In his previous Tours de France, Lance Armstrong rarely if ever fell. He was a legend in the peloton for, among other reasons, his ability to stay on his bike. He was bothered for the first couple of weeks of the 2003 Tour (his smallest margin of victory) because of a deep cut he got from falling in the Dauphiné Libéré run-up race, but in all his Tours he only had to put his foot on the ground a couple of times when Roberto Heras, his super domestique noted for erratic riding (the one Tour stage Heras could have won was lost when he crashed into a barrier rounding the last bend with a km or two to go), touched his wheel or fell off right next to Lance. One of Lance’s highlight-reel exploits was riding an impromptu cyclocross over a newly mown hayfield when prime challenger Josebo Beloki suffered one of the ugliest crashes I’ve ever seen, breaking his hip, elbow, and (I think) ribs when his tubular tire rolled off the rim at 55 kmh on sticky road tar. Lance calmly crossed the field, dismounted and carried his bike over a ditch, and rejoined the chase group on the other side.
Since his comeback began Lance has been ever so prone to crashes. He was barely ready to ride the Tour last year because he fractured a collarbone in three places falling off in an early season stage races. This year he’s been both under the weather and badly scraped in the early season. And in the Tour itself he had a couple of crashes in early stages leaving him with ugly road rash. Today he went off the road once and down twice, the second time at the base of the penultimate climb, costing him both time and serious pain. There was no catching up, since he had spent whatever energy he possessed chasing back after the earlier mishaps. Already thirty seconds down to the main contenders’ group, he seemed physically and mentally in shock, rather like Ullrich on the Les Deux-Alpes climb in 1998, when Pantani put nine minutes into him. Lance, though paced by teammates, came in thirteen minutes behind Andy Schleck, stage victor.
It will be interesting to see what Lance does. He now sits in 39th place, 13½ minutes down. Competitor that he is, I doubt that he’ll quit the race. His obvious role would be as a super-domestique for Levi Leipheimer, the Radio Shack rider who stayed with the big contenders on the last climb. He might try to win a stage if the chance presents itself. In 1952 a rider who was possibly the greatest stage racer ever, Fausto Coppi, won the Tour partly because he was supported by his older Italian rival, Gino Bartali, whose winning form had left him. Unfortunately, there’s no young American equivalent of Coppi for Armstrong to play Bartali to.
Lance probably regrets trying to come back to championship form, except that he probably just had to know for sure whether he could. What he learned is that age has the same effect on everybody, that the VO2 Max figures don’t lie, that even if all else is not equal, eventually youth will be the deciding factor for an athlete. We fans who cheered for Lance, and I suppose those who booed him too, knew this day would come. It’s just sad to see when it happens before your very eyes. Lance Armstrong gave us many summers of unparalleled thrills and excitement. So thanks, Lance, and enjoy your ride today, and every day.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.