With Lance out of the picture after 2005, I’d almost forgotten how boring the Tour de France can be. Year after year in his historic run-up of wins, Lance assembled the strongest team and then “controlled” the race, to yawningly predictable outcomes.
The past few Lanceless Tours got back to real racing, with no single rider controlling the peloton and no predictable winner just putting in the miles day after day. But with Lance back in the saddle this year, the racing has been timorous, uneventful and bland.
The turning point came when Armstrong announced his comeback and “chose” Astana as “his” team. Contador was already locked in and immediately threw a fit. We spectators can only rue that Alberto didn’t win his case and keep Lance off the team. With Lance and Levi and AC all “working together,” other race favorites have so far thrown in the towel.
Nowhere was this clearer than in Cadel Evans’ heroic attempt to goose the peloton in yesterday’s mountainous stage. A disgusted Evans later accused his fellow breakawayers of acting like “a bunch of whining three-year-olds” — scared of the main group, afraid to lay it on the line — and they were soon reeled in.
Today’s stage was stupefyingly unaggressive, with opportunities on two steep climbs for someone, anyone, to assert himself. Instead we had hour after hour of the “slack pack,” with no favorite even hinting at an attack. Even Twitter went comparatively quiet, with some tweets expressing frustration over the lack of action.
When two mid-list riders break away early and continue ahead to the finish, you know any of the race leaders are capable of the same or better. What a shame to deprive the world of real cycling while Lance and his bros “control” the race.
To be fair, the blame is not entirely on the 7-time Tour winner. The system enables and allows a dominant rider to vitiate any real competition by collecting other favorites around him. Somehow there should be a rule limiting a team to one race favorite apiece. Imagine what a different, and exciting, Tour this would be if Lance, Levi and Contador were all heading different teams.
The scoring system also could be changed to mix things up a bit. Mathematically it might be tricky, but a system that put sprinters, climbers, team results and TT specialists on equal scoring in the overall standings would add huge intrigue to the race. By segmenting each cycling discipline, the Tour loses diversity and day-to-day rejiggering of race leadership.
Maybe if this is Lance’s last year in the Tour, racing will get more interesting next year. It’s also true that we still have two weeks of racing to go, and in upcoming days the mountains could shake things up.
But for that to happen, the Astana dynamic will have to change. Someone will have to try to lay his body on the line, and get some others to join him. Someone will have to say to himself, other challengers and the cycling audience of the world, it’s better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all.