Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Le Tour

I do not proclaim to be an expert on pro-cycling. I know enough to be dangerous with respect to the tactics. I know enough about the names – Sastre, Contador, Cavendish, etc – to be knowledgeable, and to intelligibly follow the race day to day.

This year marks the return of Lance Armstrong, after a three year layoff after having won seven consecutive Tours. There has been a lot of hype surrounding his return- what kind of shape is in… Does he have the legs to win another Tour.. is He crazy etc etc.

Now that the Tour is in full swing, the hype surrounds Lance – the Michael Jordan of pro cycling- and his heir apparent, the 2007 Tour winner, Alberto Contador.

On paper, its a wash, in my opinion. Lance brings year of experience to the Tour – that much is obvious. He has also shown that he performs well under pressure, and he has fended off some of the greats in pro-cycling to claim the Tour victories. We also know that he has the best cycling engineering people in his corner; in years past, Lance has assembled a team of folks called “Project One.” Nike, Giro, HED, and Trek all came to the table with their best and brightest R&D people. Lance uses technologies so cutting edge that most of it will never be introduced to the consumer market. We’re talking stuff like skin suits with a super-low coefficient of drag; new types of frame materials and construction; extensive wind tunnel testing. He has one of the best trainers in the world – Chris Carmichael. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

However, Lance is 37. That’s old (very old) in a sport dominated by young riders.

Alberto Contador is 26. He has a Tour Victory under his belt, and he was some Grand Tours as well. He possess all the talents that Lance had in his prime, and he has got age on his side.

So the hype has been growing and growing for the last two weeks – Contador versus Armstrong – who will suceed. What complicates this argument is that they are on the SAME TEAM. And what makes the situation even better is that the Director Sportif (team manager), Johan Brunell, is Lance’s former manager from US Postal and Discovery – the two teams with whom he won all seven of his victories. So one has to ask who’s “side” Johan is on.

In any pro-cycling team, there can be only one leader – the rider who is expected to be in contention for the victory. Everyone else on the team works for the leader and there are many roles that each individual team member performs. Going into the Tour, the question on everyone’s mind was “Who will be the leader of this team?” It was an open question as the Tour began, and through the first ten stages, there was no clear answer. The stages in the first week of the Tour are usually flat and boring. The real fun doesn’t start until the race enters the Alps, about mid-way through the Tour.

So here we are, at Stage 16. Yesterday, on Stage 15, which was the first day in the Alps, Contador took the yellow jersey by out climbing Lance. The cycling world was ablaze with the news that Contador attacked, and the invincible Lance Armstrong couldn’t counter. A day after, Lance is quiet. He says he didn’t have the legs he thought he would have, as he historically has had in the Alps.

In my opinion, he’s too quiet right now. This is not the Lance that won seven Tours. I cannot imagine that at this point, Lance is going to put his tail between his legs and cede the race to Contador. There’s something brewing… I can feel it. Lance has shown, in years past, that he is patient to a fault. He’ll wear you down slowly, minute by minute, mile for mile. He’ll crack you mentally and physically. I think now is the point that he’ll start playing the patience game, waiting for just the right moment to pounce – to find an ungodly climb in one the upcoming stages, and stick right on Contador’s wheel the whole way up- so close that the kid will hear Lance breathing in his ear. Lance will start playing his mental mind tricks. He’ll never grimace in pain, even though at his age, he might be suffering worse then he has in any other Tour previously. He’ll be as cool as cucumber, all the while in his mind he’ll be telling Contador that this is his race- Lance’s race. This is where he made his bones, and you’re not gonna win unless you pay the Boss his dues.

And Alberto will know that this is exactly what Lance is thinking, and that’s the mind trick.

And only when Lance has had enough, only when he feels Contador has paid his dues, will he relent, and let the kid have his victory.

Lance might not have the legs to win, but his end-game is to show everyone that he still can go to toe with toe with this young punk, case closed, end of story.

Regardless of whether I am wrong or right, I don’t think Lance is as done as the media portrays him to be, or has he portrays himself to be.

Stay tuned. This might (hopefully) get interesting. We’re now in the Alps, and this is Lance’s territory – it’s his “home field.”

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