Sports Section bicycling correspondent Jada Yuan grew up watching four-hour silent Japanese feeds of the Tour de France. She'll be writing about the Tour (or TDF) until it ends on Sunday. Today: Lance Armstrong's last stab at glory.
Yesterday, Alberto Contador wrested the yellow jersey away from Andy Schleck in what many considered an unfair move: speeding up while Schleck, who was attacking on a very steep climb, had to stop and fix his bicycle chain. (It's an unwritten TDF rule that you don't attack the yellow jersey when he's getting food, taking a "nature break," has a mechanical failure, or crashes. In 2001, Lance Armstrong famously waited for second-place Jan Ullrich when Ullrich rode over a guardrail on a descent, and Ullrich repaid the favor two years later when Armstrong's handlebar hooked on a spectator's bag and he crashed while wearing yellow.) Fair or not, Schleck came out on the losing end, vowing revenge, his stomach "full of anger."
We'll have to wait for Thursday's Stage 17 for that revenge. Today's 124-mile Stage 16, filled with long and moderately steep climbs, wasn't conducive to attacks. The climbing began at the start line and the route went through all four of the most famous climbs of the Pyrenees: the Category 1 (super difficult) Cols de Peyresourde and Aspin, and the hors category (beyond super difficult) Cols de Tourmalet and Aubisque, ending with a long descent and a long, flat straightaway. After Wednesday's rest day, Stage 17 goes up the Tourmalet AGAIN, except on Thursday, the race ends atop the climb and riders will go up the side they descended today, which apparently is the "hard part" (because today's 15,000 feet of climbing looked so easy). That Schleck didn't attack today means he's betting on a showdown with Contador tomorrow.
Today, then, was a day to talk about Lance Armstrong. There's been speculation that the champ has been losing time strategically so he'd be far enough down in the standings that the overall leaders would let him go if he broke away from the peloton, and this proved true. He joined an eight-man break that attacked 5 km up the first climb, the Peyresourde, and just as that break got caught, he raced ahead again, gaining minutes on the field and slowly getting joined by other cyclists down in the standings looking for a stage win. Armstrong's group of eight had a 9:20 lead on the field as they began the descent. On the flats, 44 km from the end, Spanish rider Carlos Barredo — best known as the guy who beat another guy over the head with a bicycle wheel at the end of Stage 6 and somehow didn't get thrown out of the race — attacked the lead group. He stayed out in front by himself until the final kilometer, when he gave up, heartbroken, and Frenchman Pierrick Fédrigo took the stage. Armstrong came in fifth. So much for that last moment of glory. He'll still get to stand on the podium in Paris, though, since RadioShack will easily win the contest for the strongest overall team.
As you place your bets for the final mountain stage, it may help to understand the personalities of the two men vying for the overall title. Per Tour de Lance by the Sports Section's favorite cycling expert, Bicycling Magazine's Bill Strickland, Contador may be "vicious, heartless, ruthless" on the bike, but off the bike he is "gentle, shy, almost tender." He wants to destroy people while he's racing, but when he's done, Strickland says, he kisses grandmas from his hometown and has hordes of children running in his wake as he rides to a start line. Says Strickland, "He used to raise — I hear he has stopped, purely because of time restraints — doves; they would fly to his porch and perch on his hands and arm as he fed them." He also loves puppies (thanks, commenter SCARLETP).
Schleck is more of class clown. He and his brother Frank grew up pretending they were in the TDF, and now that they are, they're kind of amazed that people are paying them to do this. "There's something of the eternal child in Andy," says Strickland. "A very, very small, select group of bike racers are aware that they make phenomenal amounts of money because they can make a child's toy go really fast, and Andy is one of those. Last year, as he crossed the finish line in Paris for the 'processional,' the ceremonial team presentations that take place after the Tour, he did a wheelie. And then looked over at his brother as if he'd just gotten away with something. "
So in other words, our current rivalry is between a 130-pound Mike Tyson (or Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront), and Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, at age 25, having finally learned to ride a bike. Who's your pick?