Monday, July 27, 2009

12 MEMORABLE THINGS FROM JULY IN FRANCE

All good things come to an end. Thanks for the inspiration, guys

The 2009 edition of the 3-week athletic epic known as the Tour de France concluded on Sunday on the circuits of the Champs Elysees in Paris. What an interesting race with multiple compelling story lines. Here are the 12 stories by which I will remember this race with gratitude:

1. The return of Lance Armstrong to the Tour after 3 1/2 years of retirement. At age 37, he proved he's still got it...and maybe a few more years.

2. Lance and 2007 Tour champ Alberto Contador vying for dominance at the top of the strongest team. Team Astana, sponsored by the tourism department of Kazakhstan, was stacked. Four cyclists from the team could have won the Tour and, but for the immaturity of Contador, Astana might have swept 1-2-3 in the overall category. Contador won the "top dog" bragging rights this year. Don't look for Contador on Lance's newly-announced team and sponsor, Radio Shack, next year.

3. The duel/rivalry between two American teams--Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-HTC. Great to have two American-based teams with a smattering of American cyclists on them duking it out for sprint superiority and mountain-stage finishes. Bradley Wiggins of Garmin-Slipstream emerged as a top contender. George Hincapie shined for Columbia-HTC. And what can you say about Mark Cavendish?

4. The incredible sprinting power of Mark Cavendish--who iced the cake with a 6th stage victory on the Champs Elysees. He did not win the Green Jersey competition; Thor Hushovd bested him by just 10 points. But Cavendish emphatically ascended to the title of fastest cyclist in the world, winning seven sprint finishes and staking 1st place in six stages. Great Britain has much to cheer and look forward to.

5. The Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank of Luxembourg. Andy finished 2nd overall with the sacrificial support of Frank. These guys are mountain specialists and they put on a show for the world in the Alps. Frank sacrificing himself so Andy could move into 2nd place on the Parish podium is a great story that will be often retold.

6. Epic climbs and mountain-top finishes, particularly at Verbier and Ventoux. Pain and grit personified.

7. The stage George Hincapie should have ridden into the Yellow Jersey but was denied(by just 5 seconds) by now finger-pointing American teams and former teammates. Everyone was pulling for the big North Carolinian to get the Yellow Jersey, if but for a day. But he was denied it by a few seconds. Why did the American teams pick up the pace to try to catch his breakaway group? What did they have to gain? Was Garmin-Slipstream just playing spoiler?

8. Contador's overall dominance confirmed but significant immaturity exposed. Okay, the Spaniard was best overall. He time-trialed well, winning the last individual time trial. He climbed better than his rivals. He had a team that gave him the margin he needed in the team time trial. And the strength of Astana gave him an advantage he will never again enjoy. I give it up for Contador, though I can't quite put my finger on why I don't really like him. I can point to his attack of the Schleck brothers and his teammate Andreas Kloden in Stage 18 as one reason. The attack was unnecessary and fruitless and it ultimately knocked Kloden out of contention for a podium finish.

9. Lance finishing 3rd overall, after sacrificing his chances of contending with Contador for top spot by staying back to mark Bradley Wiggins in Stage 18. Lance showed a grace in this race not previously known. And there's more to come.

10. Fabian Cancellara's dominance in individual time trials. The Swiss is the best, hands down, at time trialing.

11. Levi Leipheimer crashing out while in 4th place overall. Tough fall for our man from Montana.

12. No doping scandals! First year in a long time that no one has been sent home for use of banned performance-enhancing substances. Lance was tested 12 times during the Tour.

Great, clean, well-ridden race. Thanks to all. A great way to spend July. I look forward to next year!

BTW: This photo, of Lance stepping off the Paris podium to the adoration and applause of his children, is my favorite of this year's Tour. What matters.

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