Lance's Main Rivals
Bruyneel has frequently expressed concern about Andy Schleck, a 24-year-old Luxembourger who rides for Saxo Bank. In his first Tour de France last year, he won the white jersey for best young rider — while riding in support of eventual winner Carlos Sastre. Schleck can't time trial well, but he can climb strongly enough that he might be able to use the mountains to make up any time he loses in the race against the clock. He also rides on the same team as Fabian Cancellera, the Olympic and two-time world TT champion who should make sure Saxo doesn't lose much time to Astana in the team time trial. His team director, Bjarne Riis, is one of the best tacticians in the racing game.
Even though he won last year, Carlos Sastre, who switched squads and now rides for Cervelo Test Team, wasn't considered much of a threat to repeat until this year's Giro. Twice during that race, on stages that finished atop mountains, he showed that he could power away from the world's best riders and make the gap stick — just the tactic he used last year, on Alpe d'Huez, to steal the Tour. What's more, the dignified, soft-spoken Spaniard has showed some fire — at one press conference even saying that everything Armstrong said was "bullshit."
Cadel Evans, an Australian who finished second to Sastre last year, and second to Contador in '07, has the pure physical talent to win the Tour. Unfortunately, he always seems to fall just short in the crucial stages and, this year, comes in with a team that doesn't match the firepower of Astana, Saxo or Cervelo. Evans will lose time in the team time trial, and frequently be isolated in the mountains. He'll be on the podium; but most likely not in the top spot.
The Giro's winner, Russian Denis Menchov, is one of those racers who's perenially been mentioned as a likely Tour de France podium finisher without being considered quite good enough to win. Though he's fantastically fit, skilled, and adept against the clock and in the mountains, his resilient, quiet style has been seen as a liability — like Evans he has been considered a rider who can follow attacks but rarely attacks himself.
His brave performance at the Giro, during which he withstood attack after attack by Danilo DiLuca, seemed to raise the art of bend-don't-break to a new level; if the Tour favorites begin savaging each other in the mountains, the steady, unflappable Menchov could end up riding right through them.
But, of course, Armstrong's biggest rival is his teammate. Alberto Contador is considered the best stage racer in the world — and openly talked about by some riders, such as Garmin-Slipstream's David Millar, as possessing the talent and drive that could end up seeing him eclipse Armstrong's record in the Tour. He won the Spanish national time-trial championship, and, Bruyneel says, in the off-season "made a leap" in his fitness and ability — after a season that saw him win the Giro and Vuelta Espana. (The only Grand Tour he didn't win in 2008 was the one he wasn't invited to when Astana was excluded from last year's Tour de France).
Teammate, and Main Rival
To win, Armstrong will not only have to outride Schleck, Sastre and Menchov, but wait for Contador to falter. Going into the Tour, Contador is Astana's leader, which means Armstrong will be able to ride for himself only if Contador appears unable to win — or appears weaker than Armstrong. In practical terms, this will occur only if Contador has a bad day in the mountains, or if Armstrong rides significantly faster in either of the two individual time trials. Both of those eventualities seem unlikely at this point.
The third possibility for an Armstrong victory is the most exciting for fans, and also the least likely. There is a chance that if the two racers are within two minutes of each other when the race reaches its penultimate stage, Mont Ventoux, the Tour could be become a free-for-all. This 103-mile stage finishes with a 13.2-mile climb up the legendary mountain averages a 7.6 percent gradient and ends with an exposed, windswept, sunbaked, lunar-like landscape. It is an unrelenting climb that can destroy a rider having a bad day. Two-time ProTour champion Alejandro Valverde once blew up and lost 40 minutes on Ventoux; Armstong has never ridden to a win there.
The next-and last-stage is essentially a processional into Paris consisting of furious loops around the Champs-Elysees with the sprinters and breakaway artists taking a last shot at winning a stage. No significant time gaps can be affected, which means that, for the overall contenders, the race ends atop Ventoux. Contador likely won't return to Astana next year (his contract is up). Armstrong has talked of forming his own team. They don't have to get along next year, so while there would be immense drama if they begin battling each other on Ventoux, there would be little impact on their future plans.
Sadly, there's almost no possibility a Ventoux shootout will occur between Contador and Armstrong. It's more likely the two of them will work together to fend off Sastre or Schleck. But it's the kind of duel that would go down in history as one of the sport's greatest ever, which keeps fans dreaming about it.
I ran my analysis by Armstrong's coach, Chris Carmichael, on Tuesday: Putting this season's results on paper and analyzing it, I said, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would mention him as a favorite. Carmichael agreed. But I said that the guy I saw in the last week of the Giro and at the Nevada City Classic — forget the lack of top-rank, international competition there, I'm talking about how he looked on a bike — looks like the guy who won the Tour de France 7 times. Carmichael agreed with that, too, quibbling with my assessment here and there over some numbers he wanted to keep off the record, then ended the call by saying, "He's got a chance."
That's all Armstrong — and his fans — are looking for. Everything else, as he's said, will be decided on the road. That's why this year's rendition of the greatest bike race on the planet could be one of its greatest ever.
Lance Armstrong's 10 greatest moments at the Tour de France.
2010 Tour de France
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.