Well, it took two weeks, but the 2009 Tour de France finally exploded.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Alberto Contador is clearly head and shoulders above the rest. What we presumed on Arcalis was confirmed today; let the race for second begin. The only remaining question surrounding Contador regards how he will handle Lance Armstrong's new place in the Astana hierarchy. He will need to be a humble, gracious leader, not allowing himself to become overwhelmed or jealous by the scrum of journalists covering Lance’s new role. Once the race is firmly in his grasp, with the win all but certain, Alberto might consider helping Lance win a stage of his own—maybe one finishing atop a mountain?
2. A new phase of Lance’s career has begun. Just like his teammate, what we suspected in Spain has been proven in Switzerland: Lance is not the same rider he was during his 7 Tour wins. Lacking the uphill acceleration needed to follow sharp mountain attacks, Lance must now find a new role for himself—mentally and physically. In a way it’s a shame that so much was made about him winning the Tour in his comeback. Imagine if he and others had proclaimed a desire to simply finish in the Top-10? Had the expectations been set a bit lower, Lance’s performance to date would seem all the more incredible.
3. Did we say Roman Kreuziger? We meant Vincenzo Nibali. Kreuziger has consistently been a step behind in the mountains so far in this year’s Tour. While we thought he would rebound in the Alps, it’s apparent he just doesn’t have the form to ride with the leaders. A minute here, 30 seconds there, have added-up to mean 16th overall, 4:40 behind. Meanwhile, Vincenzo Nibali’s been steadily riding himself to a realistic shot at the podium. He sits in 7th, 2:51 back on Contador. The White Jersey is also within his reach; especially since he can time trial much better than Andy Schleck. Italy once again has a true contender for the Tour de France.
4. Bradley Wiggins is for real. Not content riding wheels up to Verbier, Wiggins attacked, gapping riders such as Armstrong and Cadel Evans. Like Nibali, his ability against the clock makes him a strong threat to Andy Schleck’s GC place. Add to the fact that he now has the support of Christian Vande Velde--a perfect lieutenant for Wiggo’s final week--and Garmin looks like it could have a man for the podium in Paris.
5. Too bad for Carlos Sastre. Without the bad first week, he might be in much better shape to create a stir from now to the end of race. For him, a win on Ventoux would be a nice consolation prize. How many men can say they've won on both l'Alpe Duez and Mont Ventoux?
6. Rinaldo Nocentini and Christophe Le Mevel rode respectable races today; they sit in 6th and 9th respectively on GC. It means nothing in the grand scheme of things; it's just nice to see riders attempt to surmount insurmountable odds.
7. And speaking of insurmountable odds, The Great French Hope, Brice Feillu, came home in 25th place today, leaving him 22nd overall. Can Brice ride himself into the Top-15? Oui, oui! If he does, he will bring upon himself the hopes of a nation starved for GC success in its home tour. He'll have tough shoes to fill for the next few years; but it's great for the sport nonetheless.
8. And last, but not least: when was the last time you won a Saint Bernard (or any live animal) for winning a bike race? Yeah, me neither.
There are many more stories from today's stage. What did we miss? What stood-out to you?
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