Even stepping outside myself and imagining the Tour through the eyes of a sunburnt American diletante, I think I still would have seen the inherent flaw in the way Versus and USA Today and even Bicycling Magazine tried to sell the 2010 Tour: what happens to “Lance vs. Contador” if either of them falls out of contention?
I’ve heard all the excuses—we have to sell papers. We’re building the audience. It’s what people want. I even got the press release about the record viewership in the first week. But as Lance shuffled meekly through the little door today with a torn jersey and shattered expectations, I think many purveyors of coverage in this sport will see exactly how poorly they’ve accomplished these things. You don’t develop someone’s taste for brie by deep-frying it.
The failure of this much-hyped rivalry goes beyond Armstrong. For all the talk of RadioShack being a stacked squad, they sure haven’t shown themselves much in the first week. SaxoBank split the race on the cobbles. On the first day of meaningful climbs, a Frenchman carried off the stage win and the maillot jaune, while BBox Telecom convincingly (and ultimately, idiotically) managed the gaps behind. Today’s mountain selections came courtesy of Team Sky and the much-maligned Astana.
Other than an unsuccessful attempt at a crosswind field split on Stage 5, and some inexplicable parading toward the front on Stage 4, they’ve had little impact on the race. Of their touted pre-Tour contenders, only Levi Leipheimer remains within five minutes of the GC lead. And despite Armstrong’s oft-repeated faith in the man, Leipheimer has not been known to shine as Grand Tours go on. That Vuelta exclusion’s looking like a mighty clairvoyant move right about now. And did I mention the dope investigation?
So, on Levi’s scrappy, under-appreciated legs, hinges the fate of one of the most successful brands in the history of all sports. Can you even imagine it? No more armies of dentists dragging the LBS out of the red each year with Lance-replica Trek purchases. No more Chris Carmichael promising phantom results to middle-aged racers about to train themselves out of love with the sport. No more laurel wreaths cast at the feet of DS whose prolific success in July has allowed him to brush years of downright miserable classics results under the rug.
Even Contador has struggled to uphold his side of the rivalry. On today’s first category climbs, he couldn’t turn his teammates’ ax-wielding into a time gap or even a stage win. The final 2k were punctuated by attacks from at least five different riders—few of whom featured in any state-side pre-race commentary. Contador is still an obvious favorite—I think this will be more clear on the tougher climbs to come—but he’s yet to show head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field.
The only way the Lance v. Contador storyline can be spun now is through leveraging Leipheimer’s high GC position to keep the hero-worshippers on board for stage wins or the role of super domestique. And frankly, I’m not optimistic—understanding the complexities of teamwork takes some appreciation for the tactics of the sport, after all, and second-grader storylines and American-only recaps are seldom an effective way to do that.
Today the 2010 Tour de France changed dramatically. And while it may be bad news for the current business model of bringing cycling to Americans, for those who follow the sport outside of July, today’s action was a promising sign for the weeks to come. Wave good-bye the Tour of Lance and Alberto; Welcome to Le Tour 2.0.