For years it was called the Tour de Lance in the U.S; cycling's grandest grand tour was known mostly to Americans because of the phenomenal success of Lance Armstrong. This year, Armstrong is back at the Tour de France, and if you haven't peered around into the world of cycling since his record consecutive 7th tour victory a few years in 2005, well ... there are a few things that have changed.
First, there's Alberto Contador. He came out of nowhere, a young Spaniard riding on Lance's old Discovery team two years ago, and won the race at just 24 years old. He's fast, he can climb like nobody's business , and could easily win it again. His team was thrown out last year by no fault of his (its name sullied by drug scandal, even though there were new riders and managers) and since he couldn't do the Tour de France he said, meh, fine I'll just do Spain and Italy and be one of the few (only five have ever done it) to win all three grand tours. Wikipedia says: "In the process he also became the first Spaniard, youngest (age 25), and shortest amount of time to accumulate all three wins (15 months). He also became only the third cyclist to win the Giro and the Vuelta in the same year."
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So, now he's back at the Tour de France and for the first time able to defend his title. The trouble is (and the reason this particular race is going to be so much fun to watch) is that he is still on Armstrong's team. But this time, Armstrong is racing as well. Both could win, but as the miles and time differences shake out, one will have to ride in support (called a "domestique") of the other.
Okay so let's throw into the mix last year's champion Carlos Sastre. Would he have won if Contador had been in the race? Hmm. Now is our chance to find out, and you can bet Sastre wants to win when the real contenders are actually on the tour.
So that's three defending champions with their first crack at the Tour after winning it all , and then don't forget Oscar Pereiro, who you have to count as one more defending champ who didn't finish last year because of a spectacular crash in the 15th stage and who finished 10th overall the year before. He's the guy who, the year before THAT, was declared the winner after American Floyd Landis was stripped of the victory after a positive drug test. Pereiro has never gotten to stand on that winner's podium in Paris, and I'd bet he'd like to.
Neither has Australian Cadel Evans, who I really thought was going to win last year, and has come in 2nd place in the Tour de France the last two years. He's gotta be hoping the third time's the charm.
Another really awesome part of this tour is to watch sprinter Mark Cavendish on the flat stages. Last year he won four stages, beoming the first British rider to win that many in one tour, displaying rocket speed that seems to burst out of nowhere at the finish. But last year, Cavendish (nicknamed the "Manx Missile") also didn't have to contend with his rival, sprinter Tom Boonen, who wore the green sprinter's jersey for much of the race the year before. Boonen had a little bit of a cocaine issue and was thrown out of the tour last year ... but he's back now, and it's on.
Notice the Columbia jersey Cavendish is wearing. He may be from the Isle of Man, but if you'd rather root for all things American, consider this California connection. The Columbia team ("High Road," as it was called in its inception, in reference to strict drug testing policies and an intolerance of performance enhancers) is based right here on California's Central coast in San Luis Obispo. You can read all about it in this story from SLO's Tribune called "Tour de France: SLO's French Connection.
Mark Cavendish is also the guy who won the Tour of California, which swung through Pasadena and Santa Clarita a few months back and ended up in Paso Robles.
The team's owner says in that Tribune story:
"We will focus on each day of racing to win as many individual days as possible. Each day of victory generates $2 million or so of television exposure for our partners and sponsors and furthers our goal of being the most successful team in the sport.
The Tour de France is the largest sporting event in the world in 2009. It will be broadcast in 185 countries, and has a total viewing audience of 3.4 billion people worldwide. It’s like a three-week-long World Series, but with 20 teams fighting to win each day. It’s a crazy and dramatic sport — we fight for victories and visibility each day.
That's a great way to put it. In the United States, even with the amazing stories from the tour in the Lance Armstrong heyday, we have a sort of blind spot when it comes to cycling -- kind of like the one we have for soccer. But Lance is back, and the coverage on the nework now known as Versus is in HD for the first time this year ... just in time for a big Armstrong comeback!
Most people have their money on Contador, because he's in his prime. But no one seems quite willing to count out Armstrong. He came back from cancer, but can he come back from (okay, he's only 37 but we're talking major endurance sport here) old age?
And if he's able to shift gears into a domestique role, which he has never had to do, we may truly see how great a cyclist Armstrong is.