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
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
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
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!