Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Ever since Lance Armstrong announced his return to the pro peloton, he has made known his intention to race the Giro d’Italia. And in a way that few others have managed, he has conveyed his interest in winning the event without saying point blank that he’s going to kick large-scale ass.
And that’s always been one of Armstrong’s greatest strengths. He is the Zen master of smack talk, inflicting doubt in other competitors and all the while claiming that anyone else is the favorite. No rider since Eddy Merckx has inflicted such doubt in his competition and certainly no greater champion has ever done more to deflect his favorite status.
It’s a trick that a Wallenda would pay money to watch.
But then Armstrong broke his collarbone. And now many people think he won’t have the fitness necessary to truly contest the GC at the Giro. That broken collarbone has been called—by most media outlets to cover the event—Armstrong’s first significant injury. That’s both right and wrong. It’s his first significant injury to come during a race. However, it’s not his first significant injury.
In 2000, while preparing for the Tour de France in the Pyrenees, Armstrong crashed hard enough to wind up in the hospital overnight. He went on to win his second Tour weeks later.
At the start of the Giro, Armstrong, wearing the team leader’s number (21), said that the team leader is Levi Leipheimer. Pointing to Leipheimer’s dominance at the Tour of California … and every other stage race he has entered this year, he said Leipheimer is the man to beat. It’s true enough; Leipheimer is on screaming form. Between his climbing at the Gila and his time trialing all year long, he is complete enough to reasonably expect to command a team at a Grand Tour. Just one hitch: He’s Lance Armstrong’s teammate.
Let’s ask a simple question: When was the last time Lance Armstrong rode in support of another rider at a Grand Tour? Here’s a hint: Bill Clinton was in office.
There’s only one reason to ask who’s in charge; Armstrong is a world-class poker player. He proved it on Stage 10 of the 2001 Tour de France in which he faked the Telekom Team to drill the pace at the front in the false belief he was on the ropes before dropping Ullrich for a nearly 2:00 gap. While everyone remembers “the look,” the stage should be more properly remembered for the hours of bluffing that preceded his explosive attack.
Despite the fact that Danilo Di Luca, Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego are on great form, Astana has three riders in the top 10. When push comes to shove, Astana’s best-placed rider, Yaroslav Popovych works for Armstrong, not Leipheimer. Armstrong has lost 15 seconds to Leipheimer but remains within two seconds of him overall. And given his history of uncorking his biggest rides the day before a rest day, it doesn’t seem a big deal that he has given up a few seconds early in the first week.
For all the interest that the race itself holds, the biggest question about the Giro’s GC is who, really, is in charge on the Astana team. And while Armstrong may be able to hold his cards to his chest, his coach, not-so-much. Chris Carmichael recently divulged that based on his training data, Lance would, “surprise some.”
The strategy of Grand Tours is endlessly fascinating; one day’s ride influences the next so that no one day can be ridden like a Spring Classic. However, Astana has added a layer of complexity to the equation by calling into question who really leads the team in Italy.
Word on the street was the deal Armstrong struck with Contador and Leipheimer was California for Leipheimer, Italy for Armstrong and France for Contador. Sounds like a game of "Risk." Could Leipheimer truly be gifted with both California and Italy? If so, what does Armstrong get? He’s not so magnanimous that there won’t be some quid pro quo.
A final thought: Every time Armstrong said Ullrich was the most talented cyclist in the world and the favorite to win the Tour, Armstrong ultimately stood atop the podium. Either Armstrong is a poor judge of his ability or he can’t be trusted to tell the truth. Exciting, huh?
Image by Doc Roman.