Armstrong readies to race Contador in 2010 Tour de France
With the Arc de Triomphe in the distance and a sea of fans along the roadside, Lance Armstrong stood on the final podium at the Tour de France, two spots below his accustomed place.
Armstrong won this race every year from 1999 to 2005. This time, he was third, behind the winner Alberto Contador of Spain and Andy Schleck of Luxembourg. But for Armstrong, 37, it was a victory, even though he fell short of crossing the finish line first.
"I did my best," Armstrong said before the 21st and final stage of the race Sunday, which is typically a ceremonial ride to the Champs-Elysees for the top riders. "I came across some guys who were better than me. That's all I could ask for."
With Armstrong at this Tour -- a 3,459.5-kilometer, or 2,150-mile, race through four countries and two principalities -- the race commanded more worldwide attention than the last three Tours did. Those races had gone on during his short-lived retirement.
Hollywood stars like Robin Williams, Ben Stiller and Matthew McConaughey dropped in, paying a visit to Armstrong, the most famous American cyclist. And this time, the race was in the headlines for good reasons, not bad.
Though Armstrong has been dogged by doping allegations throughout his career, particularly in France, his return to the sport after a three-and-a-half-year break overshadowed that.
Also, for the first time in at least four years, there were no positive doping cases. Here, despite whispers, the Armstrong-
Contador rivalry -- not the sport's lingering doping problems -- made headlines as the Astana teammates challenged each other, mentally and physically, kilometer by kilometer.
"Rivalries, like Armstrong-Contador, Borg-McEnroe, Federer and Nadal -- it doesn't matter who -- are what feed sports," said Christian Prudhomme, the Tour's director. "And Contador and Armstrong gave us a duel. In France, when we have this rivalry, every time there is a good guy and a bad guy. I'm not saying which one is which."
Armstrong, the brash Texan, is no longer invincible. He is an underdog now. He also is the oldest rider to finish in the Tour's top three since the 40-year-old Frenchman Raymond Poulidor did so in 1976. The picture of Armstrong chatting with other riders during the final stage was far different from the ultra-focused and cold rider fans once knew.
"I don't know if it's true, but this is the image that everyone saw at the Tour," Prudhomme said. "It's going to change everything from now on."
But Contador's supremacy this year, beating Schleck by 4 minutes 11 seconds and Armstrong by 5:24, caused questions about how he did it.
In particular, his amazing performance on the steep climb in Verbier, Switzerland, raised eyebrows, even though he is known as the world's best climber.
"It is like a Mercedes sedan winning on a Formula One circuit," Greg LeMond, the three-time Tour champion, wrote last week in the newspaper Le Monde. "There is something wrong. It would be interesting to know what's under the hood."
Contador also had to address allegations of doping the last time he won the Tour, in 2007, when he was suspected of involvement in a Spanish doping ring. The suspicions were never proven. This time, he responded by saying that he was always available for drug testing.
Despite the doubts, Contador, 26, still appeared ecstatic as he made his way from Montereau-Fault-Yonne to Paris during the 164-kilometer final stage. Britain's Mark Cavendish won the stage, his sixth victory of this Tour.
Contador sat back in his saddle and sipped Champagne with his teammates. He grabbed a Spanish flag from a fan and tied it around his neck, letting it fly behind him like Superman's cape.
As he headed to the podium, his struggle with Armstrong and the other top riders was far away. Like a carefree boy, he skipped there. And for the first time at this Tour, he smiled so widely that he showed his dimples. As his archrivals flanked him, it was Contador's time to rejoice. "It has been an especially difficult Tour for me," Contador said, "but I savor it and it is more special because of it." Armstrong's return has changed the landscape of cycling in the United States.
General memberships in USA Cycling, the national governing body for American bicycle racing, grew about 5.5 percent per year during the time Armstrong won the Tour from 1999 to 2005, said Steve Johnson, chief executive of USA Cycling. When he retired, the membership dropped by 3.5 percent to 4 percent annually. With Armstrong back in the peloton, Johnson said the membership growth was back at 5.5 percent.
"I don't think it's a coincidence," Johnson said. "It's pretty clear that now he's back and there's an increased awareness." Next year, Armstrong will ride not for Astana -- based in Kazakhstan -- but for Team RadioShack, a new team based in the United States. On Saturday, Contador said he would not be joining him. Contador is heading to a new team that has not been announced yet. On the eve of the final stage, Armstrong was already thinking about next season. He did not celebrate Contador's victory, cemented by a grueling climb up Mont Ventoux during the penultimate stage on Saturday.
"To be honest with you, went to dinner with the RadioShack guys," he said, adding, "Had a few more glasses of wine than I normally would." Johan Bruyneel, Astana's team manager who is probably heading to Team RadioShack, said he understood that both riders needed their breathing room. Bruyneel and Armstrong say that Contador is talented enough to win more Tours after this one. Still, they criticized Contador several times for going against team orders.
In one example, Contador took off up a climb, leaving his teammate Andreas Kloden, who was struggling. That ruined Astana's chance at a podium sweep, Bruyneel said. Contador said it was an honest mistake. "When there are two champions who want to win, of course there's going to be tension, but we were able to manage it within the team," Bruyneel said.
Written by Juliet Macur
Source: (C) 2009 International Herald Tribune.
Re-publication from Hispanicbusiness.com