It's 11 days into the Tour de Lance, er, France, with 11 days to go – and a midpoint check shows an intriguing race unfolding.
Drum roll, s'il vous plaît.
As much as other fine riders might wish it otherwise, the Tour is evolving as billed: It's about Team Astana and how its two top riders – the American old lion Lance Armstrong, and the Spanish young lion Alberto Contador – are working together (or not) inside that team. Both are burning up the road and the stopwatch.
At this point, with the Pyrenees behind them and the nasty Alps ahead, Mr. Armstrong is eight seconds back in third. Mr. Contador is six seconds back in second. Two seconds (that's one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two) separate them.
A Hollywood script couldn't do better.
The yellow-jersey leader is Italian Rinaldo Nocentini of AG2R, a French team. But many cycling fans believe that Mr. Nocentini can't keep this up. Four of the six leaders are in Team Astana – and they will set a pace in the coming crucial three-day Alps run that a mid-level rider like Nocentini is not likely to match.
Other prime contenders are lagging some two or more minutes back. British rider Mark Cavendish is ruling the sprints, but is one hour and 13 minutes behind overall – close to the outer rings of Saturn, in Tour terms.
The French love a psychological drama and they love the Tour. Now they are getting both. Contador, the 2007 Tour winner, was Team Astana's man. Then, Armstrong came out of a three-plus year retirement – partly, it has been suggested, to revive a doping-plagued premier event. With Armstrong riding so well, the race narrative is now as much about strategy on the Astana bus and pacts made around the team dinner table, as the performances. Armstrong suggests that the only way Astana can lose is if the team starts to fight.
Yet with Team Astana likely to split after the race, Contador may not want to defer to his seven-time winner teammate. In the Pyrenees this week, Contador attacked at the end of the race, gaining time. It wasn't part of the team plan, and Armstrong said so publicly. That led to a press conference about Contador's approach, with the subtext being his tense relations with the cycling legend from Texas.
Outside the team hotel in a media scrum, Contador offered diplomacy and grace through gritted teeth: "Everything is going as normal within the team.... The impression of tension is exaggerated.... I don't want to waste my energy on this subject.... It's true that there have been moments when the atmosphere was better."
It was a "beautiful story told by Alberto Contador, who's nevertheless having a hard time fooling the press with his version of the Tour 2009," said L'Equipe reporter Anthony Thomas-Commin.
Meanwhile, inside the hotel from a room overlooking the media, Armstrong was Twittering about listening to the Rolling Stones.
Tour organizers this week forbade the riders to have radio contact within teams for one stage, and they're scheduled to do it again Friday. The move reduces the ability of team managers to give information about road conditions and what other riders are doing – resulting in more freedom and less certainty. It's considered an experiment that could alter the Tour. But many riders and team managers don't like it and are campaigning for the trial to end. Astana Team director Johan Bruyneel said the Tour was not the time for an "experiment."
The Alps stages start July 21 – and should forge the 2009 yellow jersey winner.
And so far, no one's been caught doping.
Vive le vélo!