By Sally Jenkins
Monday, July 13, 2009
As strenuous as the Tour de France is, the main action has become psychological. The presence of Lance Armstrong on the road vying with the gifted younger rider Alberto Contador adds a taut personal dynamic to a great race. There aren't too many occasions when we get to watch champions of separate generations pass each other in time, much less ride alongside one another in state of barely concealed tension. When will the big move come? Which of them will be forced into an auxiliary role?
Armstrong is trying to regain his preeminence at 37, Contador is impatient for recognition at 26, and they are both on the same Astana team. No matter who wins -- and it's conceivable both could lose -- Armstrong's nagging ability to remain in contention has defined the race and set the audience up for a denouement next week in the mountains, perhaps on the cold, bald face of Mont Ventoux. "This tour goes down in the Alps," Armstrong says.
If Armstrong isn't quite the rider he once was, what with the wages of time and retirement, he's still the savviest one in the field, who knows where the pressure points are in the three-week ordeal. Contador seemingly has limitless physical resources, which he spends freely, surging up a mountainside like a storm in reverse, with a huge ego and competitive desire to show everyone he is in charge.
Those qualities are reminiscent of a bullheaded young rider from Texas I wrote a book with 10 years ago. Reason says Armstrong can't beat Contador physically, so he will have to beat him with his head. Can Contador restrain himself from making mistakes of super-aggression? Will Armstrong bait him into a tactical error? Does Armstrong really still have it in him to win? Does it matter? If nothing else, he's one hell of a foil.
Armstrong's vaguely defined role of elder statesman on the Astana team unquestionably bothers Contador, who is accustomed to having teammates work exclusively on his behalf. He must wonder what Armstrong's real designs are, especially since the Astana team director is Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong's longtime accomplice in winning seven Tours.
During the seventh stage Contador mutinied against them, contravening an agreed-on defensive strategy to launch a teeth-bared attack on the final climb to the summit of Arcalis ski station in the Pyrenees. It accomplished relatively little in terms of the race action, but it may have landed a psychic punch. The move showed off Contador's stunning ability to heave his bike up a mountain, and put Armstrong in third place for the moment. Armstrong stayed behind, following orders, but observers wonder if he could have caught Contador had he tried.
"I wouldn't say that I could have easily followed, because it was an impressive attack," Armstrong said.
Five-time tour champion Bernard Hinault had predicted Contador would attack Armstrong on his own, "to set the record straight and show him who's the boss," he told Reuters.
But did he? Since then, the situation between them has been laid bare. When Versus network commentator Frankie Andreu asked Armstrong whether the team was at odds over Contador's breakaway, Armstrong didn't want to talk. "I'm going to refuse to comment on that," he said. But he added, "At the end of the day, we're all professionals -- and even if there were some hurt feelings, we're going to do our job."
Armstrong has said of Contador, "Great talent, but still a lot to learn." He has also insisted, "If Alberto is better, I will ride for him." Now, think about those statements for a moment, and how they must sound to Contador. What they suggest is that Armstrong isn't persuaded yet Contador is better than him.
To a superb young athlete who has done a couple of things Armstrong never did -- he has won the Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain, one of only five riders in history to do so -- it must sound galling. This Tour by rights should have been all about Contador, who is clearly, incontrovertibly the next great. Instead here is this grizzled boot-faced Texan hanging around, suggesting he's still raw and it's not quite his time yet. Armstrong even said on Sunday he might ride in one more Tour.
I don't know how all this will turn out, but I'll make one prediction: Contador may resent it right now, but in years to come he'll appreciate the fact he rode as an equal with Armstrong in this race. Love him, hate him, or suspect him, Armstrong is a competitor of towering mental strength and cuts an indelible figure of bravado on the bike when he dances above it, as someone once remarked, like a cat climbing a tree. Contador will be glad that he had at least one chance to measure himself against that.
For all the love of underdogs and upsets, the one thing a sport can't survive without is a standard-bearer. Whether Armstrong wins or not, he has made this year's Tour what it is -- in the same way Tiger Woods makes every tournament he plays in, or Roger Federer defines a tennis event.
Commentators can claim to be bored by the eclipsing dominance of an individual without peer, but without the standard-bearer, events happen without context, and are impossible to appraise. Pete Sampras met Federer head-to-head just once, in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2001, when Sampras was waning and Federer wasn't yet at the height of his powers, but anyone who saw it instantly realized what it meant. Sampras lost, 7-6 (9-7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (7-2), 7-5.
Take nothing away from Padraig Harrington, but the British Open he won last year came with an asterisk, because Woods was home in bed. We don't need Woods or Federer always to win, but we need them to compete against and define suitable successors, or else their sports make no emotional sense.
Armstrong creates intrigue, and that may be temporarily unpleasant for Contador, and make the race more difficult for him to win. Contador won't have seven teammates completely deferring to him, and he will face challenges and tensions other riders don't have over the coming days.
But that's why audiences are tuning in when they haven't in past years. If he wins, the victory will be amplified and validated by Armstrong's presence. And if nothing else, he'll always be able to say he raced against the guy who remains undefeated against cancer.