If anything was established on the fourth day of the Tour de France, it was that Lance Armstrong is not God.
Not because on the fourth day he didn’t create the fish and the fowl. But because on a day where he could have claimed the Tour lead and assumed the yellow jersey, Armstrong saw his Astana team come up one-tenth of a second short in the team time trial.
Still, the man who defied death, recovering from cancer to become the greatest champion in Tour history with seven straight triumphs, now seems intent on defying age. At 37, returning to competition this year after three-and-a-half years of retirement, and bouncing back from a broken collarbone earlier in the season, Armstrong is now in a virtual dead heat for the lead. And he appears to have convinced most everyone that he is not just along for the ride, but a serious contender for victory.
It is a long way and a long time — more than 3,000 miles and 19 days — to Paris so any definitive projections are premature and specious. About the only thing that now appears clear is that this race could get ugly.
Ugly, of course, kind of defines the Tour’s recent history when drug scandals, including the first-ever disqualification of a Tour winner, American Floyd Landis, overshadowed the races. While the French fans have welcomed Armstrong back with open arms and his presence undeniablely adds luster to the Tour, French authorities saw his comeback as an unwelcome reminder of a tarnished era. That feeling was compounded when he joined Astana, a team that was banned from last year’s tour because of drug violations. (Astana is now under new management.)
Given that so many riders were cheating with performance-enhancing drugs back in Armstrong’s heyday, the French brass never accepted that Lance could have beaten all comers for seven consecutive years as a clean rider. But while there was both circumstantial and anecdotal evidence that pointed the finger at Armstrong, there was never conclusive proof that he cheated. (The French, at one point, claimed that new tests on old Armstrong samples had revealed the presence of illegal drugs, but the scientific protocols and the chain of custody made the evidence suspect.)
French authorities must be distraught at Armstrong’s strong early showing and undoubtedly would never accept that a 37-year-old — the oldest man to win the race was 36 and that was back in 1922 — could win, indeed could even contend, without resorting to illegal drugs. But Armstrong can only do what he has always done: deny any allegations and point to the fact that he has never failed a drug test.
Beyond that now familiar melodrama, there’s also a good ugly in this year’s race — at least good for fans whose interest may not be rooted in the technical aspects of cycling. There’s a soap opera playing out on the Astana team and it is heating up by the day. When Armstrong joined the team, it already had a notable team leader in Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour champion who, at 26, is considered to be in his racing prime.
Armstrong made appropriately polite noises about how he was just privileged to be back competing and riding in such illustrious company. And he indicated that he was more than happy to play a supporting role in the Tour de France, as he did for teammate Levi Leipheimer earlier this year in the Tour of California. So Contador was designated the official team leader, wearing its number-one jersey, when the Tour commenced last Saturday.
But the unspoken caveat was “as long as he proves himself worthy.” And on the third day of racing, when a group from rival Team Columbia broke away from the pack, Armstrong was one of the few prominent racers who didn’t get trapped far back amid the dense mob in the peloton. As a result of his racing savvy, Armstrong leapfrogged from 10th place to third, one spot and 19 seconds ahead of Contador (and another 12 seconds ahead of Leipheimer, who had slipped to 10th).
The comments of the two Astana stars were reasonably muted. Still Armstrong’s accounting of what happened — “good positioning, experience, a little luck” — appeared to contain some suggestion of a lesson for his younger compatriot. And Contador seemed not entirely pleased, though he would not have been happy with that result even if Armstrong hadn’t been cruising ahead. “I’m not going to evaluate the team strategy because everyone will draw their conclusions anyway,” Contador said afterwards. “In any case, the Tour won’t be decided by what happened today.”
Armstrong wholeheartedly agreed with that assessment. But when Astana lined up for the 24.2-mile, team time trial this afternoon, all talk was now of its co-leaders. And because of Monday’s result, Armstrong was the co-leader positioned to reap the biggest reward, the yellow jersey, if Astana came through with a big win.
Indeed Astana looked like Team Harmony as it cycled to a big win — just not big enough. For Lance to wear yellow, Astana had to beat the Saxo Bank team with Tour leader Fabio Cancellara by more than 40 seconds and only surpassed its rivals by exactly 40 seconds.
Cancellara ought to be able to keep wearing yellow for a few more days, at least until the weekend when the Tour leaves Barcelona and begins three tough days, almost 450 miles of mountainous terrain through the Pyrenees. And at the point, the race will be wide open and should begin to reveal the contenders as well as the pretenders.
Armstrong’s early performance certainly suggests he is among the former. But his race could prove to be remarkable and still fall short of serious contention. Today may have been Lance’s best chance to wear the yellow jersey one last time.
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