Climbing the mountains

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Call this just a brief interlude from the All-Halladay-All-The-Time business. Later this afternoon we roll up to Reading, Pa. to take a gander at Kyle “The Deal Breaker” Drabek before wading into to the deep end of the rest of the deadline comings and goings.

So first this, then Reading, San Francisco and points Continental.

First of all, I don’t speak French. From the sounds of the language, it seems a little easier to follow than Spanish, which is something I can piece together as long as the speaker goes slowly and uses some words I can attach some sort of context to.

Sometimes it works, but sometimes it goes terribly, terribly wrong. For instance, one time I tried to say, in Spanish, that I was hungry and it came out as, “I want a man.” That wasn’t what I meant at all, but hombre and hambre are two similar sounding words that mean two completely different things.

Anyway, there was a French commentator on the radio the other day commentating on the big bicycle race. To be more precise, it was the penultimate stage of the Tour de France where the riders climbed the otherworldly-looking Mount Ventoux. Reports indicated that there were one million people lined along the switchbacks of the mountain that probably helped to freak out the riders even more. If it wasn’t a serious climb above the tree line over terrain that looked like the dark side of the moon, or the oxygen debt mixed with the lactic acid buildup, the fact that the riders had already completed approximately 2,000 miles of the trip from Monte Carlo through the Basque country, into the Alps and Provence before finishing at the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Helluva way to spend three weeks.

However, according to the translation of the French commentary, the word coming from Mount Ventoux was more awed than respect.

Lance Armstrong est courageux masculin.

Not sure if that’s correct vernacular, but that was the sentiment. The French were celebrating Lance Armstrong as if he were Charlie Lindbergh or Jerry Lewis and it was the strangest thing. After years of spitting at him as he rode by on his bike, and claiming that the chemotherapy treatments he had undergone when he nearly died from cancer was “performance-enhancing,” it appeared as if they finally warmed up to the 37-year-old Texan.

How could that be?

Maybe it was because Lance could be painted as a victim of sorts during the 2009 Tour de France. You know, because surviving cancer and rumors of doping wasn’t enough. This time, the seven-time winner of the biggest race in the world, overcame ambivalence from race directors eager to keep him in retirement and off the previously banned team Astana. Then there were the 11 doping tests during the 21 stages of the race that came after the charade of a claim that he attempted to dodge a drug-tester. That stuff was brie on a baguette compared to the surgery in which he had 12 screws fused into his collar bone after a wreck during a race in Northern Spain. That was the hardest part of the comeback.

“Lying in the ditch in that situation … You sort of ask yourself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” Armstrong told ESPN’s Bonnie Ford. “I don’t feel that way today, necessarily, although I’m still in a lot of pain and ready to get this behind me. It was a shock.

“To go as long as I have without having anything like this happen is basically a miracle. … It was bound to happen. It’s not good timing, but it certainly could be worse. And I look at it from a different perspective, too, just from the curveballs my health has thrown me in the past. Laying in that ditch with a shattered collarbone is a lot better than other health scares I’ve had.”

Fair enough, but it seems that really turned around the French was the hard-nosed ride up Mount Ventoux last weekend. Lance didn’t win that stage, but that was beside the point. The French seem to favor guys who are valiant in defeat than guys with talent who win. Though to call the Mount Ventoux ride a defeat is not totally accurate. Lance finished fifth, but rode in support for eventual Tour victor Alberto Contador. When Contador needed a boost or a helping hand, Lance was there to carve out a path. When Contador needed someone to run interference, Lance was there.

Lance was the highest profile domestique in the history of the race. He did everything to ensure Contador’s second Tour victory except fetch water bottles.

Here’s the thing about that – he didn’t have to. If Lance wanted to win the race, he surely could have. With a team as strong a Astana, the ’27 Yankees of cycling, all Lance had to do was find a way to get Contador to fall into line and get after it. Even after Contador inexplicably surged ahead during the early stages of the race to put a time gap between himself and the rest of his team, Lance let it slide.

How come?

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Well, as first reported by Bonnie Ford, Lance had a plan. Ever Machiavellian, Lance was busy breaking up the band in the middle of the concert. Next year the seven-time champ will likely be the main man on the newly formed Team Radio Shack. He’ll take team manager Johan Bruyneel with him and possibly even top American rider, Levi Leipheimer with him.

Contador? Well, he’s on his own. It appears as if the proclaimed top rider in the world will be the man on a new Spanish team. It’s not confirmed but since the cycling world leaks like a sieve it appears as if this is the way it’s shaping up.

Nevertheless, Lance will get to take on Contador mano-y-mano in 2010. Both men will be busy putting together the best teams (maybe Lance will get George Hincapie, the American who turned in the greatest 75th place finish in the history of team sports during the Tour), but don’t look for anything less than another great rivalry.

Maybe even some slippages in political correctness.

After the (spectacular) coverage on VERSUS was lauding Contador as the strongest rider in the world and a great champion of the race, ex-rider Frankie Andreu asked Lance if his soon-to-be former teammate had any weaknesses

“Yes,” Lance said. “He has some. But we’re not going to talk about them now.”

If only he would have fiendishly wrung his hands together, too.

’27 Yankees meet the ’09 Team Astana

image from fingerfood.typepad.com So last night I was up living the life and decompressing after the trip home from Atlanta that took me through Charlotte to Baltimore before finding my car intact at the BWI Marriott, and just skipping through the channels on ol’ tee-vee. That’s what I do late at night when everyone else is in bed and I’m knee-deep in baseball hours and too tired to read or write.

Anyway, the Versus channel had a show on called, Lance Armstrong: The Look Back, but when glanced at quickly on the scroll all it said was, “The Look.” That alone made it sound like a pretty good show. After all, Lance was known for flashing that Look in the peloton during his seven victories in the Tour de France, and the lead-in to the program showed that moment when he was riding toward his sixth victory when he turned all the way around in the saddle, stared right into the face of Jan Ullrich to challenge him before he rode off.

Actually, Lance did a little more than simply challenge Ullrich in the race. He just might have challenged his manhood, too.

Either way, it’s pretty clear what Versus is banking its coverage of the 2009 Tour de France on. Lance, indeed, is back and the cycling fans watching in the U.S. will get all of the details.

There’s certainly no surprise there. After three years away from the race – three of the worst years ever at the TdF (and they can only blame themselves) – the grand champ is back. Since his last victory he ran three marathons, hung out with Matthew McConaughey and one of the Olsen Twins, became a father again, had his shoulder put back together with more screws found in a three-bedroom apartment and got back into shape for the three grueling weeks of the most famous bike race on earth.

In a sense Lance retired from his retirement because it was way too busy. Why not just race a bike a couple thousand miles through the French Alps?

Nevertheless, there are reports that Lance is, indeed, the most intimidating and formidable rider in the ’09 race. No argument here. There’s The Look, the seven titles, the ability to endure ridiculous levels of pain, plus the dude is fit. Even at 37 Lance reportedly has been turning in the same type of workouts he did during the apex of his title run. In fact, he could be one of the best riders in the race…

That is if he didn’t ride for Astana.

Armstrong opened the 2009 Tour de France with a time trial in Monte Carlo that put him in fourth place… on Team Astana.

That sounds about right, too. Astana is loaded like the ’27 Yankees or an All-Star team. One stage in and the team already has four riders in the Top 10 and likely will move all four of those riders up even higher in the overall standings. A Top 4 sweep wouldn’t be far-fetched.

But for as strong as Astana is with Armstrong and American Levi Leipheimer and German Andreas Kloden, they are all just there to carve a path for Alberto Contador.

It’s Contador’s race and everyone else is just riding in it.

Contador finished second in the first time trial and that discipline isn’t even his top strength. The 26-year-old Spaniard is a climber with one TdF title under his belt from 2007 when Michael Rasmussen was booted out just days away from winning. Regardless, if Contador doesn’t win then something extraordinary must have gone wrong.

If Contador doesn’t win, Levi Leipheimer will instead.

*
Back to the Versus show…

The episode of The Look I caught was the epic Stage 17 of the 2004 Tour de France. That was the one where Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong took on the world and won. It was where Lance stared down Ullrich, Floyd earned the nickname “Mofo of the Mountains,” and was famously had an in-race dialogue to go like this:

Lance: How bad do you want to win a stage in the Tour de France?

Floyd: Real bad.

Lance: How fast can you go downhill?

Floyd: I go downhill real fast. Can I do it?

Lance: Sure you can do it … ride like you stole something, Floyd.

In the end, Floyd couldn’t fend off the best riders in the world until Lance showed up with a mad sprint to the line to win the stage.

Take a look:

Just a slight delay for Lance

Lance Armstrong flew back to the United States on Tuesday morning. After a stopover in New York, the seven-time Tour de France champion made home to Austin, Tx. in time for an appointment with his doctor.

It was during that visit with his doctor that Armstrong learned his “clean” clavicle break wasn’t so clean after all. As of 8:20 p.m. eastern time on Tuesday, the great bike rider was getting a CT scan after learning about the not-so clean break.

“Bummer,” he tweeted on his Twitter feed.

Meanwhile, while the health and pending comeback of Lance Armstrong was all being documented in real time via “new media” (and the death of the “old media” had a bit more dirt shoveled on it with each tweet), somewhere near Paris tired old men waited anxiously for the next update.

Yes, when Armstrong “tweets” folks take notice. And no, it’s not just the fans, either. Take those tired old men in France for instance. When they read that the collarbone might be a little more damaged than expected, those “nefarious Frenchmen” might just have been moved to “twirl their moustaches and laugh heartily at his plight,” as the great Bob Ford once wrote about Lance’s ex-teammate, Floyd Landis, a few years back.

Yes, the cycling bureaucrats are feeling pretty good about themselves lately. When Lance hopped on that plane to go home, it meant there was an entire ocean between him and the nexus of the cycling universe. CT scans and doctor’s visits that elicit tweets that read, “bummer” gets that twirling in full flight. The next one might even be enough to cause a World Series-style victory celebration full of champagne spray and maybe even some high-fives. Why not? They already made him cut his hair for DNA-style drug tests.

Only in this case it might be real champagne instead of the sparkling wine those gauche Americans like.

Sacrebleu!

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