The Lance Armstrong Comeback: 2009's Bizarro Race Routes
With about five weeks to go before Lance Armstrong makes his return to pro cycling at a stage race in Australia, the weirdness is mounting.
Over the weekend, race organizers in Venice unveiled the route for next year's Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), and somehow they managed to out-bizarre the route for next year's Tour de France, which was revealed in October.
One of the charms of cycling's three "grand tours" (the third is the Vuelta a España in Spain) is that each year the three great races take different routes to get around their respective countries. The Tour, for example, generally follows the perimeter of France after starting somewhere in the north end of the nation, and each year alternates between a clockwise and a counterclockwise direction. So in odd years, the race visits the Alps before it goes on to the Pyrenees, and in even years that's reversed.
The big tours follow a general plan that is very familiar to longtime fans: the first week is a series of flat stages to allow the sprinters and their teams to shine, followed by a middle week of brutal mountains, and then a final week with a mix of stages that include a major time trial, or race against the clock, to settle any lingering doubts about who's going to finish first in Paris or Milan or Madrid.
For Armstrong, that has meant a first week at the Tour of relative anonymity, or at least as much anonymity as it was possible to manage for a 7-time winner. After the sprinters' week in the spotlight, the road would then pitch upwards and the real selection for the overall champion would begin. Recent dominators of the race (Armstrong, and before him, Spain's Miguel Indurain) have been strong time trialists who know that any gains made by climbers in the mountains tend to get wiped out in a final race against the clock.
Race routes change from year to year, but these general principles tend to stay the same. This year, however, for some reason race organizers decided to toss tradition out the window.
The 2009 Tour de France will begin in Monaco, go across the south of France and down to Barcelona in Spain, and then head into the Pyrenees on the first Friday. It's not unusual for the race to begin outside France, and a side trip to Catalonia is also not too out of the ordinary. But the race's overall shape is fairly strange - after spending a week in the south, it heads north but then cuts across the middle of the country so that it can come back down into the Alps before finally finishing in Paris. It's more corkscrew than clockface.
But where this year's race will really be remarkable is in its final weekend. For once, the climbers will have an advantage as the final climb comes after the last time trial. In other words, it's the time trial specialists who must think about building up a lead on the climbers, and not the other way around. For the normally conservative Tour, that change is astonishing.
And what a final climb! The day before the ceremonial finish in Paris, the riders go up the legendary moonscape of Mont Ventoux, a punishing ascent where British cyclist Tom Simpson perished in the 1967 edition of the race. (It's a cycling law or something that one must use the description "moonscape" and mention poor Tommy Simpson's death whenever one refers to the epic Ventoux.) Time differences between riders at the top will likely be huge, and whatever leads the time trial specialists may have built up could easily be wiped out.
Will this help or harm Armstrong? He's certainly done well on Ventoux before, but there's a bigger issue than the race route facing him, and that's the question of what he'll have left in the tank in late July after taking part in Italy's Giro in May.
If Armstrong's announcement in September that he was making a comeback had some folks scratching their heads, his decision to race both the Giro and the Tour really had the experts wondering. It's impossible to think of Armstrong in either of the two big races without imagining that he'll be trying to win. But winning both is a very rare feat. The last person to do so was the Italian, Marco Pantani, who achieved it in 1998. But, as we now know, he was juiced to the gills on EPO, the doping agent that puts more oxygen in the blood.
For most (undoped) mortals, it's just too much to win both races in one year - most don't even enter both in one year. Armstrong, for example, has never before entered a Giro. He was always so focused on winning the Tour alone, he entered few other races except those that would help him peak in July.
When he announced that his comeback would include the 2009 Giro, for many it was a sign that he wasn't really serious about winning the Tour in July. Armstrong is not only 37, but his teammate, 2007 winner Alberto Contador, will be returning to the Tour with a good chance to win it, so the notion of an Armstrong Giro-Tour double victory appears to be remote. The smart money seems to be that Armstrong will race to win the Giro, then help Contador win in France.
Now comes news of the Giro's 2009 configuration. Armstrong has let it be known that he's "not unhappy" with the strange race that was revealed on Saturday. But for a guy who will only be a few months into a comeback after three years out of competition, it's got to be startling to see that high mountains have been placed just a few days into the race.
And there are other oddities - like a day spent circuiting around Milan, a sop to the town that normally sees the big finish - but the most remarkable is a time trial of spectacular length, nearly 62 kilometers. (Daily stages can be longer than 200 kilometers when racers travel in a pack, but when they race individually against the clock, organizers tend to keep it down to about 40 to 50 kilometers both to acknowledge the strain racers are under in a time trial, but also to keep the time differences from getting too out of hand.)
If those early mountains don't mess up Lance's return, the long time trial down the Tyrrhenian Coast is one way of handing him the race on a platter. Over that distance, non-time-trial specialists, such as the climbers who benefited from a first week of mountains, could get left far behind.
Which raises the question: Why are Tour and Giro race organizers messing with their formulas this year, and why would the Giro seem to both punish and cater to Armstrong?
My completely uneducated guess is that it's just a bizarre, unintended collision of different agendas.
These races are planned over a long period, and both were probably set well before Lance said anything about returning. Their unusual routes, then, may be reactions to the absence of Armstrong, not his presence.
Pro cycling, particularly in this country, has suffered greatly in the post-Lance period. This summer, with both Armstrong and the charismatic 2007 champion Contador sitting out, the 2008 Tour still managed to be a fantastically entertaining and nail-bitingly close affair. But when a guy from Spain named Sastre is battling it out with a couple of brothers from Luxembourg and a not very telegenic guy from Australia named Evans, it can be tough to get people who aren't cycling fanatics interested. So what do you do? You change the race itself!
If you want to amp up interest in the Giro, you throw in a short but legendary climb (Block Haus, site of Eddy Merckx's first mountaintop win), you do circles around the 1909 birthplace of the race (Milan), you add a grueling, long time trial along the beach, and you hit the high mountains practically before anyone's had a chance to break a sweat.
But if all of that was meant to raise the race's profile, it was unnecessary. With Armstrong riding it for the first time, the Giro will be inundated with media interest. It will dawn on some Americans that cyclists do more than simply ride around France for three weeks every summer. And the Giro, which has a different reputation and feel than the Tour, will be under much more scrutiny than the past. Let's hope it can handle it, and that we don't get another Riccardo Riccò, the young rider who was so spectacular this year, but admitted that his heroes included Pantani and other known dopers. The news that Riccò himself turned out to be juicing was disappointing but unsurprising.
So it turns out Armstrong's first Giro will be a strange one. But will we actually get to watch it? In the middle of the Armstrong craze, cycling was so hot, the Lance-less Giro was being broadcast live on American television, if you knew where to look. But this spring, you either streamed it online or you didn't see it at all. I haven't heard yet whether Versus or Universal Sports has announced a Giro package for 2009. But that's for a future update.