With the Alps looming all eyes are on the battle expected to commence as the third week of the Tour begins. Actually, it will most likely be two battles in the Alps as first, Team Astana tries to sort out the leadership on its squad and secondly as all the other teams with overall contenders such as Silence-Lotto (Cadel Evans), Cervelo Test Team (Carlos Sastre) and Saxo Bank (Brothers Schleck) try to either take down Astana or at the very least, climb onto the Tour podium.
The battle for leadership at Astana has already has already seen two rounds as first, Lance took charge in the crosswinds of stage three then in round two, Contador took the initiative by attacking in the final four kilometer to the mountain top finish in Arcalis. Since then the two pugilists have been in their respective corners waiting for the bell to sound for round three.
I expect Lance to take the initiative in the Alps and not wait for Contador to show his ambitions. However, the tricky part is that riders like Carlos Sastre, who seems to get better in the third week of a grand tour, and Cadel Evans, who continues to show the aggression we first saw in the Dauphine Libere, and the Brothers Schleck to attack, attack and attack.
If Astana can't control the lead group and they let riders like Sastre and Evans get up the road, then the advantage shifts to Contador as he is more able to respond to sharp attacks than Armstrong. Having said that, I am impressed by Lance's improving form and he might just be able to match Contador's legendary accelerations by the time the Tour reaches the Alps.
One interesting development is that the director sportifs of several of the teams with overall contenders may be waiting to see if the disharmony inside Astana is weakening the team and making them more vulnerable to cracking in the Alps. In talking with those directors, none of them have any answers on how to take down Astana. With three or four strong riders the situation is similar to being only four shots back on the final afternoon in a golf tournament, but having four golfers in front of you on the leader board. You might be able to beat one or even two of them, but expecting all four to fail is long odds.
Clearly, Astana is weaker with the departure of Levi Leipheimer, but Andreas Kloden looks very solid as does Yaraslov Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia. Lance called the third week of the Tour "sinister". With both the battle within Astana and the battle of the best of the rest, it is going to be one of the most memorable finishes in recent Tour history.
On a very rainy day in the Vosges Mountains, Heinrich Haussler was off the front for over 100 miles, dropping his breakaway companion Sylvan Chavanel on the descent of the penultimate climb and soloing for almost 30 miles to victory. The Cervelo Test Team rider is better known for his sprinting prowess, winning stage 2 of Paris-Nice and almost beating Mark Cavendish at Milan-San Remo. But, today, he proved that once again in this year's Tour, anything can happen.
Undoubtedly the biggest news of the days was the non-start of Team Astana's Levi Leipheimer. He crashed on a left hand bend with 2.5 kilometers remaining yesterday, but appeared to be fine at the stage finish. However, the pain in his wrist worsened over night and a trip to the hospital in the morning revealed that it was broken.
I saw the crash and it just didn't look that serious. The tumble by Ryder Hesjedal the day before looked way more serious, but Hesjedal was basically unscathed. Leipheimer was enjoying one of his finest Tours sitting in fourth place overall and looking very comfortable and relaxed on the bike. It is a pity that Levi will not get to show his form in the Alps. In both 2006 and 2007, he was one of the few riders who seemed to get stronger in the third week.
The race leaders took it easy in the day's trying conditions, there were no changes to the overall standings other than Leipheimer's untimely withdrawal. Thor Hushovd managed to stay with the GC leaders over all the climbs and took second in the field sprint for sixth place which allowed him to take the green jersey off of Mark Cavendish's shoulders.
The Armstrong/Contador affair is interesting to watch. I asked Rolf Aldag, DS of team Columbia-HTC, about the perspective from the other teams.
Bruce: do you think Astana will destroy themselves with all the conflict?
Rolf: I think in the end, they are so strong as a team, that even if they ride against each other they will succeed whoever that will be. If you see how much resources they have. Until now they didn't need Leipheimer. They didn't need Kloden to ride. They still have so much resources that up until now they can easily control it with out making any decisions (about team leadership) so I think it stays wide open.
It is interesting to watch (the Armstrong/Contador battle) from the outside. If you don't have a hand in the game there it is really interesting to follow and wonder what are they going to do next.
When Lance was in the front in the crosswind there was definitely a big 'chapeau' from our team wondering how he managed that. Three years off he is definitely physiologically older, he is definitely focused on the race. So it was kind of 'Wow! He made it into that group'.
When Contador attacked up to Arcalis it was the same thing to say 'Wow. There is no way for us to go with him.' So we watched it and we were also like 'Phew'. It was a good attack. It was strong how he went to the finish.
Right now it is six and eight seconds so it is totally open. It is so exciting we are kind of like spectators in the first row. It is kind of funny.
Bruce: Does Contador need to be strong psychologically to do what he did?
Rolf: I think so, but I also think it is kind of a relief for him. He is as good as he is and he has to show it. If there is any doubt that he is good enough then he will be in bigger and bigger trouble. If he shows that he is good enough, that he is there because when he was not there in the break in the crosswinds, it was a big advantage for Lance. 'See. That is not my mistake that you haven't learned. That might happen to you everyday.'
Psychologically he (Lance) had a big, big advantage over Contador, but Contador now responded and said 'See. Even if I miss it I am strong enough to correct it.'
It is really exciting to follow that as long as we are not paying the bill which we are not going to do. Cavendish is no threat to Astana.
I finally had time to look through all the photos I shot in the past two weeks. Here are a bunch from the team time trial that I think you will find interesting.
There are some fit riders in the Tour.
Check out the Cervelo Test Team's motto on their shorts. It seems to be working as they have won two stages.
Flatting in a team time trial can cost a GC rider precious seconds and potentially minutes. The mechanics always wipe off the tires just before the start in case a piece of glass has found it's way into the rubber.
Tom Boonen packs a gel just in case he needs it during the 45+ minute effort.
Because of the logistics between the start and finish of the team time trial, Team Astana decided it needed another bus to park at the finish. Mechanic Geoff Brown got the call the day before and drove the second bus 700 miles (1100km) from Astana's European headquarters in Brakel, Belgium to Montpellier. The speed limit for busses is 60 mph(100kmh) so the trip took over 11 hours. He arrived only two hours before the stage start. He drove the bus 700 miles back to Belgium the next day.
There is way too much going on at the Tour at the moment for one posting a day so I am going to add an additional posting to catch some of the other story lines.
First off, for those of you following the Lance and Alberto saga, the headline this morning in France's leading sports newspaper l'Equipe was "Contador is the Boss." Clearly, l'Equipe felt that Alberto seized control by attacking in the final kilometers of stage 7 to Arcalis-Andorra. Lance remarked to the press after the stage that Contador's attack had not been part of the plan for that stage which further emphasizes l'Equipe's point that Contador took the initiative.
This is a very interesting situation made even more so by the fact that both Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden are also riding very strongly. While people are focusing on Lance and Alberto, if either one or both of them have a bad day, Levi or Andreas could assume the leadership role. It is a bit of a long shot, but the possibility is there. I am hoping that the Lance/Alberto affair doesn't end up causing the whole team to crumble. They are clearly the strongest team. Does Johan need to step in and lay down some ground rules?
Adding to the suspense, both Alberto and Lance were randomly picked for doping control at the end of stage 8. Because of this, they had to sit around together in the medical trailer for about and hour after the stage giving biological samples, usually just urine, sometimes blood. I wonder what they talked about?
Each day a team has a plan for the stage. They look at the stage profile and the capabilities of their riders and try to strategize for an optimum output. On stage 8, the game plan for Team Columbia-HTC was to get George Hincapie up the road in the latter half of the stage and then have Kim Kirchen come up on the ascent of the final climb. Hopefully those two would be part of a small breakaway where either Kim could solo off the front in the closing kilometers or if he was brought back, George could win in a sprint. Unfortunately, George covered the Evans attack on the first climb(Port d'Envalira) so that strategy did not play out.
You might be wondering what is happening to Michael Rogers. He is becoming the 'Hard Luck Kid'. Two years ago Rogers crashed on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend and had to withdraw with a broken elbow. This year, he crashed on the run in to Barcelona in the rain and while the medical staff at Columbia-HTC were initially concerned with his elbow, it appears that he severely bruised his hip. I was at the team bus when he rolled up at the end of today's stage and it was painful for me to watch him try and climb off his bike. He is one tough Aussie and the medical staff hope that in about two days he will be back at close to full strength. Being hurt in the mountains rather on the flats is back luck.
If you are wondering why the cycling pundits are talking more about Andy Schleck rather than his older brother Frank, it can be explained that Frank crashed this spring and hurt his knee. The knee has not really healed and the wisdom in the press room is that Frank might not make it to Paris.
Alberto Contador put his stamp on the 2009 Tour, attacking the elite group of overall contenders with two miles(3km) remaining to the finish at Arcalis in Andorra. Many speculated that Contador, in an attempt to keep team harmony at Astana, would only follow an attack by another squad's overall contender such as Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck or Carlos Sastre. But, after Cadel Evans had tested the waters with 2.5 miles remaining and had been easily brought back by both Contador and Armstrong, Alberto launched his convincing attack.
The gap quickly went out to double digit seconds, but seemed to stabilize at around twenty seconds as Evans led the chase. Garmin-Slipstream's overall favorite Christian Vande Velde signaled his return to top form by launching an attack out of the Evans-led group just under the red kite. He was brought back and he, Evans, Armstrong, Leiphimer and Andy Schleck all finished together 21 seconds back of the Spaniard.
While the race for overall was going on down the road. Brice Feillu of the French Agritubel squad won the stage. He was part of a large breakaway group that had a ten minute lead as the race entered Andorra. He attacked with about five kilometers remaining and held off all his break-mates. As a bit of a break from form, he forgot to zip up his jersey to acknowledge his sponsors as he crossed the line.
One side effect of the large time gap given to the breakaway was that Rinaldo Nocentini, who earlier this year won the Pasadena stage of the Amgen Tour of California, inherited the yellow jersey ahead of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong. Contador has only a two second lead over Armstrong on general classification, though with the strength he showed in the closing kilometers, he looks to be a tick better than Armstrong on the climbs.
But, after struggling to stay in the lead group at the Giro d'Italia, it is a testament to Lance's form that not only did he finish in the lead group, but he easily neutralized Cadel Evans' attack and looked very relaxed in the drag over the final kilometers to the line. Based on how good he looked, it is a distinct possibility that Lance was playing the good teammate and forcing the others to chase Contador.
It was another exciting stage. Even though Contador appeared to have the upper hand on Armstrong, those who doubted Lance as a true contender may well be silenced. It was also very gratifying to see Christian Vande Velde back up with the leaders after his horrible crash in the Giro. Christian's teammate Bradley Wiggins also climbed well. More on his transcendence soon.
Stage winner Brice Feillu.
Popovych leads Lance and Alberto with about 4km remaining.
Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Andreas Kloden and Frank Schleck.
Sergio Paulinho has done his work at the front and is now just riding to the finish.
The Tour de France has officially begun and while the winner on the day, Fabian Cancellara, was not a huge surprise, the race for Astana team leadership got very interesting. All four of Astana's Tour podium finishers, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden finished inside the top 10 with only 22 seconds separating those riders after the 9-mile(15 km) time trial. While Alberto, 3rd overall, did best Lance, 10th overall, by 22 seconds the question of team leadership is still unanswered.
On a warm, muggy day in the principality of Monaco the relatively short course resulted in interesting, but not necessarily significant, time gaps. None of the favorites faltered; Cadel Evans was right in the mix, five seconds behind Contador and 17 seconds ahead of Armstrong while Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre were within a minute of their rivals.
The Garmin-Slipstream team also demonstrated their time trialing prowess, putting four riders in the top 17, led by Bradley Wiggins' third place finish, 19 seconds behind Cancellara. David Zabriskie, 13th, David Millar, 14th and Christian Vande Velde, 17th, had solid rides. Vande Velde's comeback after a race-ending crash in the Giro seems to be on track to finding his top form as the race progresses.
This year, because there are no time bonuses at the finish, it is likely that Cancellara will keep his yellow jersey at least until Stage 4 on Tuesday and the 25-mile team time trial. Based on the results of the opening time trial, it should be a battle between Astana and Garmin-Slipstream for the stage win.
It has been an up and down season for Cancellara who won the opening prologue of the Tour of California, but was forced to withdraw the next day due to sickness. A training crash at home in Switzerland severely hampered his preparation for the Classics, but he recently won his home tour, the Tour de Suisse, and appears to be finally finding his form.
The next few days should be the domain of the sprinters. Look for Team Columbia-HTC with Mark Cavendish to be challenged by Cervelo Test team and Thor Hushovd, but Garmin-Slipstream and their up-and-coming sprinter, Tyler Farrar, might surprise.
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.
With all the drama surrounding Lance Armstrong's comeback and his chances for another Tour win, lost a bit in the hysteria is the fact that his Team Astana might not be at the Tour. I want to say up front that I want them at the Tour because they are one heck of a good team witness their win of the team prize at the recent Giro d'Italia. But, just this past week, Team Astana boss Johan Bruyneel indicated that the sponsors have still not paid up all the money owed to the riders and the team as of June 1.
You might be thinking that it is less than a month before the Tour and that Lance, Johan or some additional sponsor could step in to make good on the money owed, but you have to remember that the governing body of the sport, the UCI, is the one who makes the decision to suspend a team for financial non-payment. The UCI usually does this to protect the riders. If a team is not paying its riders then the UCI has the power to suspend the team until all salaries are paid up-to-date.
So, while Johan and Lance are doing everything they can to keep the team afloat through the Tour, the UCI may step in and spoil the party. The UCI could suspend the team or it could revoke the team's Pro Tour license if no long-term solution is possible. If the team is suspended then Lance, Alberto, Levi, Chris, etc, will be sitting on the sidelines watching the Tour. If the UCI revokes Team Astana's Pro Tour license, then the team is basically disbanded.
If the team disbands, that means that all the riders' contracts are null and void which free the racers to seek employment with other teams. Rumours abounded at the Giro about the teams who were talking to Alberto Contador if the Astana did disband. Also a hot topic in Italy was the very real possibility that Johan Bruyneel would get Astana's Pro Tour license and he and Lance will have their own top-tier pro team in the very near future.
Personally, I don't think the UCI will revoke Astana's Pro Tour license or suspend the team. Johan Bruyneel is clearly frustrated at the Astana sponsors inability to satisfy their financial commitment, but I think everything will probably hang together long enough to get the team through the Tour. But, it is clear that the money is slow in coming and the UCI might just step in to set an example. Team Astana should have been at last year's Tour. Hopefully their exclusion won't happen again.
Team Columbia-Highroad has been putting on a Bike Racing 101 clinic at the Giro.The squad has won four stages in the first nine days and they are doing it in classic racing fashion. The Giro is known for lots of crashes which sometimes produce lucky winners, but Columbia-Highroad's success has nothing to do with luck.
Columbia-Highroad's first win, on the opening day's team time trial, was the picture of perfection. There didn't appear to be any strategy other than to have each rider give his all. There were no sacrificial lambs, everybody just rode their hearts out.
Norwegian Edvald Boasen-Hagen has recorded a second-first-second in stages 6-8; his win into Chiavenna on stage 7 was won on rain-slickened roads, but he didn't appear to be taking unnecessary risks.
Constantin Siutsov's victory into Bergamo was probably the best demonstration of classic bike racing tactics. Columbia-Highroad sent their GC man Michael Rogers up the road on the stage's final climb forcing overal racer leader Danilo Diluca's LPR Brakes team to initiate a furious chase. As soon as Rogers and his breakaway companions, which included Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, were reeled in, Siutsov counter-attacked.
It was clear that the LPR riders were tired from chasing Rogers and Leipheimer and Siutsov quickly built a sufficient lead to take him all the way to the finish line. That is how you win a bike race.
The final chapter in team Columbia Highroad's racing primer was written in Milan when a near perfect leadout train in the final kilometers delivered uber-sprinter Mark Cavendish first across the line. Thus endeth the lesson, but I am guessing that Columbia-Highroad has a few more chapters to write before the end of the race.
A few more speculations on what will happen with Team Astana and the rollout with Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel's new team. It must be remembered that one of the strategies that Bruyneel and Armstrong used to help engineer Lance's seven tour wins was to acquire the competition.
Along that line of thinking, it would be better for Bruyneel and Armstrong to try and keep Team Astana together through the Tour so that they would have Contador on their squad. That's not to say that Bruyneel and Armstrong would try to keep Contador from winning. It just means that they would have more control over the situation. Only time will tell what happens.
Word coming from the Giro d'Italia is that it is all but a done deal that Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel will have their own professional cycling team. Details are still a bit in the speculative stage, but it appears that an official announcement will be made on or about June 1st, the day after the conclusion of the Giro and also the day after the UCI's deadline for Team Astana to get it's financial situation in order has come and gone.
More than likely, the bulk of the team will come from the current roster of the Astana squad. Speculating on the exact roster, the new team should include Lance, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaraslov Popovych, Chechu Runiera, Daniel Noval, Jani Brajkovic, and a most of the remaining supporting characters (Gregory Rast, Steve Morabito, etc.)
One rider who is rumoured to not be part of the new team is Alberto Contador. He has been linked to Caisse d'Epargne, the team of Alejandro Valverde whose own participation in the Tour de France has been put in doubt by a recent two-year ban in Italy for his participation in Opercion Puerto. It is not clear if Contador's good friend and training partner, Jesus Jernandez, will follow him to Caisse. Obviously, if Contador does not come to the squad, all questions about who will lead the team at the Tour de France become moot!
Another rider whose future is uncertain is Andreas Kloden who has recently been linked to blood doping during the 2006 Tour and will almost certainly face some sort of disciplinary action. Also, it is unclear if any of the Kazhak riders currently on the team will be retained.
Rumour has it that Bruyneel and Armstrong have already produced the team kit with their new sponsors and will be unveiling it at the public announcement in the days after the finish of the Giro. Look for Armstrong to be wearing his new team colors as he trains with Leipheimer and Horner at his home in Aspen between the Giro and the Tour.
We will have to wait and see how this all shakes out, but suffice it to say, the excitement in pro cycling won't go into hiatus between the Giro and the Tour.
On Monday, Lance Armstrong went public with his announcement that he hopes to run his own top-flite European professional team in 2010. This year, Armstrong launched an Under 23(U-23) team, Trek-Livestrong, captained by current World 4000m Pursuit Champion Taylor Phinney, but the plan for next year is to put together a squad that will compete at the highest level of the sport.
Also mentioned in the announcement is that long-time friend and team director Johan Bruyneel will also be part of the program. Bruyneel, who currently runs Team Astana will need to figure out how to sever his ties with the Khazak squad. Given the current rumours surrounding the health of Team Astana that might not prove to be too difficult. It appears that the Astana, which is funded by a conglomerate of Khazak companies, has been hit hard by the economic downturn and has not been able to meet its payroll commitments.
There is some speculation that Astana may not be able to stay afloat long enough to participate in the Tour de France. Also rumoured is that the UCI may step in an revoke the squad's Pro Tour license. Obviously, this is all rumour and speculation, but something appears to be happening. Before we jump to any conclusions let's hope that the team can iron out the difficulties and continue with its dominating season.
Also in the announcement, Armstrong indicated that he would like to be a team director and rider for the new outfit meaning that he would still be on the bike in 2010. It is too far off to get a feeling if he would ride the Tour or other big stage races with his new squad. Let's let him get his 2009 season under his belt before we all start guessing on his racing program for next year.
Just who the title sponsor will be for Armstrong's new squad is a mystery. Some have speculated that Nike will step up. Another possibility might be SRAM, the component manufacturer who has a big enough budget to step up in a major way. Whoever decides to write the checks, the Armstrong/Bruyneel combination combined to form a very potent force. We will have to wait and see if Alberto Contador is recruited for the team, but whoever joins the ranks will be part of an exciting new team.
In a somewhat stunning development, Team Astana, has laid to rest all speculation as to who would lead their squad at the 2009 Tour de France by announcing that they would hold a head-to-head time trial between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador five days before the July event. "We were hoping that Lance's performance in the Giro d'Italia would answer the team leadership question. But, now with Lance's broken collarbone limiting his preparation it was clear that we needed another way to end the season-long drama and allow the team to concentrate on its racing schedule," said Team Director Johan Bruyneel.
Reached at home in Austin where he is recuperating from surgery to repair his broken collarbone Lance Armstrong applauded the decision. "The ongoing question of Tour leadership was causing a major distraction for the team. This will also help me relax a bit and should aid my recovery and return to top form."
Also quite surprising is the format of the race against the clock. "Since we know that both Lance and Alberto are excellent climbers and fast on the flats, the only unknown is their descending ability. So, we will use the 3000' descent of the Col de la Madone for the time trial," added Bruyneel.
Alberto Contador commented on the interesting format. "Normally, I ride hard up the climbs around my home and take it easy on the descents. Now I will have to change my training to take is easy going uphill so I can concentrate on the descents."
While he will not take part in the time trial, Levi Leipheimer also weighed in on the news. "This is a great idea. It was really hard for me to win the Vuelta Castilla y Leon as all anyone on the team was worried about was who would lead the team at the Tour."
While it is too early to tell if the decision by Bruyneel will have the desired affect one thing is certain. We can all get back to discussing who will win the upcoming Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, etc. and not be waiting for the next instalment of "As the Wheel Turns."
Lance Armstrong was caught up in a late stage crash on the first day of the Vuelta Castilla Y Leon and suffered a broken collarbone. Lance returned to his home in Austin, Texas on Tuesday and is scheduled for surgery on Wednesday morning. This is definitely a blow to Armstrong's comeback. With many questions yet to be answered, just how big a blow has yet to be seen.
It is not clear exactly what will be done during the surgery, the expectation is that a plate will be attached to the collarbone to span the break and help speed up the recovery time. What is also not clear is the extent of the break. A CT scan was performed on Tuesday evening to determine the exact details of the break. Once the surgery is performed, Lance is going to need some down time to allow the break to start to heal.
A broken collarbone is one of the most common injuries in cycling and is really the first major injury from a crash that he has suffered since he started racking up his seven Tour de France wins. Racers have returned to competition within three to four weeks after breaking their collarbone, but laws of average don't necessarily apply in medical cases.
The effect on Lance's comeback is not really known at this time and may not be known for several weeks. Clearly, since the Giro d'Italia starts in just five weeks, Lance's quest for an overall title there is probably in jeopardy. In fact, his participation in the event may also be in question. The Giro seems to be a much more crash-prone event due in part to the fact that many of it's stage finishes include multiple circuits around the finish town on roads that vary dramatically in width.
If Lance doesn't ride the Giro, he is going to need to find some other races to sharpen his skills if he wants to contend for another Tour de France title. Whatever happens, don't count out the Texan. While circumstances may completely scuttle his comeback, if he can recover quickly and get back his motivation, there is no reason to doubt that he will be ready to rage in July.
ps - Levi Leipheimer demonstrated how quickly he recovered from his hip fracture at the Amgen Tour of California to win the much-anticipated time trial at the Vuelta Castilla Y Leon besting Astana teammate Alberto Contador by 16 seconds over the 15-mile course. Garmin-Slipstream's Dave Zabriskie recovered from his home burglary to take take third just 22 seconds behind Leipheimer.
The two greatest stage racers of the modern era are set to race, head-to-head, at Spain's Vuelta a Castilla Y Leon which starts on Monday. Ordinarily this situation would make for some very interesting racing. What makes this even more interesting is that both racers are on the same team. Yup, you guessed it, Big Tex and the Pistolero from Pinto are set to race side-by-side, well at least on the flats, in Spain.
Can it get even better? Of course it can. Cycling has had its share of drama over the past few years because of doping problems, but recently, the Lance and Alberto show has taken center stage. As you might remember, Alberto was all set to win Paris-Nice a week ago, but pulled a total rookie move by not eating enough food and bonking on a tough climbing stage. Lance didn't let that faux pas go, commenting to the media that Contador still had a lot to learn.
Public sparring between two riders on the same team is pretty unusual. I would have to say that Lance probably should have relayed his comments to his teammate privately, but in this era of Twitter and Facebook is anything safe from the public eye? Clearly, if both Armstrong and Contador are in top form at the Tour it is going to be a rough ride, but why create a bumpy road before you have to?
Some have commented that the reason Astana lost both Paris-Nice and the other big stage race at that time, Tirreno-Adriatico, was because of poor teamwork. That will definitely not be the case at Vuelta Castilla y Leon. Lance and Alberto will have Levi Leipheimer, Haimar Zubeldia (both top-5 finishers in the Tour de France) along with stalwarts Chechu Rubiera, Benjamin Noval, Thomas Waitkus and Jesus "Baby Jesus" Hernandez. This team could contend for a Tour title, it is that strong.
The Vuelta Castilla y Leon looks to be a good test for both Lance and Alberto. There is a 28km TT, similar in length to the Solvang TT at the Amgen Tour of California, plus two mountain-top finishes. This is exactly the kind of riding Big Tex needs to be doing to keep his comeback on track, the only question being is how he will ride given that the race is in Spain and Contador is Spanish and he is also the defending champion.
The five-stage race is laid out perfectly for maximum drama. Stage 2 is the time trial with Stage 3 and 4 being mountain-top finishes. Contador is on super TT form as of late, but if Armstrong uncorks a ripping ride, he could put the pressure on the team to ride for both potential team leaders. My guess is that Lance is still a tick or two behind Contador against the watch and in the mountains so we should see more gun slinging than fist pumps at the finish line.
Besides Team Astana, there are a number of other riders and teams of interest. Rock Racing and Garmin-Slipstream up the American factor and Fuji-Servetto finally got invited to a big race. Throw in Alejandro Valverde and Denis Menchov and this could be a lot of fun to watch.
Amaury Sports Organization(ASO), the group which owns and runs the Tour de France announced 20 of the teams participating in the 2009 edition of the race. The biggest news is, as expected, Team Astana, the squad that includes four riders who have been on the podium at the Tour, is back after a much-publicized one-year absence. That means that Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden will most likely be toeing the starting line when the race commences in Monaco (that's not France) in about four months.
The other big news, which was also kind of expected, is that the Fuji-Servetto team was not invited. Fuji-Servetto was the only Pro Tour team left off the start list, supposedly, the UCI had signed an agreement with ASO that all Pro Tour teams would get starting slots. However, you might remember that last year, Fuji-Servetto was named Saunier-Duval when they left their mark on the 2008 Tour. They won three stages with Ricardo Ricco(2) and Leonardo Piepoli only to have everything come crashing down when it was revealed that Ricco had tested positive for CERA, a new slow-release version of the blood-cell-boosting EPO. Piepoli later admitted that he used CERA as well.
After the revelation, Saunier-Duval supposedly left on its own accord, but all information point to ASO giving them the boot. Fuji-Servetto has been denied starting slots in a number of races so far this season. The UCI needs to send a very clear message, instead of the muddy one they are dishing out now. If there are big questions surrounding Fuji-Servetto then the UCI should not have issued them a Pro Tour license. Now that the UCI has issued them a license, they need to show some solidarity and stand behind all the Pro Tour teams. Not good.
The good news for Americans besides, Lance, Levi and Chris being back in the Tour is that both American Pro Tour team Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-High Road are both in the big show. The other Pro Tour teams include Milram, Quick Step, Silence-Lotto, Saxo Bank, Caisse d'Epargne, Euskaltel-Euskadi, AG2R La Mondiale, Bbox Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis, Française des Jeux, Lampre-NGC, Liquigas, Rabobank and Katusha.
The three wild-card teams are Cervelo Test Team, the squad of defending Tour champion Carlos Sastre; Agritubel which rode very aggressively in last year's Tour and Skil-Shimano a mostly Benelux squad whose roster doesn't include any big names.
While the Omloop Het Nieswauld marks the beginning of the European professional classic season, the 8-day Paris-Nice(PN) event signals the beginning of the stage racing season. PN goes from, well, Paris to Nice and is the first big goal for all the Pro Tour teams. Not only are the stage race riders looking to show well, but because PN offers racing for all types of riders, just about everyone is hoping that they can prove something to their team directors and sponsors.
The format gives the first few days to the sprinters on flat roads, then gives the less vertically-challenged opportunists their day in the sun. The last several stages are downright hilly and usually feature the climbers. With all the chances to show, PN is extremely competitive and a stage win here is highly treasured. And if you think the weather has been bad for the past two editions of the Amgen Tour of California, try freezing temps and snow for mile after mile if the weather turns unfriendly.
As an interesting side note, Greg Lemond's old nemesis on the bike, Laurent Fignon, used to own the race. Unfortunately, he never incorporated the event into a company(limited liability corporation or LLC). When he got divorced a few years ago the judge deciding on the division of assets couldn't figure out how to split up the race. Should Laurent get Paris and his soon-to-be ex-wife get Nice? Luckily, ASO stepped in and bought the race.
But, I digress. In the 2009 edition of the event, the fireworks have been going off since the opening prologue where Alberto Contador, not known as a fastman in a flat 5.5mi (9km) prologue crushed everyone including Garmin-Slipstream's double 2008 gold medalist Bradley Wiggins. Two days later, a well-planned attack in severe crosswinds by Team Rabobank put Contador in trouble and opened the door for Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel in the leader's jersey.
This might seem insignificant except that Sylvain is French, Paris-Nice is a French race (well, duh) and the French have been dying to find a new hero for over 20 years to replace the likes of Fignon and Bernard Hinault, the last two Frenchmen to win the Tour de France. Chavanel will be under attack by Alberto Contador and it will be a great race to Nice with a very difficult day in the mountains on Friday.
Not lost in all the Franco-drama, was the cracking ride by Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde who continues to climb out from under the domestique shadow notching a huge solo stage win into the legendary bike city of St. Etienne. After crashing hard in the prologue, it shows the measure of the man to pick himself up and get a very tough stage victory. Chapeau Christian.
It is going to be a very exciting run into Nice. Can Chavanel carry the weight of the whole French nation on his shoulders up the Col de Eze or will the 'Pistolero of Pinto' (Alberto, you really need to work on a better moniker) gun him down?