2009 Tour de France - Final Thoughts

by Jack  

This year's Tour de France just ended with Alberto Contador (Astana) winning his 2nd yellow jersey by a comfortable margin. It was a drama filled 3 weeks, more for the psychological battles between Contador and teammate Armstrong than for the various exploits on the bike. As expected, Contador won by showing he is the world's best climber and, at least at the Tour, the best time trailist. He easily distanced himself from the competition and cemented his role as the world's best stage racer. But the path to Paris was filled with controversy, confrontational rhetoric and unknown team loyalties. Like it or not, Lance Armstrong is still (and probably will continue to be) the biggest name in cycling. A name that draws money as well as crowds. It's often a love hate relationship between Armstrong and the sport of cycling but a relationship that, for now, both need. Here's my impression of this year's Tour de France, one that promises to go down in history more for Lance Armstrong's third place than Alberto Contador's first place.

1. Team Astana
It's hard to argue that this is perhaps the greatest team ever assembled on paper for a stage race. Astana included 2 past Tour winner's and 2 past podium finishers. It included some of the best domestiques in the sport, one's that can lead a team themselves if they were not on Astana. But once you get past the list of members, what do you get? You immediately see a lot of conflicts of interest. You see 3 or 4 very competitive riders that are winners in their own right. You have a 7-time Tour winner that believes he can win every time he sets his wheels in France. And you have what people believe is the best stage racer of this generation who has been the hot favorite for this win all along. In a sport that relies heavily on team support, just who would the team look after? Would it be Lance, Alberto, Levi or Andreas? As we saw, the conflict was real, the tension was high and at end, the issue was settled on the bike and not in the press room. As Lance said himself, the strongest rider will be the team leader.

2. Alberto Contador
What can I say about him? He was impressive, clearly showed he was the strongest and deserved every minute of glory he got by wining his 2nd Tour. Contador showed he was cool under fire, both on the bike and off, and gave me a very positive opinion about his psyche. I feel that he did his best to not get involved with the rhetoric that was created by Lance, Johan and Levi so that all of his actions happen on the road, where it counts. With that said, I do question some of this tactics that made him seem more like a loose canon than a team player. We will never know if he truly defied team orders on the way to Arcalis but we surely can see what happened when he decided to attack on the Col de la Colombière. Instead of distancing his two rivals, the Schleck brothers, he dropped his only teammate, Andreas Klöden. Klöden, more than any of Astana's big 4, clearly showed he can be the true teammate and overlook his own ambitions. When Contador dropped him, he made himself vulnerable. Of course we know that nothing bad happened, but Astana just might have swept the podium if Andreas could have stayed with Contador and the Schlecks. But we'll never know.

The day after the Tour ended, Contador gave a press conference in his home country of Spain. There, the gloves came off and Contador really told the world what he felt during the Tour and how he felt about Armstrong. He finally confirmed, on his end, that there was tension in the Astana camp and took a few pot shots at Armstrong in the process. While his feelings towards Armstrong would not surprise most people, Contador clearly showed a lack of respect for his teammates. It almost seemed like he forgot his team set him up for this win. It was his strong team that gained valuable minutes during the team time trial and it was his team that kept him out of the wind. This lack of respect might forever change a lot of peoples opinions about Alberto, including me.

3. Andy Schleck
This guy will win the Tour one day. He can clearly climb with the best, he's just bad at time trailing. Once he works on this discipline, he will have a better chance. In this day and age, gaining more than a couple of minutes on your next rival in a mountain stage is rare so being able to keep up during the Tour's long time trials and not lose a lot of time is crucial.

I would have liked to see him not worry too much about getting his brother Frank onto the podium on Mount Ventoux though. I felt like he could have put Contador in a bit of pressure if he didn't wait for Frank. At the end of Stage 20, we all saw a bit of strain in Contador's face so it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Andy kept upping the pace all the way up the climb.

4. Lance Armstrong
I'll be honest, I'm a fan of Armstrong. I'm a fan of Armstrong for the same reason I'm a fan of Greg LeMond (and Andy Hampsten). Both Armstrong and LeMond put cycling on the map in the US. LeMond was the first American to win the Tour back in 1986, clearly laying the ground work for the next generation. Armstrong then brought cycling into the next level with his 7 successes and his comeback from cancer story. This year is no different. When a sports icon comes back from retirement or injury, most people are curious to know what would happen. Armstrong came into the Tour with a lot of question marks. Will he win? If not, how would he perform against these young guns? Can he prove his critics that he races clean? I think most people would agree that he answered each and every one of those questions. He showed that he can duke it out with the cream of the crop of this generation and he can do it with complete transparency. Not winning did not destroy his legacy. It, in fact, completed it. It showed his skeptics that he can come back and compete at the highest level and legitimized his 7 victories at the same time. I look for an even stronger Armstrong next season, backed by a team just as strong as Astana and a dog fight between him, Contador and the Schlecks. (This is assuming Andy Schleck is not on the same team as Armstrong, which has been reported.)

5. Bradley Wiggins
I love this story. This is a story of perhaps the greatest track cyclist of this generation making the huge and often difficult transition to road racing. Wiggins was best known for his time trialing prowess, specifically the shorter distances as they were the most comparable to his track disciplines. This year's Tour opened everyone's eyes, including his, to his talents as a grand tour contender. He already showed some glimpses of hope at this year's Giro but it wasn't until this Tour that he confirmed what he can actually do by losing 6 kilos. There have been reports that he will devote everything these next 2 seasons to winning the Tour. If he does, he'll be the first British rider to win, ever. But reality is, I think it could be a stretch for him to win because he's still a grade lower than the top climbers (Contador and the Schlecks) but he certainly can continue to improve.

6. Mark Cavendish
Best sprinter by far and he will continue to be because of his young age. Enough said.

7. The Tour route
I felt the route this year was very unbalanced. We had a very exciting time trial to open the race but the next 2 weeks, bar a couple of stages here and there, resulted in some boring racing. The most interesting part of those weeks was not what was transpiring on the road but what was said in the papers between Armstrong and his clan and Contador. The Pyrenees proved to be very indecisive. Except for Contador's lonely attack to Arcalis, the Pyrenees looked more like training rides for the racers. But the organizers got what they wanted, which was an unknown Tour podium until the next to last day. With the Alps came exciting racing and the Ventoux proved to be exactly what everyone had hoped. Most people knew it wasn't a battle for first but certainly the rest of the podium were still up for grabs.

It's true that it's the riders that make the race hard but everyone knows that if you put the Tourmalet more than 50 kilometers from the finish, you will get a very fast training ride instead of a Tour de France GC battle.

Final Comments
I'm not surprised Contador won, but I'm disappointed with how he's handled the situation with Armstrong since the Tour ended. If Contador wants to be the new "boss" of the peloton, he needs to show some respect to his teammates because without them, he may never win another Tour again. I was happy to see the success of Andy Schleck but it was no surprise. Everyone will be watching his progression during these next few years and wondering if it will result in a Tour win. Most believe it will. Lance Armstrong truly did ride like a grand champion. Besides the sometimes amusing statements he would make regarding Contador, Armstrong did almost everything right. He showed that he is human, was able to bring mass media back to the Tour again and probably showed everyone that he is still the Boss regardless of whether he wins the Tour or not.

The final day in Paris did nothing for me but make me wish July 2010 was right around the corner. With Contador and Armstrong on different teams, the Schlecks, Wiggins, a healthy Levi Leipheimer and hopefully an in form Christian Vande Velde, next year's Tour just might proof to be the most exciting Tour we've had since 1989. Now, how about a final time trial into Paris to close the race?

Top 10 Final General Classification
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Astana 85:48:35
2 Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank 0:04:11
3 Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana 0:05:24
4 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Garmin - Slipstream 0:06:01
5 Fränk Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank 0:06:04
6 Andreas Klöden (Ger) Astana 0:06:42
7 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas 0:07:35
8 Christian Vande Velde (USA) Garmin - Slipstream 0:12:04
9 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas 0:14:16
10 Christophe Le Mevel (Fra) Française des Jeux 0:14:25

PS. Notice the French guy sneaking into the top 10? Could this be a revolution?

PPS. I'm keeping the Lance or Alberto poll up for a bit longer since there continues to be more drama since the Tour.

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2009 Tour de France - Final Thoughts

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