With all the hype surrounding the big question — can Lance Armstrong win the 2009 Tour de France? — it's been easy to overlook the fact that, until just two weeks before the Tour, a more basic question hadn't been answered: Can Armstrong win a professional bike race at all? Before he won the Nevada City Classic on June 21, not many people seemed to remember that, since announcing his comeback to professional racing last September, Armstrong had been winless.
The Comeback, So Far
In the Tour Down Under in January, he looked, as he'd predicted before the race, "nervous," and finished 29th overall. The next month, in the Tour of California, he crashed two days in a row and finished seventh overall, without winning a stage. In March, he finished 125th in the Classic one-day race Milan-San Remo then, just days later, crashed in the first stage of the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and, for the first time in his life, broke his collarbone.
After mending, he finished second, with no stage wins, in New Mexico's Tour of the Gila in April. Gila is a big event on the U.S. calendar. But it's not recognized as a top-level race by cycling's governing body, the UCI, which emphasized its opinion of Gila by enforcing a rule that prohibited Armstrong and his two American teammates, Levi Leipheimer (who won Gila) and Chris Horner, from competing in their Astana uniforms.
In May, in the three-week Giro d'Italia, Armstrong rode his way into such impressive form that eventual winner Denis Menchov took note. The quiet Russian praised the 37-year-old American for "showing strength that is impressive for a rider who took years off and had an accident just weeks ago." But the seven-time Tour de France winner still finished 12th overall, again with no stage wins and nearly 16 minutes behind Menchov.
For most cyclists, coming into the Tour de France with results like this and still being talked about as a contender is akin to a boxer meriting a championship bout on a record of nothing but losses and draws. But Armstrong has never been judged in comparison to fellow cyclists; he's the kind of athlete, like Michael Jordan, who can only be fairly measured against himself.
As he rode into shape throughout the first half of 2009, steadily dropping upper-body weight, developing his legs and cardiovascular system and re-attuning himself to the rigors of riding in a pack, his competitors began to genuinely speak of him as a Tour de France threat despite his winless season. "He will ride the Tour like no one else because he has the experience of seven Tour de France wins," Ivan Basso told Cyclingnews.com in late June. "He will go like a beast."
The Elusive First Win
Even so, Armstrong and his Astana team director, Johan Bruyneel, never forgot that he hadn't yet won — and they seemed to want to secure a victory. In the last stage of the Gila, Leipheimer and Horner first destroyed the field with savage climbing over several mountains. Then, instead of simply riding away from the small group that had survived their attacks (which included Armstrong and a few other lower-level pros), they held themselves in check to try to set up a stage win for Armstrong. In the end, though Leipheimer and Horner sheltered Armstrong until the finish line was in sight, he was outsprinted by Phil Zajicek, a young racer for a small team called Fly V, who termed the day "the biggest win of his life."
At the Giro, in the morning before the start of the short, but mountainous Stage 17, Bruyneel outlined a strategy that would bring home that elusive victory. Armstrong had only to stay with the main contenders as they winnowed the race down and formed a small lead group.
Then he would let them patiently attack each other, and, if it became apparent to them that none of the leaders could escape, they would then allow a rider like Armstong, who was so far down in the standings he would have no effect on the lead, escape to win the stage.
Armstrong made the lead group, waited out the attacks (which did prove futile), then took his shot at escaping. Unfortunately, a stronger non-contender, Franco Pellizotti, employed the same strategy — and won.
All of this may explain why, just two weeks before the Tour de France — the defining event of his comeback — Armstrong took the risk of racing the Nevada Citys Classic's 1.1-mile loop, which has more than 100 feet of climbing per lap and has two tight, high-speed, dangerous corners. Leipheimer attacked within the first two laps, then Armstrong bridged. The only rider to follow was Bissell's Ben Jacques-Maynes, who grimly hung onto the two teammates, unable to move to the front and take a single pull, as they lapped the field. "I was just hoping to hang on," said Jacques-Maynes afterward. With six laps to go, Armstrong rode away for the win. At the finish, a smiling, overjoyed Armstrong said, "The atmosphere, just the last, sort of celebration lap, people running in the streets, I've got to tell you, it damn sure made my Father's Day."
A psychological boost? Sure. A message to his rivals (including his own teammate, Alberto Contador)? Maybe. But it's more likely that Armstrong's first comeback win was more effect than cause: It came because he was finally ready. His body had taken on the unique physiology of a stage racer: Since dropping about five more pounds since the Giro, his legs were rippling with muscles while his arms looked scrawny.
More to the point: He navigated the dangerous course with confidence and ease. Since his comeback, the doubts about Armstrong, among cycling's cognoscenti, at least, had been less about his fitness than his bike handling. The pros racing alongside him had routinely decribed him as stiff, tight, nervous. After his crash in the Vuelta Castilla, several young pros expressed the opinion that Armstrong didn't even seem to belong in the pack. It's clear, now, that Armstrong won't cost himself a Tour de France win.
Lance Armstrong's 10 greatest moments at the Tour de France.
2010 Tour de France