Obviously my only possible qualification for saying anything about the Tour de France is that I’ve watched it for years — some of them Lance Armstrong years, but I watched through the intervening period until his comeback this year. I could myself losing a bit of my athletic innocence, as it were, by Floyd Landis’ monstrous (but chemically-induced) stage victory in 2007. So I guess that, despite all the controversy, Armstrong did do something for competitive cycling’s fan base: he snared me.

Well, anyway, with that pedigree, here I go:

Most of the reports I’ve read and the immediate commentary on Stage 7 yesterday seemed to think that Alberto Contador’s move late on the slopes of Arcalis was somehow designed to settle the lingering leadership controversy on Team Astana. Of course, both Armstrong and Contador’s statements contradict that. While Armstrong claimed “surprise” he also played the teammate card, claiming he stayed back as Contador surged to mark other contenders in the group — such as Sastre or Evans — in the last kilometer. Contador claimed that he went under fresh legs but also motivated by the spanish locale, feeling a bit of hometown pride.

But if you look at the move itself, it seems like an odd split-the-difference move between the two teammates/rivals. Let’s break it down both ways, in terms of Contador v Armstrong as team-leader/teammate:

  • Armstrong leader, Contador domestique: If Lance was truly in the driver’s seat I don’t think that Contador’s attack happens. It seems like the tactics du jour were to ride to the front and drive a consistent high pace designed to break down the peloton and make further attacks difficult. As it were, this was the strategy that Astana followed for most of the day, and it worked.
  • Contador leader, Armstrong domestique: With the roles reversed I think that Contador’s attack comes much, much earlier. He did look extremely strong going up, with the initial acceleration in particular coming suddenly and with incredible force. This scenario calls for Armstrong to lay back and mark further attacks, pretty much what happened in the last kilometer yesterday.

To me then the most significant thing about Contador’s attack was where it took place: between 1 and 2 kilometers from the finish on a 10 kilometer climb! I didn’t see this important fact brought out in any of the reports I read, so my attempt at a contribution to the discussion. Again, if Contador is really fresh and in charge, he goes way earlier and takes a lot more time. If Armstrong is in charge, no Contador attack. An attack so late and purposely designed to not take too much time seems like a strange compromise between strategies. Not a harmful one, really, but a weird one.

Anyway, more fun during the next week, particularly next weekend. Who am I in for? Not sure, really. I was hoping that Lance’s return would signal a move towards more of the dramatic attacks that seemed to mark his tenure, with some of these missing in past years (particularly last year, which to me seemed like an overly-strategic and fairly boring Tour iteration), but we’ll see.