There was Lance Armstrong on the Champs-Élysées, describing his relationship with soon-to-be ex-teammate Alberto Contador as "complicated." Which you should feel free to interpret as, "I would run down the list of mind games I've tried to play on the guy, but it's complicated." Blink, and you missed their let's-get-this-over-with handshake on the podium on Sunday. Next to these guys, Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini at midfield is a veritable bro-down. ¶ Contador won the 2009 Tour de France the way Armstrong used to win it: by demoralizing his rivals on the first beastly mountain stage, then blowing their doors off in the final time trial. (And just as the Texan's dominance raised suspicions about whether he won his seven Tours clean, the Spaniard found himself on the defensive with reporters last week, no-commenting three times during a single press conference.) The truth is, Alberto looked more like Lance than Lance.
Two months shy of his 38th birthday, six months after his return to the sport from which he'd retired in 2005, Armstrong bore no more than a passing resemblance to the Velo-Terminator whose M.O. for seven years was to bleed the suspense from this event before it reached its midpoint. That Armstrong is gone. Until the mountain that mattered most, he was dropped on the most daunting climbs. He finished 10th and 16th, respectively, in the two individual time trials. But his ability to elbow his way onto the podium despite those deficiencies, to cadge precious seconds using his veteran's guile, was one of the most sublime elements of this Tour.
Even as it gave Armstrong more than a few moments in the sun, this Grande Boucle served as a celebration of youth. Armstrong finished 5:24 behind Contador, 26, who has now won a pair of Tours de France, and 1:13 behind runner-up Andy Schleck, a 24-year-old prodigy from Luxembourg whose sharp, repeated attacks before a half-million people on Mont Ventoux on Saturday neither ruffled Contador's composure nor propelled Andy's older brother, Frank, ahead of Armstrong and onto the podium.
For the second straight year the flat stages were owned by Team Columbia Highroad's Mark Cavendish, 24, cycling's best pure sprinter in a generation. The former track rider from the Isle of Man won an ungodly six stages. Field sprints are usually decided by inches. Cav routed the field on the Champs by a Secretariat-like 30 yards. The Manx Missile might have taken the green sprinter's jersey had he not been sent to the back of the pack in stage 14 for trading paint with his rival Thor Hushovd of Team Cervélo. Cav was cited by the race commission for "irregular sprinting," a catchall offense that implies, incorrectly, that there is anything "regular" about the rolling street brawl that is a field sprint.
This punishment led to a measure of bad blood between Columbia and Cervélo. But juicy as it was, that contretemps didn't have anything close to the staying power or entertainment value of Lance versus Alberto.
You could see it coming last September, when Armstrong announced his comeback. The news broke while Contador was dominating the three-week Vuelta a España, and it put the Spaniard in the absurd position of defending his stature as Astana's leader even as he was winning his third grand tour in two years.
All along, both riders said the right things. In February, Armstrong denied that a subpar Tour performance might dim his legacy. "No," he replied. "If I go to the Tour and ride selfishly, if I ride against somebody, and we all lose, that will hurt the legacy."
Armstrong and Contador arrived in France preaching team tactics, all the while eyeing each other warily. Armstrong drew first blood, alertly slipping into a 29-man breakaway at the end of stage 3. That group—which did not include Contador—took advantage of a sudden gusting crosswind to gain 41 seconds on the main bunch. Had Armstrong intended to gap Contador? Not in the slightest, he said with a straight face. "I turned around and was surprised there was a split."
Contador joined the battle with a bit of unauthorized freelancing in stage 7, which began with Armstrong a fraction of a second off the lead, poised to ride into the yellow jersey. Gambling that he could leapfrog the Texan and grab the jersey for himself, Contador attacked in the final kilometers of the climb up Andorra's Arcalis mountain. Bound by cycling's unwritten rule that you don't chase down a teammate, Armstrong hung back, watching his last, best chance for yellow fade with each pedal stroke. Contador's attack "hadn't really been part of the [team] plan," Armstrong said later, "but I didn't expect him to go by the plan, so—no surprise."
Less defensible was Contador's machismo-fueled gaffe on stage 17. On the final climb of a five-mountain stage, the Spaniard found himself at the front of the race with the frères Schleck and Andréas Klöden, a German teammate on Astana. Knowing the Schlecks would "go full gas to the finish," Astana manager Johan Bruyneel says, he instructed Contador to sit on their wheels. "You don't have to attack [today] to win the Tour de France," Bruyneel told him.