Lance is back, and still the star
Lance Armstrong began his comeback with the Tour Down Under last month
Though he trails in the Tour of California, he's drawn a record crowd
Despite nasty weather and a stolen bike, Lance is more relaxed this time around
CLOVIS, Calif. -- Tony from L.A. was badly outnumbered. A rotund bloke in a cycling jersey that fit him like a sausage casing, he was leaning over the asphalt in front of the Rabobank bus near the start of Stage 4 of the Tour of California. In orange chalk, he was spelling out the names of the Rabo riders such as Robert Gesink, Oscar Freire and Peter Weening.
Did he have Dutch roots? "Nope," replied Tony, looking up from his work. "I just like orange."
Yellow was the dominant color at the start of Wednesday's fourth stage, just as it has been the dominant color at this race, just as it was the dominant color at last month's Tour Down Under, where Lance Armstrong kicked off his comeback after nearly three years out of the sport.
Yesterday's stage started in Merced, in the Central Valley, then went uphill for nearly 4,000 feet into the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, well above the snow line. If you are indifferent to "The Comeback," if you've grown weary of the did-he-or-didn't-he debate, if you think Armstrong is unjustly siphoning attention from other deserving riders, than you, -- like Tony from L.A. -- would be in the distinct minority at this race.
It is Armstrong's compact and versatile teammate, Levi Leipheimer, who leads this race, the result of a sensational effort in Stage 3 into Santa Cruz. In a maelstrom of rain and hail on the day's final climb, Leipheimer rode the best cyclists in the world off his wheel, taking more than three minutes out of then-leader Francisco Mancebo of Rock Racing, while, in the process, seizing the lead he is unlikely to relinquish. Leipheimer, of Santa Rosa, Calif., has won this race two years running, and is looking good for the trifecta. The race ends Sunday in Escondido.
To be fair, there were a fair number of signs along yesterday's route saluting and exhorting Levi. But this is a Lance crowd, pure and simple. The focus of the fans constituting what has been by far the largest turnout in the four-year history of the T.O.C. (850,000 spectators through Stage 4) -- including the Gorilla on one of yesterday's climbs; the Grim Reaper, Batman, Elvis and the old, familiar jackass with the longhorns sticking out of his helmet -- has been fixed on one guy in particular. It helps that Armstrong's Foundation has a crack advance team that is handing out little boxes of yellow Livestrong chalk; that they are distributing slick placards bearing the borderline-melodramatic slogan, "Hope Rides Again."
But the truth is, these people don't need prompting. Planada Loves Lance. North Fork Loves Lance. Mariposa, too. Welcome to Ahwanee, Lance. Oakhurst Physical Therapy Loves Lance and the Tour. And so on into Clovis, whose every citizen, it seemed, lined the route into town to welcome an old friend.
There is the danger in writing about Armstrong of giving short shrift to the guys who are actually animating this race. Riders like this sport's next superstar, Team Columbia-High Road's immensely gifted sprinter Mark Cavendish, winner of Stage 4. A hard man from the Isle of Man, Cavendish gratefully accepted a masterful lead-out from his teammates, then did his part, unleashing the purest burst, the most formidable acceleration in cycling. And Cavendish, who won four stages of last year's Tour de France, knows it. "When they dropped me off with 200 meters to go," the 23-year-old concluded afterward, "there's really only gonna be one outcome."
Such self-assurance at such a tender age calls to mind the brashness of a certain youthful Texan, who brought plenty of game but zero politesse to the peloton when he started racing in Europe nearly two decades ago.