Today the race organizers of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California announced the list of ProTour teams who will be participating in the race. A number of US-based teams such as Garmin-Slipstream and Team Columbia Highroad were on the list as well as the squad of two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer, Team Astana who will most likely bring his new teammate Lance Armstrong along with him. Team Saxo Bank, the new sponsor of the old Team CSC as well as Tom Boonen's Quick-Step squad also made the cut.
Not surprisingly, Rabobank and their ace climber Robert Gesink (that's Hesink to you) will be there. They recently signed on a a major co-sponsor of the event.Look for Gesink to be lighting it up on Bonny Doon Road during stage 2. Surprisingly, the French team Ag2r-La Mondial will be making their first appearance in California.
Even more surprisingly, Liquigas is also invited and that means the potential participation of Ivan Basso who rode alongside Levi at the Tour of California in 2007. Basso is returning from a drug suspension. There used to be a rule that any rider who is serving a drug suspension cannot ride for a ProTour team for an additional two years after the end of his sentence. When the UCI was questioned about this apparent breach of the ProTour rules, they responded that the additional two year suspension was part of a "code of ethics" agreed to by all the ProTour teams and not part of the UCI's official rules. Huh? What? Would the UCI look the other way if Floyd Landis signed with a ProTour team?
It is interesting to note that there will only be eight ProTour teams in 2009 down from nine in 2008. By UCI rules, that means that there can only be eight non-ProTour teams invited so, there will be two fewer teams(16) than in 2008(18). I hope this isn't a cost-cutting measure by the organizers of the race. But, the three-year old event has never made money and in this economic downturn it is unlikely to do so in 2009.
So, which non-ProTour teams will get the remaining eight spots? It seems like Ouch Medical, BMC Racing, Rock Racing, Bissel, Jelly Belly and Kelly Benefits have the inside track which leaves just two other slots open one of which might just go to the recently announced merger of Successful Living and Australia's Virgin Blue squads with the remaining spot going to Team Type 1.
Stay tuned to see which domestic pro squads secure a coveted berth in America's premier stage race. Anybody else got any ideas?
ps - one of last year's AToC ProTour teams, Saunier Duval-Scott, has been reborn as Fuji-Servetto. As Fuji is an American-based bicycle manufacturer it is not clear if they applied or were considered for one of the ProTour slots in the 2009 race. More as details become available.
The route of the 2009 Giro d'Italia was unveiled in Venice on Saturday and all I can say is what?!?! This is the centenary Giro, remember the centenary Tour back in 2003?, so clearly there has to be some tie-in to the 100 year history of Italy's biggest race, but what the heck? And with Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and 2008 Tour Champion Carlos Sastre all scheduled to start, maybe the route is only a secondary concern.
What about the route? Sure it is the customary 2500 miles (4000km) long, but there aren't really any big Dolomite climbs with strategic significance; the hardest climbing day is mostly in France and even though there are a bunch of mountain-top finishes, they just don't have the recognizable names that we have all come to know and love over the past 25-30 years.
That doesn't mean the mountains aren't going to be challenging, it's just that the route doesn't seem to lend itself to any "normal" flow. From the get go, the race is going to be challenging with a 13-mile(20.5km) team time trial on stage 1. Only four days later, Stage 5, the first of three mountain top finishes, the Alpe di Suisi in the Dolomites offers a 5000' climb with the final 6 miles at a very challenging 8%.
The next big test for the riders is a Stage 10 from Cuneo to Pinerolo which includes the Maddelena(Larche), Vars, Izoard, Montegenevre and Sestriere passes on the 150-mile route. This is the queen stage of the Giro and includes 17,000+ feet of climbing. Unfortunately, it is a 33-mile(55km) descent to the finish in Pinerolo so the GC selection may be limited.
A 37-mile(61km) time trial on Stage 12 has some significant climbing and could really break the race wide open. Look for Lance Armstrong to make his move on this stage after hanging with the leaders and conserving on Stage 10.
Stage 17 is only 50 miles in length, but it is all uphill from basically sea level to the 7000' summit of the Blockhaus. This is a pretty darn tough climb and will basically be a time trial between the overall contenders. Here is a photo of the final mile to the top.
A mountain top finish on Stage 19 to the summit of the famous Vesuvius volcano(sorry Pompei) is the final climbing test. The 3300' ascent over 8 miles has the profile to shake up the overall standings.
A final, short, 9-mile(15km) flat time trial in Rome probably isn't long enough for anyone to make a serious move up the standings, but if the gaps are tight, it could provide all the fireworks necessary for a nail-biting finish.
Can Lance win the Giro and become only the second American after Andy Hampsten's 1988 victory? Yes, I don't think there is anything in the route that provides a real danger to any of the Texan's weaknesses. Does he have any weaknesses? Certainly the 37-mile very hilly time trial will be a key stage for Armstrong especially if he can hang with the other contenders on the climbs.
The official route of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California is scheduled to be announced this week. We know the start and finish towns for each stage, those were announced this past summer. What we don't is the exact roads the race will take between those towns. Below is part fact, part speculation on the route. Read at your own risk.
Stage 1 - Sacramento. Well it was supposed to be stage 1, but instead of an out-and-back course up into the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento, it looks like the state's capitol will host a prologue time trial.
Stage 2(well, stage 1, but we're not going to go there again)- Davis to Santa Rosa. Exact route unknown. It is not that far as the crow flies between the two towns so there has to be some bobbing and weaving. Rumour has it that the major climbs will be Howell Mountain (2 miles of 9-10%) and Calistoga Road. Unfortunately, these climbs are not long enough to really affect the overall results especially with Howell Mountain coming mid-stage.
Stage 3 - Sausalito to Santa Cruz has the profile to shake up the general classification. No doubt the race will be neutralized over the Golden Gate Bridge and through San Francisco. When the race hits Hiway 1 it will make several detours on its way to Surf City. The first includes Tunitas Creek Road, a testing 2000-foot ascent, but its location at least 50-60 miles before the finish negates its impact. Once back on Hiway 1 at either San Gregorio or Pescadero, the final ascent, Bonny Doon/Pine Flat Road coming only 15 miles before the finish and the screaming descent down Empire Grade past UC Santa Cruz will definitely see a small 10-20 person group at the finish. Will Lance be one of them?
Stage 4 - San Jose to Modesto will most likely feature either Mount Hamilton or Sierra Road, but the over 50 miles of downhill and flats to the finish will neutralize any effect of either climb.
Stage 5 - Merced to Clovis should feature several trips up into the Sierra foothills. I am guessing that Tollhouse Grade just east of Fresno will be one of them, but again, there is enough flat or downhill into Clovis to take the sting out of any of the climbs.
Stage 6 - Visalia to Paso Robles. About the only thing notable about this predominately flat stage is that it passes right past the intersection where James Dean was killed in a traffic accident in 1955.
Stage 7 - Solvang to Solvang. As in every one of the three editions of the Amgen Tour of California, the race will be decided in the 15(or so) mile time trial.Be there or miss out on the decisive stage.
Stage 8 - Santa Clarita to Pasadena. This is a carbon copy of the final stage of the 2008 race. Again, the climbing comes too early to have an effect on the overall.
Stage 9 - Rancho Bernardo to Escondido. This is the final stage and is rumoured to include Palomar Mountain, a nice 4200' climb from Pauma Valley. Unfortunately, as in every other stage except stage 3, it is a long way from the top of Palomar to the finish and any advantage gained on the big climb will need a very, very motivated group of riders to keep it all the way to the finish.
So, there you have it. Fact and fiction. What's real and what's not?
Race organizers announced that the Tour de Georgia will not be held in 2009. While this is the official announcement, I have been talking about the demise of Georgia's premier bike race since late last spring. Most recently, I speculated if Lance's return to cycling could save the event.
It is not fair to blame Lance for the demise of the race. Yes, it is true that the event really blossomed the two years (2004, 2005) when the Texan rode it, but the organizers were unable to build on the buzz. Maybe it is just too difficult to sell cycling in a region where NASCAR has such a stranglehold on the sports community.
I think the organizers have to bear the responsibility for the demise. Last year, the race visited such cycling hot beds as Tybee Island and Savannah where crowds were almost non-existent. However, if you saw the final stage in downtown Atlanta, the site of the 1996 Olympics, there were no crowds there as well. So, either Georgia is just too much about four, and not two, wheels going fast or the race organizers just didn't do enough to whip up enthusiasm.
It was just reported that the title sponsor for the Tour of California, Amgen, will be printing up 60,000 handbooks using cycling to teach core subjects which will be distributed to 4th-6th grade students in schools at the race's 16 host cities. That's a move that has grass roots written all over it.
OK. Maybe this is a case of the cart before the horse and the fact that the Tour de Georgia could never land a long-term title sponsor (this will be Amgen's fourth year at the Tour of California) was really at the core of the problem and not the lack of fan support. But, it could be argued that without the fan support, you can't land a long-term title sponsor. Do I sense a Catch-22?
Whatever the reason, the Tour de Georgia won't be held in 2009. With the recent postponement of the Tour of Colorado, let's hope that all the other major US stage races, Missouri, Utah, etc. are healthy and happy with a long-term title sponsor.
Lost in all the attention given to Lance Armstrong's comeback is the obvious dilemma facing the Texan's long-time bodyguard Serge Borlee. If you didn't know, Serge is a former Belgian policeman, hired by Armstrong to protect him most notably during the rolling chaos that is the Tour de France. Lance had very real death threats and with rather lax security at stage starts and finishes it seemed prudent to have someone watching Armstrong's back.
Now that Lance has been re-united with his long-time director and close friend, Johan Bruyneel, and his F1 speed team (Steve Hed, Scott Daubert, the boys from Giro, etc.) will Serge be returning to Armstrong's posse? Judging from all the recent attention from the media and fans, Lance is still as popular as ever so the need for some extra security is probably warranted.
The problem is that Serge was pretty darn good at his job. So darn good, that after Lance retired, Alexander Vinokourov hired Serge to watch his back. After Vino retired, prematurely, from the sport in 2007, Australian Cadel Evans hired Serge's services for his 2008 Tour de France bid. I was on the receiving end of a not-so-friendly push from Serge when I attempted to talk to Cadel before the start of the stage from Bourg d'Oisans to St. Etienne. I hope you can believe me when I tell you that I meant no harm to Cadel. I was just trying to ask him when on the ascent of l'Alpe d'Huez, did he realize that he had to chase Carlos Sastre.
So, what about Serge? Just when you thought it might be an easy decision, a seven-time Tour winner versus a Tour whiner, along comes the news that Vino is looking to return to professional cycling. What's a bodyguard to do? Please don't ask Kevin Costner. I am certain he is trying to forget that on-screen performance.
But, seriously, where is a bodyguard's loyalties? Can Tony Soprano help us out here? Or is it just a case of who is offering the most compensation. Not that I am contemplating a job in personal protection, I would just like to know how Serge is going to decide for whom is he prepared to take a bullet. Also, It would be good to know so I can tell my editor who I am not going to be interviewing at the 2009 Tour as I bruise easily.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit with Lance 3.0. Who is Lance 3.0 you might ask? Lance 1.0 is Lance Armstrong's early years most notably when he was a professional for the Motorola Cycling team. Lance 1.0 was a pretty good version. He won a World Road Championship, a $1,000,000 three-race trifecta including a US Professional road championship, two stages of the Tour de France, the Belgian Classic Fleche Wallone and totally dominated a couple of Tour DuPonts. Lance 1.0 could ride a bike both here and in Europe.
Lance 2.0 is the post-cancer Lance. All he did the second time around was to win seven consecutive Tours de France. Lance 2.0 was probably an improvement over Lance 1.0, especially if you had a big screen TV and a lot of free time during the month of July.
Lance 3.0 is the current Lance Armstrong. The comeback Lance. Lance 3.0 seems a lot more relaxed and outwardly having fun. It's like this time around he is playing with the house's money. Lance 2.0 proved he could ride a bike. Lance 3.0 is proving that he can have fun riding a bike as well. That's not to say that Lance 1.0 and 2.0 wasn't having fun riding his bike, its just that Lance 3.0 seems to be having more fun.
Which brings us to the San Diego Air and Space Technology Low Speed Wind Tunnel and Lance 3.0's testing session there yesterday. I attended the session as one of a handful of journalists and got to see Big Tex, well, Lance 3.0, in his first time riding against artificial air in almost four years.
One thing that was abundantly clear, Lance 3.0 is pretty darn fit. Keep in mind that this is only November and the serious racing doesn't begin for at least 3.5 months, but Lance 3.0 is on a mission. And his long-time coach Chris Carmichael indicated that his prodigy is as motivated and dedicated as he has ever been.
But, the real question has to be is Lance 3.0 an improvement over Lance 2.0? I don't think that Lance 3.0 is going to win eight consecutive Tours, but if he is having more fun this time around and has found a new level of enjoyment riding the bike then it's no contest.
ps - you can read my report on Lance at the wind tunnel on cyclingnews.com at:
The buzz in the domestic racing scene is that the Tour de Georgia will not be held in 2009. More importantly, it appears that the Tour de Georgia may be done forever. It should be noted that the seeds of the current Tour de name-your-favorite-cycling-crazy-state stage races such as California, Missouri and Colorado were sown by the organization which first promoted the Georgia event. So maybe this is just a passing of the torch, but is it too soon to send the fire westward?
Just as the Peach State was saying bye-bye to cycling, Lance Armstrong announced his comeback into pro cycling. As a bit of a history lesson, Lance's participation in the 2004 Tour de Georgia boosted the event into the stratosphere. When Lance retired in 2005, while the racing fields remained strong, the race declined.
Now that Lance is back in the picture, is his presence enough to revive the seemingly doomed event? Maybe more importantly, should we expect Lance or just his aura to come to the rescue? Clearly, Lance has had an incredible effect on cycling in the United States. It could be easily argued that Armstrong put cycling on the map in America and that he resurrected the Tour de France to boot.
So, is it justifiable to ask Lance to come to the salvation of the sport? Have we been poor stewards since Armstrong retired in 2005 and allowed the sport, as a whole, to decline? This time around, I think we all need to stop trying to hitch ourselves to Big Tex's coattails and figure out a way promote cycling without burdening the 37-comeback king with the responsibility.
The route for the 2009 Tour de France was unveiled yesterday in Paris and all the stars were there including the past two winners Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. At first glance, the route is a huge break from tradition. Normally, the race alternates each year with either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction around France. That means in one year, the first mountains are the Pyrenees and then the Alps follow. The next year the Alps come first, then the Pyrenees.
For 2009, the Pyrenees come first, as they did in 2008, then the Alps follow. Hmm. That's probably no big deal except that it is a break from tradition. Another major change, which was also the case in 2008, is that there will be no time bonuses for any stage finishes. That means that the sprinters will have to earn the yellow jersey from a breakaway and not just by winning the first three or four stages. I wouldn't put any money on seeing Mark Cavendish in yellow even though he will probably win another two or three stages.
What about the critical stages, the mountains and the time trials? On paper the mountains look pretty tame with only three real mountain top finishes. In the Pyrenees there is the uphill finish to Arcalis in Andorra, but on the other two stages it is 20 miles from the bottom of the last climb to St. Girons and the next day it is 30 miles from the bottom of the Tourmalet to Tarbes. It will be very interesting to see how these two stages play out.
In the Alps there is an uphill finish on an up-and-down day to Verbier in Switzerland then after the Tour's second rest day, a big stage over both St. Bernard passes(first the big then the small one, but both are pretty big) followed by potentially the Tour's hardest day which ascends five medium-sized summit before the fast downhill to Le Grand Bornand.
Perhaps the most anticipated stage is the penultimate day when four small climbs soften up the field before attacking the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux. Fireworks will most certainly go off, similar to the race up l'Alpe d'Huez in 2008. If Lance does ride the 2009 Tour, look for him to be gunning for a stage win here, basically the only major French summit where he has never been victorious.
The three time trial, including the 15km prologue in Monaco, are relatively short at 38 and 40km and will definitely play to the advantage of the pure climbers like Contador and Sastre.
So, there you have it in a nutshell. A very different, non-traditional route that, on paper, looks moderate. But, we all know that the Tour always produces a worthy winner and there will be nothing moderate about the racing. About the only question that has yet to be answered is whether we will be yelling "Go Big Tex" on the tortuous slopes of Mont Ventoux.
My buddy Chris Soden owns and manages Pro Peloton, one of the coolest bike shops in Boulder. Last week, we were talking about Greg Lemond's recent appearance at Lance Armstrong's Interbike press conference. Chris, who is also a pretty wise dude as well, wondered why Greg couldn't behave like Hammering Henry Aaron when Barry Bonds was closing in on Hank's home run record.
Unlike Lance Armstrong, who never tested positive for any performance enhancing drugs(PEDs), it is pretty clear that Barry Bonds used steroids for at least several years during his career. And, it is pretty clear that steroids were the drug of choice for the home run hitters in the major league. Given that information there was more than enough reason for Aaron to be upset at baseball's most important record being broken by Bonds.
We will never know how Aaron felt inside, but we do know how he responded publicly. When Barry hit #756 that summer evening in San Francisco, the scoreboard played a video message from Hammering Hank congratulating Barry on his accomplishment. Aaron was gracious in his praise, a true gentleman. There was no hint of negative feelings toward Barry.
It may be argued that Barry and Hank are from different generations and baseball has changed since Aaron set his record way back in the 70's. It also may be argued that Aaron was doing baseball a disservice by not publicly calling out the cheating in the sport and potentially helping baseball clean up its act.
Should Greg have followed Aaron's lead and been gracious about Lance breaking his cycling records? Riders such as 5-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain and arguably the world's greatest cyclist, Eddy Merckx, praised Armstrong when he broke their records. Is there a better way for Greg to accomplish his agenda rather than making direct attacks on Armstrong?
We all do what we feel we need to do and Greg feels the need to hound Armstrong and hammer his agenda whenever possible. I said this in my blog from the 2007 Tour that I would really like to know and understand Greg's motives for his behavoir toward Lance. I don't think he has ever really answered that question point blank which is too bad. Until then, we can only speculate and until we really know, our understanding of the situation is lacking.
Lance Armstrong's comeback continues to make news. Pierre Bodry, who heads the French Anti-Doping Agency(AFLD) has asked Lance for permission to test his urine samples from the 1999 Tour for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). You may remember that back in 2005, under the guise of trying to develop a better test for EPO, the French National Anti-Doping Laboratory(LNDD) tested a bunch of urine samples from the 1999 Tour and claimed that they were, through records provided by the UCI, able to link Armstrong to several of the samples which tested positive for EPO.
Lance disputed the results noting that the samples were six years old raising the question of spoilage and also raising the issue that there was no confirming, or "B" sample, to back up the validity of the results. Armstrong's concerns were valid and it appeared to most Americans that this was just another French witch hunt.
In light of all the allegations an independent investigation into the testing was conducted; the results of the investigation concluded that the French laboratory(LNDD), the French Ministry of Sport and then WADA Chief Dick Pound all behaved improperly regarding the 1999 Tour samples.
Now that Lance is back in the saddle, Mssr. Bodry wants to put the issue to rest by testing the samples in the AFLD lab. In response to the Frenchman's request, Lance issued a public statement basically re-iterating his concerns from 2005 and denying any further testing of his 1999 samples.
I agree with Lance. It has now been nine years since those samples were taken and even though Mssr. Bodry has assured everyone that the samples are not spoiled, I just think too much time has passed to go back and re-visit this issue. It is worth noting that when professional cycling agreed to abide by the WADA code in 2001, one of the provisions in that code was that blood and urine samples could and would be stored for potential future testing. However, in 1999, this provision did not exist, neither did WADA for that matter, so there is no guarantee that there were procedures in place to insure that sample spoilage would not occur.
Also, the lack of a confirming or "B" sample is critical. I am a big proponent of athletes' rights and one of the few rights riders seem to have these days is the ability to request that their "B" sample be tested to confirm a positive "A" sample.
Do you agree with Lance or should he allow his samples to be tested?
I don't want to spend every single blog talking about Lance and his comeback, but the subject is a pretty target rich environment and it makes for very interesting commentary. The topic of this blog is to address some of the comments made by Greg Lemond at the Lance Armstrong press conference last Thursday at the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas.
One of the points Greg appeared to be making was that he felt it was insufficient to just test Lance's biological parameters. Lemond wanted Lance to also be tested for such things as Max V02 and power output. Lemond's comments bring up two interesting points. First, if the UCI, and WADA for that matter, are going to use biological passports as their primary weapon against doping, WADA needs to come up with an official list of the parameters which will be tested. Basically, there needs to be some agreed-to official list that makes everyone feel good about the comprehensiveness of the monitoring.
Secondly, I think it is unfair to Lance to require that his Max V02 and power output be made public. Remember, Lance has stated that the results of all his drug testing will be put on a website for all the world to see. I commend Lance for doing this, but he is taking a bit of a risk in that his public values might give his competitors an inside look into his conditioning. That is why things such as power output can't really be made public. Lance 2.0 has stated that he didn't feel ready for the Tour unless he was generating 6.7 watts/kg. If his power output is made public and it is below that level, his competitors may sense weakness and attack.
Of course, Lance could use the website to provide some disinformation to his competitors, but that would be against the purpose of the site so that is out of the question. If Greg Lemond really feels that the parameters specified by WADA for the biological passport are inadequate, he should take his case directly to WADA.
Lance Armstrong held two press conferences this week, the first in New York on Wednesday and the second on Thursday at Interbike in Las Vegas to announce the plans for his return to cycling. After the dust had settled we now know enough to create an interesting picture. Lance will be riding for Team Astana, re-united with his former Team Director Johan Bruyneel. He will receive no salary for his services, but will be asking the team to pay for certain things, one such item is the cost of his drug testing. His major reason for returning to competitive cycling is to improve the global awareness of cancer.
Lance has asked Don Catlin who ran the WADA-accredited drug testing lab at UCLA to spearhead the testing effort which will be longitudinal meaning that Catlin will monitor a number of physiological parameters over time, looking for abnormal fluctuations which might indicate use of performance enhancing drugs(PED's). This is very similar to the WADA proposal for biological passports. The results of the tests will be posted on a website for all to see.
When it comes to a racing schedule, Armstrong has committed to the Australian Tour Down Under in January 2009 and the Amgen Tour of California in February 2009, but his plans for the Tour de France are not clear at this time.
Armstrong is also creating a U23 development team built around 2008 Beijing Olympian and teen phenom Taylor Phinney. About nine riders are expected to join Phinney with Axel Merckx to be the team director.
There was a bit of drama at the Las Vegas press conference when Greg Lemond asked several questions about the type of longitudinal tests to which Lance will be subjected. While Greg may have had a valid point to make, his rambling style made his questions seem more like a whitch hunt than a direct request for information/clarification. If Greg is sincere in his concerns about Lance's return to cycling, he needs to be more coherent and concise in his questioning. To his credit, Lance handled the whole affair very diplomatically . Hopefully, Greg can effectively communicate his concerns so incidents such as this do not become commonplace.
Obviously, there are many more details forthcoming and we should learn more about them in the coming months. Suffice it to say that Armstrong is back and he has set up a scenario in which there should be no doubts as to whether he is racing clean. Welcome back Lance.
The Vuelta a Espana concluded yesterday in Madrid and Spain's Alberto Contador won his third grand tour claiming the trifecta of the Tour, Giro and Vuelta. Clearly, the 25-year old is the world's top stage racer he climbs like an angel and time trials well enough to limit his losses. Unfortunately for American Levi Leipheimer Contador is his teammate which means that unless Alberto totally melts down in the mountains, Levi is going to have a tough time standing on the top step of the podium.
That's both good and bad. Without a doubt, Levi was the best time trialist at the Vuelta, winning both the races against the clock, and he was clearly the second best rider in the race behind his teammate. Thank heavens team director Johan Bruyneel let Leipheimer and Contador ride without orders in the final TT, it would have totally bogus to ask Levi to throttle his engine. That would not have been right.
There is a bit of history here. Way back in 2001 when Levi was in his first tour of duty with Bruyneel and the then US Postal Service Team, Leipheimer and his teammate Roberto Heras were locked into a dual for third place going into the final TT. Bruyneel let them ride then and Levi bested Heras to claim the final spot on the podium and it was that race which really propelled Leipheimer into the upper ranks of the pro peloton.
If anyone has any doubts as to which is the strongest stage race team in the world, I think that question has been answered. With a win in the Giro and a 1-2 finish at the Vuelta, my guess is that Carlos Sastre is thanking his lucky stars that Team Astana did not get invited to the Tour. Hopefully, that situation will be rectified for 2009.
The Lance angle in all this is that on Wednesday, the 24th, the Texas Tornado will make a public announcement about his future in pro cycling. Recently, Armstrong has been logging some pretty serious training miles in both Aspen and Solvang, the big question is not if, it is with whom? Given his strong ties with Trek Bicycles, the most likely candidate is Team Astana, but where does that leave grand tour champion Contador and Leipheimer?
If Lance has any ambitions to win the Tour again, I think he has to sign with Astana. I think Contador is a strong enough challenger to Lance's ambitions that the only way Lance can neutralize that challenge is to make him a teammate. Lance has a history of doing just that, the most notable example was the signing of Roberto Heras in 2001 after he put Lance in a spot of bother at the 2000 Tour. I don't know what Lance's arrival at Astana will do to team dynamics, but from a purely competition side of things, Contador has to be neutralized.
Of course, all of this is just speculation. We will hopefully get a much clearer picture on Wednesday. One interesting piece of fallout from Lance 3.0 (Lance 1.0 was the Motorola years; Lance 2.0 was the post-cancer years) is that the Tour of Georgia just might be saved. Rumours are that the Tour of Georgia will not return for 2009, but the power of Lance may just be strong enough to keep the Georgia race alive.
While the cycling world is still reeling from the revelation that Lance Armstrong will make a comeback, several other high profile American riders are staging comebacks of their own. However, unlike Lance, who has never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (PED's) both Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton did test positive. Hamilton served his two year suspension and returned to the pro peloton in 2007 with Rock Racing while Landis' suspension ends in January 2009; he has been linked to the Momentum Sports Group which has Health Net as it's title sponsor.
Tyler's comeback got off to a rocky start when he was initially excluded from the Tour of California then at the last minute given the green light to participate. He chose to support his other two excluded teammates Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla and not start as well. His form gradually increased throughout the season and peaked in mid-summer with a win at the Tour of Quinhai Lake a week-long UCI-rated stage race in China. However, his biggest win was undoubtedly the USPRO road championship in Greenville, South Carolina which will enable the 37-year old Boulder resident the privilege of wearing the so-called "Captain America" jersey next year.
Though there is no official verification, Floyd Landis has been linked to team Health Net-Maxxis' management company, Momentum Sports Group. Health Net is discontinuing its sponsorship at the end of 2008, the rumour is that Smith&Nephew, the company which makes Floyd's artificial hip will step in as title sponsor.
While just about everybody is hailing Lance's comeback, both Tyler's and Floyd's return to the pro peloton are being met with mixed reaction. Many are unhappy that two riders, who have never confessed to their doping positives, are back in the fold. Others feel that Floyd's and Tyler's positive results were fraught with enough doubt that they should never have had to be sanctioned in the first place.
Regardless of how one feels the facts are that both Tyler and Floyd will have served the entire length of their suspensions and by the regulations that govern professional cycling, they are now free and clear to return to racing. If the governing body of the sport is able to grant the riders a second chance shouldn't the fans be able to do the same? Even if you feel that they cheated, under the rules of the sport as they stand now, they are allowed to return. Can the fans forgive?
The whole cycling community is buzzing with the recent revelation that seven-time Tour de France champion and living cycling legend Lance Armstrong is reportedly coming out of retirement to re-join his buddies in the European pro peloton. Forget the freefall in the US and world economic markets, this is big news. The 37-year old Texan traded his cleats for running shoes after the end of the 2005 Tour, but after a three-year hiatus this comeback looks to be for real.
Rumours are that Lance's strong showing in the recent Leadville 100 MTB race re-kindled his competitive fire. Armstrong has been using Aspen as his training base and has just recently purchased a place there. Competing in several local and regional races, including the 12-Hour of Snowmass which he won with his three-man team, those who have seen him on the bike say he is as determined as ever to make his return to two wheels a successful one. Lance has been linked to Team Astana being run by the man who directed his seven Tour wins, Johan Bruyneel, though he has scheduled a September 24th press conference to make his plans public.
The big question is at age 37, can the Texas Tornado still be competitive in the European pro ranks? Another question is, after seven Tour de France victories, what does Lance have left to prove on the bike? The question on fitness is really only one that Lance can answer. We all age differently and while no one has ever won the Tour at age 37 (Firmin Lambot won the Tour at age 36 way back in 1922) Lance was the first rider to win the Tour six and seven times and you don't accomplish that without a lot of drive and ambition to complement one's fitness.
When the rumours of Lance's comeback first surfaced about a month ago from deep within the halls of Active.com, speculation was that Armstrong's return would focus on the aspects of cycling, other than the Tour, that the former Discovery Channel rider had not yet conquered. Could Lance become the first American to win the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix the two most revered one-day Classics? Armstrong has shown that he can be competitive in the big one-day races having won the Fleche Wallone and come second in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Amstel Gold, and the Championships of Zurich.
Lance says that one of his major motivations for returning is to spread the word, globally, about cancer. But, if he ends up on Team Astana he will have to contend with Alberto Contador who is on form to win the Vuelta which would give him the trifecta of the three grand tours after his 2007 Tour and 2008 Giro wins.
So, what do you all think about Lance's return to cycling? After having gone out on such a high note in 2005 is this a no-win situation or is there an upside which most cycling aficionados seem to be missing?
ps - whatever the reason, it will be great to have Lance back in cycling. He is a great ambassador for the sport. I, for one, would love to see him go back to his winning ways.