Reasons to stay tuned into the Tour, even if Armstrong won't win
Fans may have lost interest in the Tour de France since Lance Armstrong won't win
Feuds extend way beyond Armstrong and Contador in the dramatic Tour
Riders face one of the toughest stages of the Tour on the second-to-last day
SAINT MAURICE, France -- Okay, people, you've had a couple days to come to terms with the cycling's New World Order. How's the grieving process going? Coping okay? Did we have a bit of a sulk on Sunday? For a lot of yellow-braceleted faithful, that day marked the death of illusions and wishful thinking; the moment Alberto Contador ("Contador le Matador" as L'Equipe dubbed him) rode into yellow. And he did in a voracious, merciless, effortless style that: 1) evoked a young Lance Armstrong; and 2) suggested very strongly that he'll be sporting the maillot jaune all the way to Paris.
While most of the podium threats in Tuesday's Stage 16 finished in a solid bunch, 59 seconds behind stage winner Mikel Astarloza, it's not quite accurate to say there was no blood. Sadly, the redoubtable Jens Voigt, who crashed heavily on the descent -- looked like his front wheel lost traction on a painted stripe in the road -- and was taken to the hospital. His Tour is over.
Figuratively, Cadel Evans was dropped by Voigt's Saxo Bank teammate Andy Schleck, who supplied the day's main drama by attacking on the whimsically named Col de Petit-Saint-Bernard. There was nothing puppy-like about the mountain (a first-category, 26-kilometer slog), or petite about his losses: the Aussie hemorrhaged another three minutes, and is now so far from the podium that it looks like a piece of dollhouse furniture to him.
Not so for Armstrong, who was initially dropped by Schleck's attack, but who fell a half minute behind before putting on the kind of show that used to come so often that it spoiled us: standing in the saddle, he attacked his group of hurting chasers, powerfully and dramatically bridging back up to Schleck & Co. By doing so, he preserved his second place in the overall classification, 97 seconds behind Contador, but just nine seconds ahead of the most improbable resident of the top 10: Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins, an eccentric Brit who has long excelled in time trials and in the velodrome (he's the two-time defending gold medalist in the Individual Pursuit), but who all the sudden is climbing as if he had wings.
If Armstrong wants to stand on the podium with Contador, he'll need to chase down more attacks tomorrow. Andy Schleck in particular will be desperate to gain time, and Stage 17 into Le Grand-Bornand is the nastiest of this Tour: five categorized climbs that will afford the talented Luxembourger many opportunities to test his rivals. A Saxo Bank source told me outside the team bus this morning to keep an eye on Schleck on the near-vertical Col de Romme, the fourth of those five mountains. Yes, it's come to this: we're discussing Armstrong's chances of finishing in the top three. Following Sunday's fireworks on the Verbier, the Texan graciously conceded what we'd seen with our own eyes: he can't climb with Contador, and gave his word to work to keep the jersey for his team, if not himself.
What happens now? Will stateside viewers tune out by the tens of thousands because an American isn't going to win the race? No way, right? We're not that narrow, that myopic, that incurious. Are we? Herewith, four reasons to keep tuning into Versus to hear honey-tongued Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen make sense of the terrible beauty that is the Tour:
1. Phil and Paul -- and Bobke and Craig Hummer and Frankie Andreu and the rest of the Versus crew. Before flying over here for the last week, I'd been devouring the coverage, and finding it top-notch, a dramatic improvement on even a few years ago. I like the money the network is spending to put remote cameras in team cars. And even though they make strange bedfellows, Andreu has done a terrific job debriefing Armstrong before and after each stage.
Better still, I'm seeing fewer Enzyte commercials this year. I get tired of my son asking, "What's that stuff FOR, anyway?"