Before the Tour began, we worried that no serious challengers would emerge to challenge Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal team for the final victory in Paris. In the absence of Telekom's Jan Ullrich, out with a knee injury and struggling with a drug scandal, we wondered how bad of a pasting Lance would give the field. Our worst fears were realized, as no strong challengers emerged to put Armstrong under pressure. Where Ullrich attacked Armstrong non-stop last year, the best that the peloton could muster this year was a couple of anaemic accelerations by Joseba Beloki (ONE) and a brilliant time trial by Santiago Botero (KEL). Armstrong shrugged off these best efforts of his rivals, and rode his own race with his Posties through the roads of France. Still, there was much to cheer about in this year's Tour, even if you weren't a big Armstrong fan like me.
Lance Armstrong: The Greatest Athlete in the World.
So how exactly did Lance get to Paris in yellow again? Armstrong started the race with a statement in the Prologue, claiming yellow by virtue of a blistering ride that was good enough to relegate popular Frenchman Laurent Jalabert (CST) to 2nd place. Lance quickly surrendered the Yellow Jersey in Stage 1, happy to let other teams take the responsibility of the race lead while he saved his team for the mountains. Armstrong came across in 2nd at the next two time trials--the TTT in Stage 4, and the ITT in Stage 9--keeping himself out of Yellow before launching into the lead on the climb up La Mongie in Stage 11. From that stage onward the race was on, with U.S. Postal dominating the peloton on every terrain. On the toughest mountain stages of the Tour, Postal managed to keep their team virtually intact until the final climb of the day. Once on the final climb, the Posties would lead out Armstrong in the way that a team like Acqua e Sapone leads out Mario Cipollini in the sprints. One by one the Posties would give full gas until the group was whittled to just a few select riders. Then Armstrong would attack and rip the legs off of the few survivors.
As Armstrong himself admitted, the only time he was in difficulty in the entire race was when he was on the wheel of teammate Roberto Heras, the "Flyweight Flyer," while flying up La Mongie. Armstrong laughed in the face of dire predictions of a "Spanish Armada" that would destroy him in the mountains, because the best Spanish climbers in the world were on his Postal team. Heras and "The Punisher," Jose Luis Rubiera, put the serious hurt on everyone in the final climbs, including at times their own team leader. Even their supposed sprinter "Gorgeous" George Hincapie was hammering over the climbs, leading out on the lower slopes of the final climbs to bring back any breakaways and thwart any attacks. The strength of U.S. Postal and of their leader Armstrong sometimes gave the impression that they were toying with the field; on the only occasions where potentially serious attacks were launched, Armstrong and his teammates swatted them aside with a seemingly casual ease. This quickly destroyed the morale of all the challengers, and as the race entered the final stages the entertainment came from the battles for the lower GC spots and the stage wins. Lance would win by 7' 17", but we were left with the feeling that he could have taken much more time if he'd wanted too.
The Greatest GC Challengers
The mighty team of ONCE-Eroski was truly talented and deep. Unfortunately, they were going up against a legendary champion with his most powerful team yet. Still, the ONCEs came away with very impressive results: 1) They won the prestigious team time trial on Stage 4; 2) They held the Yellow Jersey on the shoulders of Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano for over a week after the team time trial; 3) They placed three riders in the top six on GC, with Beloki 2nd, Gonzalez de Galdeano 5th, and Jose Azevedo 6th; and 4) They easily won the Team Competition, earning them a guaranteed invite to all the Grand Tours next year. Some have argued that the biggest hindrance to ONCE might have been the tactics dictated by team director Manolo Saiz. He seemed satisfied with tiring out the ONCEs in defense of the Yellow Jersey before the race ever hit the mountains. After his riders got spanked by Armstrong on Mont Ventoux, he seemed to be afraid of attacking the Posties and simply had his boys ride for second position. While holding the Yellow Jersey after the TTT may have been a mistake, Saiz probably realized after Mont Ventoux that discretion is often the better part of valor: Armstrong and his team were clearly unbeatable, so why risk losing everything in a lost cause? While this may have made the race less exciting and may not have seemed a brave way to ride, his team came away with some very tangible and admirable results for their sponsors. Saiz and his ONCE squad have yet to come up with an answer to the tactics of his former pupil Johan Bruyneel and his Posties. But neither has anyone else and, quite frankly, it is doubtful that there was any possible answer to the power of Postal this year.
Raimondas Rumsas of Lampre-Daikin had the biggest surprise ride of the year, coming in 3rd on GC in his first attempt at the Tour. His team was comparatively weak, and he had to do most of the hard work on his own. Unfortunately, the arrest of his wife indicates that in fact he may not have done his great ride alone, but instead had some invisible helpers. Hopefully this is not the case, but his brilliant ride will be tarnished unless this scandal clears up soon. Santiago Botero, the great Colombian from the troubled Kelme-Costa Blanca squad, had an outstanding ride to finish in 4th on GC. He won the Stage 9 time trial in an upset, and was flying high until his very bad day on Mont Ventoux in Stage 14. That day he plummeted down the standings as he lost over 12' to his rivals. But he showed his class and his battling spirit by attacking and winning on the next stage, putting himself back in the top ten. He attacked again on Stage 17, using the last day in the mountains to take another 1' 30" on his rivals and claw his way into the top five. If Botero can ever hold it together for three weeks, he could emerge as a major challenger to Armstrong in the future. With his great ride he will likely land a lucrative contract with another team as a Grand Tour leader for next year.
There were also some strong and surprising rides by men who finished in the top fifteen places on GC. Francisco Mancebo of iBanesto.com had a great and consistent ride to land in 7th on GC. American Levi Leipheimer also came good in his first year as team leader on Rabobank, coming in 8th on GC in Paris. He struggled in the Pyranees and rode only above-average time trials, but Leipheimer had enough legs in the Alps to rebound and finish well. Heras rode well enough to end up 9th on GC, but his main goal was to support Lance Armstrong. If he can hold his form, Heras will be a formidable favorite in the upcoming Vuelta. The biggest surprises came in the 10th and 11th positions on GC: Carlos Sastre of CSC-Tiscali rode brilliantly in the Alps to climb to the 10th spot, while Ivan Basso of Fassa Bortolo became the next great thing in Italy with his strong 11th place finish. Basso had a strong team on paper, but his teammates were nowhere to be found when he needed them. His solitary ride makes his excellent finish just that much more impressive. Young climber David Moncoutie of Cofidis was 13th on GC, but claimed that all-important crown of Top Frenchman in the Tour. American Tyler Hamilton of CSC-Tiscali had an uneven race, struggling with illness and his lingering shoulder injury from the Giro; still, he rode well enough to land in 15th on GC. It's a testament to the growing status of Hamilton that this ride was actually seen by some as a disappointment. The biggest disappointment of the race by far, however, was Frenchman Christophe Moreau of Credit Agricole, who rode poorly both before and after his many crashes. He had back luck, but earned the ire of many by taking the low road in his struggles: he took an unprovoked poke at Sastre at one point, and many stories of his other grouchy escapades added color to the online journals of his fellow riders. While nobody would wish him injury, there weren't a lot of people in the English speaking world who were sad to see Moreau go when he finally retired after a Stage 15 crash.
The Other Competitions: The Aussie Mafia and the Smiling Frenchmen
This was largely a disastrous tour for Team Telekom. Their big star Jan Ullrich suffered a knee injury that kept him out of the Tour, and before the race started he became embroiled in a drug scandal. Thus Telekom came to the tour to try to support their sprinter and six-time Green Jersey winner Erik Zabel, but also to erase the negative public image brought about by Ullrich's escapades. They tried to control the run-in to the first few sprints, but they failed miserably. Zabel struggled, clearly slower than a few other sprinters, but he finally came good in Stage 3 and took both the stage win and the Yellow Jersey. That success was short lived, as ONCE and Postal came to the front on the Stage 4 team time trial.
All in all there were very few bunch sprints for Zabel to excel in this year, and this was partly due to the weakness of Telekom. However, Jean Marie Leblanc, the head of the Tour de France, was more responsible for this, as he excluded the mighty sprinting squad Acqua e Sapone and the powerful Team Coast in favor of such weak French squads as AG2r, Jean Delatour, and Bonjour. These weaker squads contributed to the attacks, where Acqua e Sapone and Team Coast would have helped keep the peloton together. Zabel also had to contend with the powerful Aussie Mafia in the sprints: "Rabid" Robbie McEwen (LOT), "Red Thunder from Down Under" Stuart O'Grady (CA), "Rookie" Baden Cooke (FDJ), and "Mad" Bradley McGee (FDJ) all played a big role in the breaks and mass finishes, and swamped Zabel at every turn. McEwen emerged as the major challenger to Zabel's throne, and their battle wasn't concluded until the Champs Elysees. McEwen emerged victorious, winning the Green Jersey just ahead of Zabel while taking his second stage win just ahead of Cooke. To make matters worse for Zabel, Telekom director Walter Godefroot seemed to give everyone in pink a verbal tongue-lashing in the media, decrying the weakness of his team and the flakeyness of Ullrich. This contributed to the early retirement of American climber Kevin Livingston from the sport, and surely demolished any remaining morale in the team. As Telekom rebuilds for next year, they might want to consider replacing their short-tempered director along with a few key riders. In the meantime, McEwen and the Aussie Mafia can celebrate an outstanding performance in the world's biggest bike race.
The mountains competition belonged to the French this year. French riders held the Polka-Dot Jersey for the entire race, starting with Christophe Mengin of FDJeux.com after his long breakaway in Stage 1. Compatriot Stephane Berges (AG2) took the jersey for a day with his breakaway in Stage 2, but Mengin attacked again to reclaim the polka-dots on Stage 3. Mengin held the climbing jersey until Stage 11, when Patrice Halgand (DEL) took the lead with a brief but well-timed attack only one day after a big breakaway stage win. Stage 11 was the first serious day in the mountains, and therefore saw the first of several long breakaways by that magnificent "old" all-around rider, Laurent Jalabert (CST), who had just announced his imminent retirement from the sport. Jalabert attacked again in Stage 12, retaking the Polka-Dot Jersey he had last worn in Paris the year before. Jalabert continued to attack, much to the delight of cycling fans the world over, and finished in Paris with a huge lead in the race for the Polka-Dot Jersey. How appropriate for the classy, smiling Frenchman to end his final Tour as the King of the Mountains.
Forget the Drugs and the Morons...
The 2002 Giro d'Italia was a brilliant race that was overshadowed by a sequence of drug scandals until the final week. Unlike the Giro, the 2002 Tour de France was a wonderful, hard-fought, clean race from start to finish, free of doping scandals and full of action. After the race, the wife of Raimondas Rumsas (LAM) was busted by French authorities for allegedly carrying a pharmacopoeia with her around France. The full truth about this situation has yet to come out, and there may be ugly revelations just around the corner. For now, however, we can reflect on what happened on the road in the year's biggest race with satisfaction.
Despite the ignorant claims of journalists like Ron Borges and Skip Bayless, we got to witness the world's greatest athlete at the top of his game in this year's Tour. The historical importance of this year's Tour will only become greater with time, as Armstrong and his amazing U.S. Postal Service team dominated the field in a way that will be talked about for generations. The very fact that such knuckle-draggers as Borges and Bayless feel compelled to address cycling--a sport about which they clearly know less than nothing--is an indication of the effect Armstrong has had in bringing cycling to a new prominence in the insular and xenophobic world of American sports. They attack the great man as a way to try to stir up controversy, to get hits on their websites, and to draft on Lance's wheel on their way to their own loathsome sort of fame. Imbued with intelligence akin to a bag of hammers, these "writers" and their comments will be quickly forgotten, and what will remain is the sparkling image of the Texan clad in the Yellow Jersey standing on top of the podium in Paris for the fourth time. Lance Armstrong will be back next year to try his formula again, and his challengers will spend the next year trying to develop new riders, new strategies, and new motivation to challenge the Greatest Athlete in the World. I can't wait to see what they all come up with next.