By now, it’s clear that Lance Armstrong is not riding his final Tour de France with the goal of protecting his RadioShack team’s highest-ranked rider, Levi Leipheimer, who is seventh in the overall standings, 5:25 behind the yellow jersey of Alberto Contador.
Supporting Leipheimer was one of the potential goals Armstrong mentioned when he fell out of contention for the podium after crashing three times in Stage 8 and losing more than 11 minutes to the Tour’s top contenders.
His entire team, in fact, is riding in a way that indicates they are primarily focused not on sheltering Leipheimer but on winning the team classification — a ranking based on the times of the first three riders of each team who finish each day. If RadioShack maintains its 4:10 gap over Caisse d’Epargne in this category, they will get to stand in front of the crowd during the awards ceremony in Paris and earn 50,000 euro.
The other goal Armstrong listed is to win a stage. His ongoing slide backward seems to offer proof that this ambition is still intact. His team manager Johan Bruyneel says that instead of working hard during the most crucial moments of each stage for a minimal creep up the standings, the 31st-placed Armstrong is better off keeping his legs fresh for a potential escape attempt.
Thomas Voeckler started the Tour in the situation Armstrong found himself after Stage 8: with no chance to get on the podium. Voeckler, too, was focused solely on winning a stage. On Monday he did it. Whether or not Armstrong achieves the same, his uninspiring methodology of keeping his legs fresh will never match the verve Voeckler brought to the pursuit.
Voeckler began the Tour by finishing the prologue time trial in 187th place, 1:31 down. Armstrong was fourth, 22 seconds behind winner Fabian Cancellara, and five seconds ahead of Contador.
In Stage 7, Voeckler was one of the animators of a counterattack on the first real climb of the Tour (a Category 2). It was this breakaway that the stage’s winner, Sylvain Chavanel, bridged up to on his own, then eventually rode away from. Voeckler hung on to finish in a small group seven seconds ahead of the top contenders of the time, including Armstrong.
The next day, Voeckler suffered the effects of his effort, finishing 34:57 behind the stage’s winner. He rode in the “autobus,” the ragtag collection of sprinters and exhausted racers who band together and time their procession to finish just fast enough to avoid being eliminated from the Tour.
On Stage 13, when Alexander Vinokourov launched his race-winning move on the withering final ascent to Mende, Voeckler leaped from the pack to give chase — and cracked wide open by riding to exhaustion in no-man’s land, within eight seconds of Vino but never much more than five in front of the pack. He finished 72nd.
Once again, Voeckler paid a high price for his ambition. The next day he limped to the line 27 minutes behind the winner — nearly 12 full minutes behind the measured effort of Armstrong.
On Monday, Voeckler rode himself into a break of 10 that got away about 100 kilometers into the 187.5-km day. On the final climb of Port de Bales, an 18.87-km, 1,755-meter-high mountain with gradients above 11 percent, Voeckler attacked the break, soloed over the crest, then descended the final 19km on his own to grab the elusive stage he’d been fighting for all Tour.
Maybe in strict terms of probability and strategy, Armstrong is doing the right thing by saving his legs day after day. After following him closely last year for his comeback season, being inside his team car during critical stages of the Tour, Giro and other races, and in addition gaining insight into the tactical practices of Johan Bruyneel while co-writing his biography, We Might As Well Win, I do not suffer from the armchair critic’s delusion that I know better than Armstrong what to do in this situation.
Even if I did imagine that I understood the game of bike racing better than he and Bruyneel, Armstrong’s legacy has earned him the right to race however he wants to. No matter how prolific and how learned my advice and opinions, I am absolutely aware that I can’t help Armstrong. But I also can’t help being disappointed in how he’s riding out his final Tour, stage win or not.
Le Tour 2010
Top images from the three-week cycling showcase in France.
2010 Tour de France