plan, ignoring the sport’s code that says never chase down an attacking teammate on a summit finish, bolted ahead of his team and finished the climb on his own. Contador was now in second place, two seconds ahead of Armstrong and the war is on.
And it will likely go on until stage 20, when riders climb Mont Ventoux, the hardest climb on the tour. If it gets down to Lance and Alberto climbing the mountain side-by-side, with winning the tour on the line, the Ministry of Tourism will be delighted.