The 2009 Tour de France is over, not officially of course, but for all practical purposes, Alberto Contador can be declared the winner. Yes, I know I picked Lance Armstrong to win, and he is riding strong…but not strong enough. Unless Contador falls off of his bike, Armstrong (or anybody else) can’t win, in my opinion.
I was really looking forward to the possibility of having an exciting TDF to follow this year. What really sucks is that what we have had largely has resembled a parade for the first two weeks of the Tour, at least as far as the GC contenders are concerned. We finally get a stage on Sunday up to Verbier with a mountain top finish hard enough to make a selection, and a selection indeed was made. There was Contador absolutely dominant, and instead of getting to watch actual racing, he simply rode away. Sound familiar? You can’t fault Bruyneel, as he has a winning strategy refined over seven years of Lance Armstrong victories.
The name at the top of the leader board may have changed, but the 2009 TDF is a Tour pretty much like any other Tour, except for the (many) years where we had drug controversies to intrigue us. Even then, for the most part, we had one guy (guess who) totally dominate the race to the point that there was no suspense at all after the first mountain top finish. The French fans were sick of the dominant American, and now they will resent the dominant Spaniard. By the looks of Contador, he has the potential to be every bit as dominant as Armstrong was, spoiling the party of the Tour for years to come. Armstrong is potentially the only thing standing in the way of Contador winning seven in a row...at least the string could be broken in 2010.
I don’t know what the TDF organizers were thinking when they came up with this year’s route. The route really doesn’t matter in determining the winner; the strongest wins, and that is how it should be with one of the most grueling endurance contests in sports. What does matter is how the route plays out in terms of suspense. The first day time trial was certainly interesting to watch, but then we had the usual mostly boring sprint stages. The incredible mountains of the Pyrenees, where so many memorable moments in tour history have occurred, were rendered absolutely insignificant. The Tourmalet was totally marginalized by having the stage finish 70km from the top; it looked like the peloton was just cruising over this magnificent climb that has factored heavily in so many tours. Boring!
So once more, the greatest cycling race in the world is reduced to a couple of weeks of watching the strongest riders in the world sit on each other’s wheels, until we finally get a stage with a hard finish. The strongest guy goes, no one can follow, and the Tour is pretty much over. From then to the finish the leader just defends, which is pretty easy, seeing as nobody can stay with him. At least this year a few have tried; back in the Armstrong days everyone was afraid to even attack, lest they blow up and hurt their chance for a top ten finish.
For me, the 2009 Giro was so much more interesting than the TDF. There were numerous mountain top finishes, and all of them were steep and hard, offering plenty of chances to attack. The strongest rider won, but Dennis Menchov couldn’t win one stage (the long time trial) and just sit back and follow wheels. He was attacked repeatedly, and Menchov had to fight off Deluca and others until the very end. Yes, the right guy won the race, but the route made it so much more interesting than the 2009 TDF has been so far.
About the only thing interesting I have read about this year’s Tour concerns just how fast Contador ascended the road to Verbier. So fast, that it is estimated his vertical ascent in meters per hour (VAM) of 1900 is the largest ever recorded in the TDF. Faster even than the huge numbers Marco Pantani and others racked up during the drug addled late 90’s. Things have been very quiet at this year’s Tour regarding doping, but at least one source has analyzed the Contador climb and raised some provoking questions:
Phil Liggett keeps promising fireworks during the following day’s stage, but then tomorrow comes, and with it another procession up and over the mountains. We get a lot more action during a typical Hills of the West Coast ride!
So Lance Armstrong isn’t going to win the 2009 Tour de France, and it’s not because he’s 37 years old. Less than a year to prepare was simply not enough to enable him to get back to the very top end of the elite level of the sport. Next year Armstrong will be 38, but he will have had two years to train and compete at the highest level. I bet he’ll have a big smile on his face when he is flying home in his private jet after the 2009 Tour is over.
After all, he may wind up being the second strongest guy, and now he knows a lot more about the strongest guy and how he rides and wins. Armstrong is a smart rider, and I think he is doing his homework right now for the 2010 Tour. He must like what he sees; once again it’s just one guy dominating the race, and that means really there is only one rider he must figure out how to beat. Give Armstrong time to build his best form, and then we might have an interesting race, especially if Contador is on a different team.
None of the "old guard", save Armstrong, have any reasonable chance of beating Contador, and Contador is clearly much stronger than his young peers. Armstrong doesn't appear to be intimidated by Contador at all; in fact, if you read between the lines, Armstrong may think he has already figured out what to do for 2010. He'll be back, you can count on it, and he'll have a team built around him. One thing this guy is not is a loser, and second place is just another loser to Armstrong.
I like his chances.