|Golden Hams of the Day|
Ham-Gazers of the Day
- Lance "El Jefe" Armstrong (United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor). Lance once again displayed great bike handling skills to keep himself upright and take 3rd on the stage at 14" behind Millar. More importantly, he finished 11" ahead of Ullrich and heading into the final stage, Armstrong now has a healthy 1' 16" lead on his German rival on GC. Barring illness or accident, Lance will join the all-time greats tomorrow by completing his fifth consecutive Tour de France victory. Of all his victories, however, Armstrong said this will be the sweetest: he has had to overcome crashes, bad days, and stiff challenges from a horde of very talented riders. He has treated us to an amazing and exciting display of tenacity and courage, and nobody can say he hasn't earned that Yellow Jersey on his back. Enjoy that beer tonight, Lance! We'll be raising one in your honor when you cross the line tomorrow!
- David "Maltese Falcon" Millar (Cofidis). Illness wrecked his hopes at a high GC finish, but Millar has been feeling better these last couple of stages. Even though he crashed towards the end, Millar still rode the 2nd fastest time trial in Tour history…only Lemond's 1989 assault on Fignon was faster. This victory will really help salvage what has been a dismal ride for Millar and his team. With this stage win under his belt, he will now continue his search for a team that will help him develop to the next level and provide him a front derailleur when he needs one.
- Tyler "Nails" Hamilton, Carlos "El Niño" Sastre, and Peter Luttenberger (CSC). These three all did strong rides today, with Hamilton 2nd at 9", Sastre 36th at 2' 49", and Luttenberger 65th at 3' 40". "Nails" Hamilton jumped up two places on GC where he now holds down 4th at 6' 32", a brilliant performance for the man with the cracked collarbone. Sastre jumped one spot on GC to 9th at 18' 49", and Luttenberger held his 13th position on GC at 22' 31". Michael Blaudzin finished the stage in 15th at 1' 56" and Andrea Peron was 23rd at 2' 19" to cement CSC's victory in the Teams Competition, where they hold an insurmountable lead of 21' 46" over 2nd placed iBanesto.com. After the Stage 1 crash, it looked like a dark Tour lay ahead of CSC. However, they have rallied around their leader "Nails" Hamilton to take three stage wins, several other top-ten stage finishes, three spots in the top fifteen on GC, and the Teams Competition. In this Tour, they have simply kicked ass. Bjarne Riis has a lot to be proud of, and with this great ride by his men he should have a much easier time lining up the funding he'll need to try to keep these riders together for next year.
- Alexandre "The Great" Vinokourov (Telekom) and Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner). Neither had a particularly good day today, with Vinokourov coming across in 16th at 1' 56" and Totschnig finishing in 41st at 3' 07". Still, Vinokourov rode well enough to ensure his podium finish, as he is safely in 3rd on GC at 4' 29". This has been a great Tour for the classy Vinokourov, who has attacked constantly and added another great result to his best season as a pro. For his part, Totschnig held his 12th position on GC by the end of the day and he is now 21' 47" behind Armstrong. The Austrian Champion rode to 5th in the Giro, so this ride in the Tour makes two exceptional grand tour performances for the Gerolsteiner man in 2003. While the people who finished ahead of him in the Giro have struggled, Totschnig has held strong.
Grazed Hams of the Day
- Francisco Mancebo (iBanesto.com). The leader of the young iBanesto team was 7th on GC in last year's Tour, but he struggled in the Pyrenees and slid a bit further down this year. He lost his 9th place today to Sastre by coming in 63rd at 3' 37", and he now sits at 10th on GC at 19' 30". Still, 10th in a Tour this competitive is something to be very proud of. Mancebo can also take comfort in the great ride of his team, as they animated many stages and took two stunning stage wins on the flats.
- Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi). They each slipped a spot on GC as Hamilton jumped over them both. Zubeldia came in 17th in today's stage at 2' 02", and Mayo was 19th at 2' 08". However, they both still have high positions in the GC as Zubeldia is now 5th at 7' 06" and Mayo is 6th at 7' 21". These two have been major players since the race began, and have done the Orange colors proud through their constant attacks and Mayo's brilliant stage win on the Alpe d'Huez. Their sponsor signed on for two more years, clearly seeing that these two young men will be a force in the sport for a long time. Look for a lot more from these two in the Vuelta and next year on the roads of France.
- The Mighty Jan Ullrich (Bianchi). Big Jan was pushing hard, having only taken a few seconds out of Armstrong by the 32.5km checkpoint. Then on the same roundabout that caused early leader Uwe Peschel (Gerolsteiner) to go down, Ullrich's wheels slipped on the wet surface and he slid across the pavement on his right side for quite a ways. He finally slammed into some bales that had been put down, and immediately got up and resumed his challenge to Armstrong. The crash proved costly, but Ullrich still came across in 4th at 25" behind Millar. This was a sad way for the great German's challenge to end, but he can take consolation in the fact that he has given Armstrong his most difficult test ever. Ullrich is a great champion who will be back next year to make Lance's life hell once again. He has come back from injury and difficult personal troubles to reclaim his status as one of the greats of the sport, showing talent, toughness, daring, and class on the roads of France. Look for him to vent his frustration in Spain, where I think he will grind his rivals in this year's Vuelta to a very fine powder before blowing them away.
- Viatcheslav "The Pensioner" Ekimov (United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor). The oldest man in the race was stung by a bee yesterday, and the right side of his lip and cheek swelled to the point where it looked like Slava was storing an orange in his mouth (or that he was doing his best Don Corleone impression). The Olympic Time Trial Champion rebounded today, riding strong to a 6th place at 56" behind Millar. This is another great Tour for the greatest of Russian cyclists, as he has played a huge role in helping Armstrong to his fifth Tour victory. He led the charge of Postal's domestiques in the stage, as they took four of the top ten spots with Armstrong 3rd, "the Notorious VHP" Victor Hugo Peña in 7th at 1'00", and "LL Cool G" George Hincapie in 8th at 1'08". Postal had the strongest team in the race, and now will look to carry their momentum into the Fall Classics and the Vuelta.
Crazy Jane's Jambons Délicieux - Stage 18
Today was the big showdown. Armstrong vs. Ullrich, mano a mano. Where we had grown accustomed to luxuriating in minutes of comfortable lead time, the penultimate stage of the Tour de France sees the biggest guns still scrambling for seconds. What a crazy tour.
I'm going to have to start with Jan Ullrich today: the tragic hero of this tour. Ullrich looked nervous and shaky in the start house, but out on the road, he was smooth and powerful, his long legs shiny in the rain. He rode most of the stage neck in neck with his rival, before his wheels and all his hopes swept out from under him on a slippery corner. Jan climbed back aboard his sled, which is more than I could have done in the wake of a wipe out like that, but he finished the ride shaken and cautious. Even before the crash, it didn't look like he had enough strength to take back significant time on Armstrong, but it was also clear that Big Tex didn't quite have him beat, either. Ullrich's a strong man, and a good one. It's gotta hurt to come so close and have to settle for second place again this year, but Jan has ridden an honorable and brilliant race, and it's a pretty rare luxury to feel disappointed by yet another second place finish in the Tour de France. Still, I felt gutted by his crash today. I can only imagine how he must feel, but for a man on the comeback trail, he has to be happy with this ride. He's fought harder than ever, and he's done it with fairness, dignity, good looks and beautiful retro style. Here at Crazy Jane Headquarters, we love Jan.
Next: Tyler Hamilton. How about this kid! Tyler told reporters after today's stage that he rode it without getting time splits - he just gave it everything he had. Everything he had was enough to catapult him over the Euskaltel boys into 4th in the GC - no doubt falling short of his hopes heading into Le Tour, but far exceeding any expectation anyone could have had after the crash on stage one that fractured his collarbone in two places. He's ridden his little tiny ass off everyday, and his stage victory on stage 16 is pretty stiff competition for Armstrong's Luz-Ardiden for the most beautiful moment in this year's Tour de France. Add to that his sportsmanship, sense of fair-play, and modesty? Delicieux, I tell you. Tyler, I think there's a little race in Canada at the end of the season with your name all over it.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The amazing US Postal Domestiques! There is no way on earth Lance Armstrong could have won this Tour de France without these supermen. Today, the team put four (good lookin') men in the top ten today, including Armstrong, with Ekimov, Peña and Hincapie coming in 6th, 7th and 8th, with 8th placed Hincapie only 1'08" off Millar's pace. Incredible! More than for any of Lance's previous victories, he really leaned on these guys, and they had the strength and consistency to back him up without fail. Before the tour, Floyd Landis had faced a long recovery from a broken hip; and Postal's steadiest lynchpin, George Hincapie, was sidelined by illness all Spring. As usual, there was that familiar chorus of pundits and competitors saying the boys were weak this time. Also, as usual, the Posties have served 'em up a generous helping of "how do you like me now," over the past three weeks. This year, when the gaps have been uncomfortably close and tensions ran high, Lance wasn't weak enough to lose the the Tour de France, but he wasn't quite strong enough to win it, either. Lucky for him, his team was.
Finally, Lance Armstrong. The soon to be five-time vanquisher of the Tour de France has had a hard road to hoe these past three weeks, and he has suffered and fought for this one. His team supported him whole-heartedly and with all their strength, but one of the most beautiful truths in the sport of professional cycling is that, at the end of the day, it all comes down to what each man has within himself; no one can pedal your bike for you. This year, when it came down to crunch-time, Lance was there with the goods. Today, he lost the opportunity to pound out an unalloyed head to head with his worthy opponent after the big German went down in the rain, but Mr. True Grit was not on his way to losing the Tour de France today, he had done enough already. I don't want to say it's been nice to see Lance suffer and struggle, but it has been compelling to see his mettle tested, and to see him find himself equal to the task. No one can say he hasn't earned his place in the epic narrative of the 100 glorious years of the Tour de France.
Finally, I want to take a moment to give some well-deserved props to Kristen Armstrong for some délicieux GIRLSTYLE sports writing in yesterday's USA Today, which I urge you all to go and read here. For my money, girls have a clear advantage in sports writing because we can say things about the power and beauty of it all that no tightly wound straight guy can afford to go all the way on. There's a lot for girls (and boys) to love in the sport of cycling, and as I've tried to point out in this column, it's a lot more than hot, um... lycra, but I think it's a lot easier to see if you can admit that you're a little bit in love. Chapeau Kristen!