This might start sounding like a broken record, but come Saturday in Monaco, the great battle of wills between Astana teammates Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador will begin. Certainly, there will be other challengers, but these two are the main favorites for good reason and deserve all the hype. Lance and Alberto are very well matched physically so I think it will come down to the mental game to determine the winner of the 2009 Tour.
Right after the Giro, I wouldn't have given Lance much of a chance, but after being with him at the Nevada City Bicycle Classic, two weeks ago, and seeing how fit and motivated he was, Armstrong is a man on a mission. He is starting the race five pounds lighter than he ever did during his seven victories and his eyes show a keen focus and determination. Lance is not coming to France to ride in support of Alberto Contador.
Alberto Contador is probably feeling a bit lonely on Team Astana with only his old teammate from Liberty Seguros, Sergio Paulinho, as a trusted ally. Rumour has it that Contador might be getting some help from the riders on Caisse d'Epargne if he needs it. I am hoping that things remain civil on Astana. There is no need for a replay of the 1986 race where American Greg LeMond and Frenchman Bernard Hinault while they teammates, rode as rivals.
With all this talk of teammates and allies, it is probably fitting that the first stage of the Tour is a 9-mile(15km) individual time trial in the hills surrounding Monaco. That means a head-to-head battle between Lance and Alberto with the best man on the day assuming an edge in the fight for team leadership. With all the "Lance versus Alberto" hype in the past nine months, look for Contador to come out blazing, trying to prove that he is the true team leader of Astana.
However, Lance is a master tactician and will do everything in his power to try to match Contador. Unless we are talking Brett Favre, I am a fan of comebacks so I hope that Lance can match Alberto and if he does, the battle of wills will really be on.
You are probably thinking that the mental toughness of a rider is always part of the equation, but given that the two riders in question here are on the same team makes the mental aspect way more critical. Alberto and Lance will be spending way more time in close proximity than just during the race. Any gamesmanship can be played out long after each day's podium ceremony has concluded.
So, while it is clear that you have to be physically strong to win the Tour de France, this year's victor will also need to be as tough if not tougher mentally to prevail, especially if your name is Lance or Alberto.