Tour is ultimate test of cyclists and fans

Cycling is a messy sport. Especially in the mountains, where we see wonderful moments mixed with consternation.

The best moment in recent years is still Lance Armstrong peering back at Jan Ullrich, then taking off up the mountain. Phil Liggett said it was as if Armstrong was asking, “Are you coming or not?” Liggett continued: “And the answer was: ‘Not.'”

The Armstrong investigation casts a cloud over that moment, fairly or unfairly. He stands accused by Floyd Landis, whose own staggering feat in the mountains has been tarnished already.

But even aside from doping questions, the mountains can bring out the weirdness. Mostly from the fans.

No other sport offers such a close interaction between fan and athlete in the midst of competition. A couple of motorcycles help clear the road for the leaders, but that path is often narrow. Cyclists climb at roughly the same speed as a fast jog, so fans can keep pace.

It’s exciting, but often glossed over is the fact fans can affect the action.

Today, Andy Schleck took off on what was his last realistic hope to win the Tour, assuming Alberto Contador beats him in Saturday’s time trial. Contador did what he to do, locking on to Schleck’s rear wheel and giving up no time to his young challenger.

Schleck wasn’t just carving a slipstream through the air. He was taking the worst of what a rowdy crowd had to offer. A couple of times, he had to swerve — not a big deal when you’re at full speed on flat land but a killer when you’re trying to force those pedals to turn over on a brutal climb. He also took a few good whacks to the face from Basque flags and the occasional arm, sometimes glaring back over his shoulder at the offender.

Contador’s sportsmanship was called into question a few days ago when he attacked while Schleck had trouble with his bike. Today, Contador got it absolutely right. He may not have let Schleck win the stage — he surely wouldn’t admit to it if he did. But he may have understood deep down that Schleck was the stronger cyclist on the day and deserved to cross first.

After crossing the finish line separated by less than a bike length after a climb that showed their dominance over the rest of the pack, Contador and Schleck hugged and sincerely congratulated each other.

They treated each other with respect. The fans ought to give that a try.

Today’s Tour update and showdowns to come

Lance Armstrong gave it a good ride, but he hasn’t sprinted at the finish in a long, long time. Fast-twitch sprinting muscles, as I recall, tend to go before the slow-twitch endurance muscles, so at his age, he wasn’t likely to win it. Still, finishing in an elite group of nine was very, very good.

The top 10 all finished in a group of 50, 6:45 back, though there were two surprises — one in the group, one out:

– IN: It’s the Thor de France! Thor Hushovd, as he has done before, earned points toward the green jersey (sprints/points) on a mountain stage. He took back the green jersey, in fact.

– OUT: Ivan Basso, longtime contender who tumbled hard out of the top 15.

Rest day Wednesday, then showdowns to decide everything that’s left. Day-by-day:

Thursday: Brutal climb at the finish that will decide the suddenly competitive polka-dot (mountain) jersey and go a long way toward deciding the yellow jersey and team title.

– Mountains: Christophe Moreau, who’s older than Lance Armstrong, took 60 points for winning the last two climbs today. That puts him 15 points behind leader Anthony Charteau (143 pts). Like American George Hincapie, Moreau married one of the women who present the jerseys on the podium at the end of a race. Other than that, he’s best-known for finishing around 10th but as high as fourth in the decade since his doping scandal. The finishing climb is the last mountain on the Tour.

– Team: Radio Shack maintained its lead over Caisse d’Epargne, which may be distracted slightly by Moreau’s sudden polka-dot pursuits, by matching its performance today. Armstrong and Chris Horner were in the break along with CDE’s Moreau and Ruben Plaza Molina. Both teams had a third rider and more in the yellow jersey’s group of 50. CDE will need to gain an edge here.

– Overall: Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador rode quietly in that group of 50. That shouldn’t be the case Thursday. Schleck isn’t as strong in the time trial as Contador, and he has looked slightly better in the mountains. The youngster will need to race away from the two-time champion on the final climb.

Friday: It’s flat, which means the race for green between Hushovd (191 pts) and Alessandro Petacchi (187) takes center stage.

Saturday: Time trial day should be the final showdown between Schleck and Contador, though it could be anticlimactic if Schleck fails to take back yellow on Thursday. The team title also should be decided, with Radio Shack likely to have a significant edge over CDE.

Sunday: It’s “ceremonial” in most senses and hasn’t affected the yellow jersey in modern history. Sometimes, people hint at a final dash in Paris, and the bad blood between Schleck and Contador could spark such words here. But with several laps of the Champs-Elysees, any attempt to break away for yellow would likely be overrun by the teams racing either for the green jersey or just a final moment of glory. Hushovd and Petacchi may be set for a final duel here.

Tour stories: Schleck’s angry stomach, Lance on vacation, Thor SMASH!

So you don’t have all day to listen to the soothing voice of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen on Versus, you don’t get all the jokes at NYVelocity.com, you find browsing through cycling-fanatic blogs like Podium Cafe a bit like sipping water from a fire hose,  and you find VeloNews a little over your head as well. Yet you’re not quite content with the AP coverage: “XXXX XXXX took the overall lead in the Tour de France today, though XXXX XXXX won the stage. Lance Armstrong finished XXth, X:XX behind the leader. Am I done yet? Can I work on my fantasy baseball team now?”

Actually, AP usually gets some of the action by the time the “optional” version comes in from Europe, you can get a pretty clear picture. That’s about as close as you can get to a middle ground between the dry read on the overall standings and the crowd debating the circumference of Alberto Contador’s crankset.

So if you like the Tour but haven’t had two weeks to digest the events so far, here’s a quick read:

What the heck is Lance doing?: Lance Armstrong came into this Tour intending to win. That’s not as obvious as it sounds. A cyclist’s goals may change from year to year or even day to day. Team goals can be even more complex.

In Lance’s heyday, his teams (Postal Service, Discovery Channel) had a clear goal: Lance will win the Tour. Period.

Not every team is so clear. Some teams have two or three contenders, by design or accident, and they may or may not agree on who takes the lead. A hierarchy might not be clear until a couple of mountain stages and time trials have passed.

Other teams may go for stage wins, the green jersey (sprints and sprint finishes) or just an occasional bit of time in a breakaway to get the sponsor’s name on TV. Sponsors like that.

When Armstrong ran into everything but a plague of locusts on one stage, crashing multiple times and struggling to catch up, he knew his chances of winning were gone. Teammate Levi Leipheimer was still poised to make a run at the top three, where he finished in 2007, but that’s looking less likely by the day.

Armstrong hasn’t seriously contested the last several stages and is now 31st place, 40 minutes and 31 seconds back. Teammates Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden and Chris Horner are ahead of him in the standings.

So is he saving strength for one last dash at a stage win?

The team title: Another competition that doesn’t get much interest each year, at least for U.S. audiences trained to watch Greg Lemond, Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis chase the yellow jersey and overall title, is the team classification. The times of the top three riders each day are added up. Team Caisse d’Epargne has little else for which it can contend, so this is a logical point of emphasis. But with Radio Shack no longer geared up for an Armstrong win or Leipheimer podium, this competition might be the best use of the team’s depth.

Radio Shack took back the lead today with a couple of minutes to spare, with Leipheimer, Kloden and Armstrong all finishing ahead of Ruben Plaza Molina, the venerable Christophe Moreau and Luis-Leon Sanchez. Radio Shack can always rotate Horner into that top three, while CDE has a long drop back to Vasil Kiryienka.

Thor! Green!: The green jersey/points competition is a strange one. For the most part, it’s given for what happens in the last 30 seconds of each of the flat stages that make up half the Tour. Hang out for 4 hours and change, then go for it. Teamwork is just as important for green as it is for yellow — the sprinters line up behind their “lead-out” men, who have taken it upon themselves to start head-butting each other out of the way this year. It’s a messy competition that usually sees the yellow-jersey contenders sitting about a third of the way back in the pack just to avoid the fray.

The contenders here spend half the Tour just trying to survive, making sure they don’t finish so far behind the pack that they’re tossed out of the Tour. Many a first-week stage winner doesn’t stick around for the third week.

But one person took it upon himself last year to prove he can get up and down the mountains, not content to win on a judge’s ruling after a final-sprint incident. That’s one reason why that rider, Thor Hushovd, commands a bit of respect and some fan loyalty in the race for green.

Besides — he has the coolest name in the race.

The race for yellow, or, don’t race on an angry stomach: The race for yellow was effectively whittled down to two people last week. We can all dream of seeing a daring breakaway from someone else farther down the standings, but the last time that happened, the Floyd Landis Endless Doping Saga began.

Andy Schleck, surely the best-known athlete from Luxembourg, is still eligible for the white jersey of best young rider. He looks like he’s 13 or 14, which explains why NYVelocity’s Tour day Schmalz is riddled with jokes about calling his mom and promising he’ll ride safely.

He had the lead over Alberto Contador and was attacking on the giant climb today. But just as Contador was clawing his way back, the chain slipped on Schleck’s bike.

Under cycling’s unwritten rules, riders often wait for fellow contenders when they run into trouble on the road. Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, the Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty of the early 2000s, had a couple of cases in which one waited for other, including the famous “Hey, Lance! I love you so much I’m going to snag my snack bag on your handlebars!” incident.

Should Contador have waited? Schleck thinks so. He talked of much anger in his stomach and imminent revenge.

My former workplace neighbor, USA TODAY cycling guru Sal Ruibal, raises counterpoints:

  1. This wasn’t an accident in which some fan’s snack bag snagged a rider’s handlebars. Schleck likely made a mistake in trying to shift gears.
  2. Revenge riding can be a really bad idea. A big part of cycling is staying within yourself and knowing what you’re capable of doing.

Contador already was far from a beloved figure, and the boos he received upon taking the yellow jersey today underlined that point. Fairly or not, he’s more of a villain now.

But whatever you think of Contador, Schleck is easy to root for. He rode maniacally up the mountain after his chain slipped, sailing past such experienced riders as … well, Lance Armstrong. Without that, the Tour would be over.

He’ll surely be the underdog. Contador should blow him away in the Tour’s only full-fledged time trial on Saturday. And Contador isn’t easy to shake in the mountains.

So that leaves us with one question — how is it, with all the mechanical ingenuity available to bicycle-makers and all the money spent on Tour bikes, we can’t have a more reliable way to shift gears?