The 2009 Giro d’Italia is history, with Lance Armstrong finishing in a solid and respectable 12th place, 16 minutes off the pace after a middle-of-the-pack showing on the final rainy stage. Now all eyes, and maybe even the traveling soap opera that has become Team Astana, shift to the Tour de France, starting July 4 in Monaco.
I have to hand it to Lance: Although he fell short of general expectations, he did better than I expected. Considering he was basically riding to draw media attention to the Giro (and, as always, himself), and in protect-mode for the Tour (no more crashes!), twelfth is a commendable showing.
Yes, he said he was aiming to win. Then he said he would “be happy” with a stage win. All things considered, he’s undoubtedly pleased with a non-DNF. (Side note: Lance being Lance, he’s already engaged in revisionism re his Giro showing — see link below.)
One might assume that Lance is now primed to pounce on the Tour and bring home a record 8th, having honed his conditioning with the Giro warmup. Expect the media buzz to say just that, with a lot of speculation about Lance’s chances for a triumphant return to Paris.
In our continuing role as hype degreaser, we have just three words: Ain’t gonna happen. But that doesn’t mean Lance won’t have had a successful summer campaign. He’s gotten cycling back onto the TV and the pages of daily newspapers, all of which means big money and success for racing and his cancer foundation. For that, he is to be congratulated.
Of more concern is Lance’s crashes — one each in his past three races. Only the collarbone mishap was major, but crashes like this were things the Lance of old had no trouble avoiding. They’ve been crashes of fatigue, where the brain is too tired and reflexes too trashed to stay on point. His latest, touching a wheel and going down, could have been far worse. He landed on the side opposite his repaired shoulder and reported just some soreness and stiffness.
The crashes, combined with Lance’s instigation of the “Slow Ride” protest of a “dangerous” criterium stage in the Giro (all criteriums are dangerous, that’s what brakes are for), suggest his challenges are not entirely physical. Accidents inevitably make a rider more cautious, and the Tour will have its own “dangerous” stages.
Our best guess is that Lance will again ride for ceremony’s sake, sucking up the adulation of fandom, promoting his foundation and doing what he can for the squad, which won’t be all that much. Astana’s A team, including last year’s Giro winner and 2007 Tour victor Alberto Contador (he had to sit out last year’s Tour due to no fault of his own), stayed out of the Giro this year to “focus on” (rest up for) the Tour. The Giro is a great race, but it’s still just a warmup to the Tour. Among the big boys, Lance’s glory will be PR more than stage results.
If anything, Lance’s return has shown that what cycling really needs is another Lance Armstrong. An American No. 1 who can galvanize support for the sport in the U.S. while boosting media and commercial interest in the Tour, Giro and Olympics. You have to have icons in this day and age to ensure ongoing youth and junior development. Greg Lemond got the ball rolling back in the 1980s, Lance picked it up in the latter ’90s.
There are promising signs that “legacy Lances,” young American riders, are in the food chain — in particular Taylor Phinney, the son of another world-class American cyclist, Davis Phinney (Taylor is nicknamed “mini Phinney”). Taylor is recording some head-turning results, just today having won Paris-Roubaix in the under 23 class.
Lost in all the current ruckus is Lance’s original motivation for returning to racing. Last summer he got his hind end handed to him by a local hero, Dave Wiens, at the annual mountain bike enduro race, the Leadville 100. Lance vowed a return engagement for 2009 following his European tour, and is registered for the race.
It may be his best chance for a victory this year. He’ll have the conditioning of the tour under his belt, and his shoulder should be a non-factor by race day, Aug. 15.
But mountain biking, as Lance himself knows (having one year competed with mediocre results), is a different beast from road racing. There’s very little successful cross-over, and where there is, as in the case of Cadel Evans, Michael Rasmussen and Floyd Landis (a 2007 Dave Wiens victim who may also race Leadville this year), the transition goes the opposite direction: From top mountain biker to road racer.
Hopefully Lance will avoid another crash or other injury jeopardizing the Leadville event, because ultimately, that may be the Lance Armstrong race to watch in 2009.
Bike Radar: Lance feeling “strong” for Tour, engaged in active revisionism re his Giro placement