Armstrong in an uphill battle against teammate, field in Tour
On the cusp of taking yellow jersey, Armstrong was denied by teammate
Alberto Contador's sudden burst left no doubt of his feelings toward Lance
There's a lot of race left, but Armstrong will be hard pressed to earn eighth win
Recall, if you will, Bernard Hinault's terse message to Lance Armstrong five years ago, after the Texan drained much of the suspense from the 2004 Tour de France by winning his third straight alpine stage. "No gifts," declaimed the Badger. Implicit in those words: a pro bike race is a knife fight, not a bridal shower. There is no place in it for charity or sentimentality or mercy. No gifts. Lance-o-philes loved it so much they put it on a T-shirt.
There came a moment on Friday's seventh stage of the Tour, near the summit of the Andorran mountain Arcalis, when Alberto Contador exemplified that cold ethos. With an echelon of Astana riders at the front the main bunch three miles from the finish, sentimental favorite Armstrong was the leader on the road. Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellera, suffering through his final minutes in the maillot jeune, had been spit out the back many switchbacks below.
We were about 10 minutes from one of the feel-good moments of the summer. No matter where Armstrong ends up on the final day of this Tour, at the end of his audacious comeback, this was going to be a Hollywood ending in its own right. On the cusp of his 38th birthday, the seven-time Tour winner would once again ascend a podium at the race he owned for so long, to accept a bouquet and the busses of leggy podium girls. We won't presume to read the inscrutable mind under that brushcut, beneath the half moon scars carved into his skull a dozen years ago, but one must assume that even a single day in yellow would have made this entire comeback worth it.
But Contador wasn't feeling generous. Would it have KILLED Contador to keep his powder dry for upcoming mountains, to have finished the stage with his teammate, Armstrong; to allow the Texan his day in the sun? Of course not. We have been told repeatedly that all is harmonious and well between the dueling alpha males on the Astana bus -- Lance and this proud young Spaniard. But it is a measure of the strained relations between them that Contador dropped the hammer on Armstrong, and everyone else, a few kilometers from the summit.
This is a 3,500-kilometer sufferfest that unspools over three weeks. But I saw all I needed to see in a 12-second interval in the final minutes on the Arcalis. With surprise winner Brice Feuillu of Agributel already across the line, with general classification threat Cadel Evans uncorking periodic, futile attacks that Contador had little trouble marking, the Spaniard did what he does better than anyone in the world right now. With his chain on the big ring up front, he stood on the pedals and launched himself up the road like an F-18 off an aircraft carrier.
Contador went into this stage needing 20 seconds to pass Armstrong in the overall standings. For good measure, he got 22. After a bit of general confusion, which Versus commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen filled with their usual aplomb, we learned that neither Astana rider would don the yellow jersey on this day. It would go to the Italian rider Rinaldo Nocentini, who had been allowed to escape in an early breakaway because he poses no long-term GC threat, and whose reign in yellow will be a brief one, indeed.
It was interesting to hear Liggett and Sherwen praising Armstrong, as Contador rode away from him, talking up the Texan for his stellar teamwork. Armstrong was "playing the team game," Sherwen assured us -- that is, by not matching his teammate's incredible acceleration, Armstrong was "blocking" Evans and Andy Schleck and the other GC threats.
Left unsaid: No one in that main group, no one on earth, could have matched Contador's burst. The dude was going so fast, after about seven pedal strokes, that he nearly collided with a Silence-Lotto rider ahead of him. He almost rode up the tailpipe of a race motorcycle. He had to slow down to avoid nailing the barricades when the road turned.
"When you've got a guy away" -- a teammate up the road -- "my obligation is to the team," Armstrong told Versus' Frankie Andreu. Lance then spoke of how the wind was not his friend today, and how Arcalis wasn't really his kind of mountain. He pointed out, quite correctly, that there are still plenty of climbs to come.
The problem is, we've now seen Lance and Contador in both a time trial (the prologue) and a mountain stage. The Spaniard has spanked his elder rather decisively on both occasions. While Contador may have the better legs, the Texan has proven the superior tactician, stealing 40 seconds in Stage 3 by making damn sure he was included in a late stage breakaway that caught the rest of the peloton -- Alberto included -- napping.
Contador was diplomatic after that fiasco. But it was almost certainly on his mind as he powered under the flame rouge and through the final kilometer, in a stark demonstration of the difference between himself and a near-38-year-old who spent four years out of cycling.
Was that a rictus of agony crossing Contador's fine features as he poured it on for those final, excruciating second? Partly. But I also saw flashes of a cruel smile that seemed to say, among other things, "No gifts."