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Shell Game.
By Tom Demerly.

Johan Bruyneel goes in to the 2009 Tour de France with an old sleight of hand: The Shell Game.

Bruyneel has three shells; Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer. He shuffles them quickly across the table that is France until he gets to Paris in two and a half weeks. When he picks up one of the shells the yellow jersey will be underneath. He will have won again.

While this trick is old, it’s the first time it is successfully employed in the Tour de France. LeMond and Hinault, Bauer and Hampsten couldn’t make it work back in the ‘80’s on the top heavy La Vie Claire team. Egos got in the way. Bruyneel hasn’t tried this one before. He is accustomed to putting all his chips on the Armstrong square. It’s a new strategy for Bruyneel, but a simple one- there is strength in numbers- the numbers will fall where they may. Odds are one of Bruyneel’s men will win.

It is still too early to say who the man will be for Bruyneel. Romance and legend favor Armstrong. Calculation favors Contador. The outsiders may favor a feint that puts the onus of racing on Contador and Armstrong and then hands off to a less conspicuous Leipheimer- the way the understated Jacques Anquetil used to win. It’s simply too early to tell.

Regardless of the outcome- and even if my predictions are wrong- one thing that is assured is the luster has returned to the Tour de France. For now. The headlines carry news of crosswinds and echelons, daring sprints, dashing characters and inter team subterfuge. The race has been delightfully absent of drug allegations and positive tests. It is about racing again. Hopefully it stays that way. If the race remains a battle of tactics and time splits the single largest winner when we get to Paris will be the sport of cycling. It will have slayed the drug monster.

Another outcome of this Tour de France is a return to hard-pedal racing. Men are men and the crosswinds and climbs decide the day. As the Tour de France banters about the impact of radios in team cars the mistral crosswind that gathers off the coast of Africa spends itself on the riders in the open plains of stage 3. The romance has returned.

There is plenty to love about our very young 2009 Tour de France. Are you a fan of conspiracy theories? How about a combine between Columbia/High Road and Astana? These alliances are famous and infamous in cycling. Look back on stage 3: Astana wanted a man poised for Yellow. Columbia/High Road wanted another stage win for sprint specialist Cavendish. The two had converging agendas. Is it any wonder they “happened” to converge in the front echelon as the wind sliced the peloton in the open fields of stage 3? Do these things happen “automatically”? And what about the truncation for Astana’s team men? The amputation from the main field seemed to conveniently include only one team leader (Armstrong) and a couple lieutenants. More than coincidence? Armstrong himself admitted to a flurry of communication with the team car just before the echelon went. Did the communication include a liaison with the head-shed in the team car at Columbia/High Road? Such confidences are rarely betrayed in cycling…

For a race that will span 20 days the drama that unfolded in the 50 minutes of the team time trial and the final kilometers of stage 3 may be greater than some entire Tours de France. When Armstrong was a shoe-in the entire affair was oddly antiseptic. There was the wonderful year when he gazed back at Ullrich, defying him, and then administered the coupe d’ grace in the high mountains. For Armstrong those moments of panache have been rare. He is more the Jacques Anquetil than the Bernard Hinault. This year his henchmen provide some suspense. Will they betray him? Has he betrayed them? Do they ride as three musketeers- all for one- one for all, united under the Astana Banner of Bruyneel? These questions aren’t answered early- but they are answered eventually, and that is why we get up early to see the stage, stay up late to see it replayed.

So, at least for the time being, we have our Tour de France back. It is about men and tactics, deals and crosswinds. It is about the lore and history of the event. It is brutishly difficult and that difficulty is joined with more human fragility than previous years run under the specter of the doper.

We have our race back now, and whether we get to keep it all the way to Paris or, like most boyhood illusions, something tarnishes it; we can revel in the most magnificent of human contests for now. The Tour is on… Viva le Tour!


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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