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Life in the old dog

Well, well, well.

Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Mikel Astarloza won his first ever stage at the Tour de France in Bourg-Saint-Maurice this afternoon, timing to perfection a solo attack off the front of the day’s breakaway.

But that was just a footnote on a day when Alberto Contador withstood, with apparent ease, everything the Schleck brothers could throw at him, and Jens Voigt, one of my favourite riders – a German who rides with tireless effort and a sense of humour, what’s not to like? – crashed heavily on the descent of the Petit-Saint-Bernard, a reminder of the perils of descending an Alp at speeds which can exceed 100km/h. (Fortunately, according to Lance Armstrong’s Twitter feed at least, Voigt seems to be okay. And Voigt’s teammate Andy Schleck has just tweeted that he has a broken cheekbone and stitches, but nothing worse.)

What caught my eye today was two unexpected displays of climbing strength: one from the still-effervescent Bradley Wiggins, who is visibly growing in confidence with each passing day and had no problem staying with Contador and Andy Schleck; the other from the old patron himself, Lance Armstrong.

Having been dropped by the repeated one-two attacks by Frank and Andy Schleck on the slopes of the Petit-Saint-Bernard, Armstrong and a group containing several other top GC riders quickly fell 30 seconds behind the yellow jersey group containing Contador, Andy Schleck and Wiggins. But then, just as the journos were firing up their laptops to write his obituary, Lance kicked hard and decisively to bridge the gap. It was a hugely impressive recovery, doubly so because Christian Vande Velde and Kim Kirchen followed but were unable to sustain Armstrong’s tempo and soon fell away.

Maybe it was just the last hurrah of a once dominant champion now rendered merely very good, but for a few brief minutes it was like watching the man who fixed Jan Ullrich with ‘the look’ before riding contemptuously away from him in 2001, or the one who charged through the field to win on Luz-Ardiden in 2003 having been felled by the handles of a spectator’s bag.

It was like watching the real Lance Armstrong again. To see him rekindle that dying spark at the age of 37 was, for me, a moment as special as any during his seven winning Tours. And it has kept his hopes, however slim, of wearing the maillot jaune in Paris on Sunday alive.

Tomorrow’s stage to Le Grand-Bornand – four category ones and a category two climb – is this year’s toughest in terms of cumulative ascent on a single day. Contador and Wiggins would both probably prefer to defend tomorrow to save the maximum amount of energy for Thursday’s time trial, in which they would expect to have an advantage over virtually all the other lead contenders. Therefore expect further attacks from the Schlecks, moderate time-triallers both, on either or both of the final two climbs.

As for Lance, who knows what he will do tomorrow? Will he play the faithful teammate and fulfil his promise not to attack Contador? Or will he find the legs and a convenient excuse to jump away with the Saxo Bank pair, one final roll of the dice before Paris? Probably the former, but the latter remains a mouth-watering, if unlikely, prospect.

For now at least, there’s life in the old dog yet. Rumours of his demise may yet prove to be premature. But no matter where he finishes, Lance Armstrong’s performance in the 2009 Tour de France has already been nothing short of stellar.

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Youth defeats experience in the Tour’s generation game

It would be too easy to say that Sunday’s stage to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier determined the outcome of this year’s Tour de France. However, as the second of only three summit finishes this year – and with a rest day immediately following – it was always going to be a key barometer as the final order among the race’s heads of state started to take shape.

After two weeks of cat-and-mouse in which we have only had the stage 1 individual time trial in Monaco to give us any real indication of form, at last we had a day on which the major contenders would have to show their hands. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

And so it was. Saxo Bank gave notice on the lower slopes of the mountain, setting a high tempo in support of the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank. But it wasn’t until Alberto Contador launched a brutal attack with 5.6km to go that the race finally blew wide open. In a matter of seconds, the Spaniard opened up a lead of a hundred metres and continued to ride away from the rest, with only Andy Schleck able to respond in any way.

Contador won easily, gaining 43 seconds on Andy Schleck and over a minute on everyone else, finally assuming the maillot jaune which AG2R’s Rinaldo Nocentini had been keeping warm for him for the past week. Overall, he leads Lance Armstrong by 97 seconds, with – and this is no typo – Britain’s Bradley Wiggins a further nine seconds behind in third place. Andreas Klöden trails Wiggins by 31 seconds, giving Astana three of the top four spots.

It had taken over two weeks, but Armstrong finally started to look every one of his 37 years in the closing kilometres. It was not so much that he was unable to follow Contador’s attack – it wasn’t as if anyone one else could, and it would have been poor form to chase down a teammate anyway – more that he was unable to respond as, one by one, the other top riders eased away from him, a sight we have not seen since, well, pretty much ever.

I’m not sure which was the more astonishing: the sight of Wiggins first riding comfortably alongside and then accelerating away from Armstrong, or the American’s frank and magnanimous admission afterwards that “he [Contador] showed he’s the best rider in the race, certainly the best climber. You know, when everybody is on the limit and then you can accelerate again, that’s how you win the Tour. Hats off to him.”

It was a gracious – if inevitable – concession by a man whose competitive rage has fuelled him to a record-breaking seven Tour de France victories. And there was a real sense of a passing of the torch from the old to the new, a feeling underlined by the order and ages of the top nine finishers on the stage:

1. Alberto Contador (26)
2. Andy Schleck (24)
3. Vincenzo Nibali (24)
4. Frank Schleck (29)
5. Bradley Wiggins (29)
6. Carlos Sastre (34)
7. Cadel Evans (32)
8. Andreas Klöden (34)
9. Lance Armstrong (37)

It’s certainly not all over yet, but it would take a brave man to bet against Contador staying in yellow all the way to Paris. And after his impressive efforts on Verbier – and with Thursday’s individual time trial, for which he will be one of the favourites to win – to follow, Wiggins is now looking like a strong bet for the podium. No British rider has ever finished in the top three in Paris; Robert Millar’s fourth place in 1984 remains our best result. Add that to Mark Cavendish’s four stage wins (so far), and it has been a truly memorable Tour for us Brits.

So now, after the tedium of the middle week, the final leg of the Tour is a doozy. Today’s stage from Martigny to Bourg-Saint-Maurice features two savage climbs, the Grand and Petit-Saint-Bernard. Thursday’s time trial round the lake at Annecy is preceded by five major climbs tomorrow (including the Col de la Colombiėre) and followed an easier-but-not-that-easy medium mountain stage. And then there is the small matter of the legendary Mont Ventoux to negotiate on Saturday.

Whoever wins – and my money is firmly on Contador – will certainly deserve it. It has taken a while for the pecking order to establish itself, but it is now firmly taking shape. And the advantage is firmly on the side of youth.

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