The Tour de France 2009 could have been a bell-ringer. It had as much if not more raw talent than most tours, especially in recent years, and the big gun of Lance Armstrong to draw international attention back to cycling. It was a killer course, laid out to maximize drama and intrigue as well as treat an international TV audience to cycling at its best.
But on a day-to-day, stage-by-stage basis, there was a lot more promise of action than real fireworks. When you think about it, the Tour was decided by a single attack: Contador’s predictable run-up to Verbier, giving him a decided edge. The Schleck brothers’ inspiring attempt to wrest control on Colombiere was heroic, but no one was going to beat Contador this time around. Otherwise the Tour strategy was mostly “defend and stay out of trouble.” Astana “controlled” the peloton, and Contador “controlled” the Schleck brothers. On the rare occasion when Contador did attack, he got criticized for breaking team strategy of a 1-2-3 podium in Paris.
You had to love the Schlecks, whose motto was “we will try till we die.” And they delivered. Their guts brought them no glory and their pain no gain. But their efforts were the standouts of the Tour, and their slogan beat to hell the Contador/Astana strategy of “We will control while we roll.”
I wish I could get behind Contador as a great champion. He certainly deserves it, but something about the guy just doesn’t make you want to stand up and cheer. Maybe it’s just too easy for him, or maybe it isn’t but he just makes it look that way. In any case, the Schleck brothers’ attacks will be the enduring memory for me from 2009. Perhaps because they were underdogs and fought and fought while Alberto just seemed to cruise, they proved themselves champions as much as The Pistol.
In the media and general public’s mind, though, 2009 won’t be remembered as much for any of the racing as for Lance’s comeback. Taking third (assuming the results stick for now and stay stuck in the future, unsullied by drug scandal) and reversing his reputation with the French were both huge triumphs for the Austin powerhouse. I call out Lance a lot for grandstanding about his 7 yellow jerseys and whining about drug testing, but I respect his gutsiness when the cards are down. And you have to love that black helmet and his black socks! There’s something to be said for ridin’ ‘n stylin’!
For all his comeback heroics, Lance never once attacked in the Tour of 2009. On the course, Astana helped him more than the other way around. And in that single fact, I find hope for next year’s Tour.
More than any other factor, team dynamics enervated this year’s edition. Any team with two Tour winners, a two-time runner up and a four-time Top Tenner is going to dominate. The problem is that all those favorites on one team means few or no real individual attacks. The team is going to come first, preventing breakaways by standouts like Contador and Armstrong and Kloeden and Leipheimer. Ditto for the same-team Schlecks: Having to watch out for each other, the brothers never seemed to really cut loose individually. Earlier in the race it was Frank trying to spur Andy on; going up Ventoux it was Andy holding back in hopes brother Frank could breach the gap.
Without these allegiances, the Tour would have been a far different race. Next year, it should be. Lance already has announced a different team. Let’s hope Contador does not follow him onto Radio Shack (he’s saying he won’t). These two make far more exciting rivals than partners. Lance will try to cannibalize other teams as well to surround himself with the best. But as long as AC and the Schlecks and Tony Martin and Bradley Wiggins and whoever else (Christian Vande Velde?) emerges as a potential star stay on different teams, we could have a barn-burner on our hands in 2010. Let’s hope so. A race as grand and glorious as the Tour deserves fiercer competition than we got this year.