What a stage. I'm still exhausted, and I was just sitting here. Okay, I was yelling and jumping around a bit. Today was absolutely epic, so full of attacks, counters, twists, turns, crashes, and sportsmanship… it had it all. By the end of the day, there were some gaps in time: some people gained time, some people lost it, but on a stage like today's it is impossible to say that anyone was a loser. Today, nothing but Golden Ham awards. Nobody deserves a Ham-Gazer award, not even the poor guys pulling up the rear in the gruppetto. I mean, anyone who can finish a stage like today's deserves a big pat on the back.
Golden Hams of the Day
- Lance "El Jefe" Armstrong (United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor). Today was the big day. Lance had ridden through bonks, bad stages, bad legs, and still held onto Yellow by a hair. But with superman Jan Ullrich only 15" back, Lance knew that he would need more time in order to have a comfortable gap headed into the final time trial next Saturday. With three big climbs, including an uphill finish, this was his last good opportunity to whip out that can of Texas Whupass and separate himself from the field. So after several days of defending, he knew that he finally had to attack. However, on the penultimate climb of the monstrous Hors Categorie Tourmalet, Ullrich launched an early assault. Everyone had been expecting the attacks to come up the final climb of Luz-Ardiden, but nobody expected that move on the Tourmalet. Lance didn't panic when Ullrich got a good gap, as he just rode at his own tempo and nailed the big German back. They went over the top of the Tourmalet together, and then were still side by side with a good bunch of riders at the bottom of Luz-Ardiden.
When Mayo attacked near the bottom of Luz-Ardiden, Armstrong countered, and Ullrich had to dig deep to match his acceleration. But then, a Tour full of terrible crashes had the most bizarre one yet: as Lance accelerated through a corner, a fan was holding a bag out just a little too far and hooked Armstrong's handlebars. Lance went down, hard, and Mayo tumbled over him as well. Ullrich was able to swerve to the left and avoid Mayo's fate, but then he didn't push on. He simply sat up, looking over his shoulder, and rode tempo. Hamilton, Basso, Moreau, Zubeldia, and a couple of others rode up to Ullrich and then soft-pedaled, all of them waiting for the Yellow Jersey and the young Mayo to remount and ride back up. This was an amazing display of sportsmanship: on the biggest day of the biggest race of the year, on the final climb, the men locked in fierce battle called a truce when bad luck struck two key rivals. On the way back up to the group, Lance pulled out of his pedals and nailed a very sensitive part of his anatomy on his seat as he put his legs out and struggled to stay upright. Mayo was again on his wheel, and again almost went down. Both managed to keep it rubber-side down this time, however, and rejoined the group of GC leaders.
Then Mayo attacked again, and Armstrong again responded, and again Lance went over the top of the young Euskaltel rider to take up the pace making. Ullrich faded, and eventually Mayo faded, and once again Lance was in his full champion flight up the climb, riding as though his ass was, indeed, on fire. As he passed the last man surviving from the original break of the day, Sylvain Chavanel (Brioches La Boulangere), Armstrong paused for a moment to pat the young Frenchman on the back and say a word or two to him before riding off to stage victory. Lance won the stage and took the 20" time bonus for first, and now holds a 1' 07" lead on Ullrich in GC. It was a brilliant win, as "El Jefe" once again overcame adversity to finally put some distance on his rivals. He did it with flair and grace, showing both his power and his maturity along the way. Whatever happens in the final time trial, this stage will go down as Armstrong's greatest victory since his comeback from cancer. If you can, tape it, or borrow the tape from a friend and copy it: you'll want to savor this historical stage for a long, long time. It may be a while before we ever see its like again.
- The Mighty Jan Ullrich (Team Bianchi). Ullrich lost time today, but he didn't lose the race. He showed daring as he attacked Armstrong and put the wood to the entire peloton up the Tourmalet. Even though Armstrong bridged, Big Jan made him work for it, and his attack put all but a select few in major difficulty. Then, when Armstrong was riding him off the wheel on the Luz-Ardiden, Lance hit the deck. Like Armstrong did for him two years ago, Ullrich sat up and waited for his rival. If he was going to beat Lance, he was going to do it fair and square, man on man, not by jumping up the road when his rival suffered some bad luck.
When Armstrong jumped again, the pain on Ullrich's face burned deep, but he powered up the climb and took time back on Armstrong towards the top. In the process, he simply rode all but two men off of his wheel. He sprinted across the line to take 3rd and an 8" time bonus in a photo finish, 40" behind Armstrong. By the end of the day, Ullrich sat in 2nd on GC at 1' 07" behind Armstrong. He put distance on Vinokourov, and still is within a shot of the Yellow Jersey.
Ullrich took 1' 36" out of the Texan in the first time trial, so this race is far from over. Lance has recovered from his time trial bonk and looks in great form, but Ullrich has the example of that other great American to draw inspiration from: in 1989, Greg Lemond took 58" out of Laurent Fignon over a 25km course in the Tour's final time trial, winning the final Yellow Jersey by a mere 8", the same amount of time Ullrich earned by taking the time bonus for 3rd in the sprint at the line today. The final time trial is 49km long, more than enough distance to take back 1' 07". This race is far from over, and it looks extremely likely that this Tour will end with the smallest winning margin since Lemond's 1989 victory. However it ends, this will go down as one of the greatest Tours of all time, as two great champions and a horde of talented challengers slugged it out and played it straight, giving it everything they had on the road to Paris.
- Sylvain Chavanel (Brioches la Boulangere). The day didn't end in victory as the young French hope and captain of the Yeasty Boys came across the line in 10th at 2' 47". Regardless, he was off the front for most of this hardest of stages, and rode the last two climbs alone. Armstrong swept him up at the top, as did a few others, but Chavanel did the team colors proud through his audacity and strength. He will surely have many great victories before he retires, and will likely take at least a stage or two of the Tour, but he will always remember this day, when he was a major player in one of the greatest stages in Tour history.
- Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi). The two Orangemen made their hordes of orange-clad fans ecstatic on the climbs as they attacked, counter-attacked, bridged, suffered, and rode like heroes today. They both put in a huge effort to bridge up to Ullrich and Armstrong on the Tourmalet, with Mayo even trying an attack near the top. Again at the bottom of the Luz-Ardiden, Mayo launched not one, but two blistering attacks. Armstrong countered them both: the first one ended with the crash, the second ended with Armstrong dropping Mayo. Still, these two riders were the only ones able to hold Ullrich's wheel as the German diesel drove on after Armstrong. Mayo took the sprint for 2nd at the top and Zubeldia came in 4th, both 40" behind Armstrong. This pretty much sewed up their positions in the top five on GC, with Zubeldia in 4th at 5' 16" and Mayo in 5th at 5' 25". Their sponsor has signed on for another few years, and I can understand why: these two young riders are going to be a major force in the Tour for years to come.
- Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole) and Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo). These two riders continued with their great climbing form today. Moreau came across in 5th only 43" behind Armstrong, and Basso was 6th at 47". They hung with the big guys up most of the final climb, improving their GC positions in the process. Basso increased his gap to Hamilton for 6th on GC, and Moreau jumped over Francisco Mancebo (iBanesto.com) for 8th on GC. Moreau is the best-placed French rider, and Basso is the best-placed Italian rider. While that may not sound like a big deal to some, it is a huge deal for these riders from cycling-mad countries with storied Tour traditions.
- Tyler "Nails" Hamilton, Carlos Sastre and Peter Luttenberger (CSC). At the start of the Tour, CSC had ambitions that were big but realistic: they wanted a stage win and they wanted two men in the top ten by Paris. They have gotten that and more, as they picked up stage wins from Sastre and Jacob Piil, as well as a gutsy ride from the clavicly challenged "Nails" Hamilton. Today Hamilton hung with the leaders until the end, finishing in 7th at 1' 10", while Sastre rolled across in 11th at 3' 12". The steady Luttenberger has regularly finished in the top 20 on the big mountain stages, again coming in 20th today at 5' 36". With the riding of these three men, CSC held onto a 6' 58" advantage over 2nd place Euskaltel-Euskadi in the all-important teams competition. Now that the mountains are over, it looks unlikely that the Euskaltel boys will be able to overtake CSC for victory in the competition that brings with it an automatic invite to the grand tours next year. Hamilton is still in 7th on GC at 9' 02", but he is only 54" behind Basso in the race for 6th. Sastre is in 10th on GC, only 7" behind 9th placed Mancebo. With strong time trial rides, Hamilton and Sastre could both move up a spot on GC before Paris to cap a completely successful Tour for the powerful Danish squad.
- Alexandre "The Great" Vinokourov (Telekom). He got dropped hard by the acceleration of Ullrich on the Tourmalet, but the classy Kazakh rode tough and bridged up to the leaders on the lower slopes of the Luz-Ardiden. They dropped him again in short order, but the Telekom strongman grit his teeth and held on to finish in 8th at 2' 07". This gutsy ride preserved his 3rd place on GC at 2' 45", with Zubeldia still 2' 31" behind him in the battle for the podium. This has been a tragic and brilliant season for Vinokourov, and it looks like he's going to cap it off with his best Tour performance ever.
Crazy Jane's Jambons Délicieux - Stage 15: The Ascension
Well, I've picked myself up off the floor now, I don't think I am overstating the facts ONE IOTA when I tell you that today, on the roads of the Tour de France, we have witnessed one of the most epic displays of studliness in the history of the world. I don't even know where to start on this stage. I've been sitting here, staring at my computer for over an hour, and all I can do is shake my head. I think I must start by saying that Le Tour de France itself is as délicieux as it gets, and every man in it is a complete rockstar. This is a very silly column, and the Tour de France is a sporting event, but I am going to get very serious about it all for just one moment, and tell you all that there are episodes of sheer, transcendental beauty in this saga that cannot be rivaled. The performance of the men in this race exemplifies so much of what is best and bravest in the human spirit, and dyed in the wool humanist that I am, it's that theme that I want to take up today.
Lance Armstrong: Lance's story just keeps getting more epic everyday, and it is essentially one of ascension and survival - of facing adversity, pain and fear, and prevailing. Armstrong's first victory in the streets of Paris came after he stared death in the face and made it falter. Lance's storied comeback is a classic hero's tale: called to the adventure by inescapable circumstance, he takes up the impossible task. His journey takes him into the depths of the underworld and to the limits of his powers before he returns with just that thing which will give him the strength to prevail. In this tour de France, that story is repeated on a smaller scale, but the epic nature of the story is the same: Lance, on the ropes and suffering setbacks and misfortunes that he has never yet had to battle in Le Tour begins this stage knowing that it is do or die. His faithful teammates have supported him with all their strength, but now he must act: it has all come down to him. When Lance crashed today, my heart was in my throat. When he attacked, I was dumbstruck. After the stage, Armstrong said that the crash gave him a burst of adrenaline that gave him even more strength for the battle ahead, and it's almost as if that little bit of adversity was just what he needed to make this new chapter in his unbelievable story what it had to be. Bottomline: Lance Armstrong has again dug deep inside himself and has found the heart, and strength of a Champion. Love him or hate him, he deserves this win. There is nothing more délicieux than a man writing his story with every f-ing part of himself. After the stage, Armstrong told Eurosport that what matters to him most is that now he will be able to look his teammates in the eyes tonight. Tears, here. Bravo, Lance!
Jan Ullrich: A Champion needs a rival, and there is no one more worthy of that position than the unbelievable Jan Ullrich. Jan has never been anything but an incredible Champion himself, and if Armstrong had never returned to the bike, he would be being hailed right now as the second coming of Miguel Indurain, such is his strength and dominance in the saddle. Years of second places and injury took their toll on Ullrich last year, and it seemed as if he had lost his way, but Der Kaiser fought back from infirmity and misfortune to take the fight to Armstrong with more power than ever before. Ullrich has suffered defeat after defeat at Armstrong's hands, but he never gives up and never quits. Even now, Ullrich looks to Wednesday's last mountain ride and Friday's time trial when lesser men would be demoralized by today's show of strength by Armstrong. His gigantic strength and unshakable will make him the perfect foil for Lance - the man who deserves the victory every bit as much, the man you can't hope will fail; but who must go down before the superior strength of his rival.
Finally, Ullrich is an amazing athlete, but more than that, he is 100% pure class. Cycling is a sport that carries within its very fabric an ethical clarity that long ago left the murky waters of our cultural life. Today, when Lance went down, and Jan, even though he knew it could mean his doom, waited for his rival to catch back on, he showed us the true meaning of fairplay, and his sacrifice of personal ambition for the sake of a just finish will write itself down as one of the most beautiful moments in the 100 year history of the Tour de France. Ullrich was not alone in his reaction - Armstrong's erstwhile teammate and friend, now one of his toughest rivals, the unbreakable Tyler Hamilton, who continues to amaze with his courageous ride despite injury, called out to his companions on the road - the Euskatel boys and Ivan Basso - urging them to wait for the maillot jaune, and all of them did. The amazing thing about this beautiful sport is the fact that such acts of sportsmanship are commonplace here. Not one of those men would want to win by taking advantage of a rival's misfortune. Ladies and gentlemen, that's what it means to be a man. Chapeau!
Alexandre Vinokourov: This man has had the ride of his life this season, and continues that here in the Tour de France. Today he was put into difficulty, but never gave up the chase, keeping his third place in the GC. Watching this man ride out of his socks this year, one can't help thinking of the loss of his friend and countryman Andrei Kivilev who has so often been a factor in this race. When Kivilev died in Paris-Nice earlier this year, Vinokourov rode with the strength of two men to take the victory in honor of his fallen friend, and then took Kivilev's wife and young child under his wing... Yet another example of the mettle of these men. Vinokourov has ridden a brilliant race with humility, class and perserverence. Salut, Vino!
The US Postal Service/Berry Floor Team: Armstrong put the hammer down today, but it's really the first time in the tour that he has really brought out the big gun. Until now, he has been sheltered, protected and supported by a spectacular team of riders who have the strength and class ride to for their own glory, but who sacrifice everything for him instead. Today we saw Roberto Heras suffer, we saw Manuel Beltran and Chechu Rubiera pace their man until they had left everything on the road; we saw the Postmen continue to ride with everything they had to stay close to the action should their leader need their last drop of sweat. Lance has ridden defensively and limited losses when it counted, but until the Pyrenees, he largely has his team to thank for his maillot jaune. Many of Lance's teammates are constantly hounded by questions about, or, pitied for their lack of opportunity to gain their own results, but these men give their whole hearts to the work, and it's small-minded of the fans and members of the press who question them not to realize that their dedication and faithful service is as much a result and reason for pride and satisfaction as any victory. Last year, after the 2002 Tour de France, George Hincapie told the Daily Peloton that the best moment of his tour was the day Lance rode into the yellow jersey as he, having done his duty, rode in the grupetto with Viacheslav Ekimov, listening the victory take shape over his radio. I can only imagine what kind of roller-coaster of emotion they experienced today, but Lance's victory is as much for his team as it is for himself, and his salute to George from the podium today was one of the most charming things I have ever seen him do. Every single member of the US Postal team is délicieux to the max, including Johan Bruyneel, who must have had a few heart attacks, but who, I am certain, was a rock today.
I could write a book about every person who was a thing of beauty and a joy forever today, but I am going to leave it there. Today we saw a true champion, a worthy opponent, immense courage, self-sacrifice and epic drama... all of it carried out by 100's of total studs in lycra. All I'm saying is Cycling a truly glorious sport. If you've made it through all this purple prose today, I salute you, and thank you for reading!
Crazy Jane's Jambons Délicieux, Rest Day 2 - Special Edition!
Tomorrow is the rest day, and I'd like to do a special edition of this column where we hear from you! Many of you have been writing to me and giving me your picks for the Délicieux Distinction, and I have really enjoyed your letters. Today, I'd like to ask you to write to me at email@example.com and let me know: who gets your vote for most délicieux rider in the peloton, and why? Please include your name and location in the world, and tomorrow, you, my dear readers, will have your day!