Back in the beginning of the millennium, I watched the Tour De France religiously. I, like all Americans, became enthralled with Lance Armstrong. At first, because of his miraculous recovery from testicular cancer. Then, because he became the greatest rider in the history of The Tour.
The races almost became comical. Lance would pick his spots, mostly in mountain stages and time trials, and then impose his will on the powerless pentalon. Year after year, he dominated. It became almost automatic that he would win the toughest race in sports.
Yes, there have always been and always will be allegations of doping. I even gave into the belief that Lance was juicing.
What was lost in all the doping allegations is that Lance Armstrong created a blueprint for how to win the Tour De France year after year after year. He never got in serious crashes. He knew exactly when to attack and when to stay back. He proved himself as a master tactician. Above all else, he never bonked. When he needed to summon a sixth gear, he always had it. When one of his main rivals attacked, he followed suit.
When he announced his comeback after a four year absence, even I was skeptical. It reeked of another egotistical athlete who just couldn't walk away.
But, in the first six stages, there he was in second place just a half second behind the leader.
I became curious.
In spite of all the danger.
In spite of being 37 years old.
In spite of being away from the sport for four long years.
In spite of being the most drug tested athlete on the planet.
There he was at the head of the pack.
Then came today's race. Stage Seven. The first mountain range.
And all hell broke loose.
Lance was set to put the yellow jersey on his back.
Fabian Cancellara, who held the yellow jersey for six great stages, was fading badly. The play was set. Lance would officially be in yellow just like the yesteryear's.
As if set in a Shakespearing drama, he was knifed in the back by his own teammate - Alberto Contador.
Yes, that Contador.
The winner of the 2007 Tour De France.
The winner of the 2008 Giro Di Italia.
The man many call the 'Next Great Thing' in cycling.
The man who is a teammate of Armstrong on the Astana team.
With barely a kilometer left, Contador, against team orders, launched his own attack and launched up the mountain.
Armstrong didn't follow.
Contador gained 22 seconds and is now two seconds ahead of Armstrong in second place.
A cut so cruel.
Armstrong played it down and merely said he was being a good teammate and following team orders.
Read between the lines.
Armstrong is furious. And a furious Lance Armstrong is a dangerous thing—even at 38 years old.
It's anyone's guess what will happen next.
Does the Astana team follow the lead of Contador? He of youth and flash and brilliance and, some say, the future of cycling for the next five or six years.
Or, do they risk alienating Contador and ostracizing him from the team to secure a victory for Lance?
No doubt that Armstrong and Contador don't like each other. It's been a mini-drama for months on who would be the leader of the team.
My bet is that Team Astana falls into place behind Lance Armstrong—even at the risk of alienating Contador.
Lance Armstrong is still the biggest name in cycling.
He has the ear of the sponsors, team management, and many of his US teammates.
He gets ratings and he gets an interest in cycling after four horrible years of almost every top rider being tested positive for doping.
Perhaps they tell Contador to hold back this one year and secure a victory for Lance. He's still young and has many, many Tour victories ahead of him?
I don't think Contador will go for that. I think he wants to take down Armstrong because nobody else has.
But what a story for Lance Armstrong. Even if he doesn't win, it has me wondering if, perhaps, he was clean all those years?
One thing is for sure—the race just got extremely intriguing simply because of the animosity between the two biggest stars in the sport.
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