No one wanted to see a nice guy like Levi Leipheimer leave the Tour on a stroke of bad luck. But Lance Armstrong probably rued the accident more than the average Levi fan.
Levi, a good soldier, was not going to win the Tour. But he could have aided Lance’s chances immeasurably by helping to control the peloton, bridge any gaps with leaders, provide moral support and otherwise work for the King while keeping putative team leader Alberto Contador in check.
Without Leipheimer as domestique, Lance is at greater risk of being isolated and even dropped by Astana if it finds itself in a dog fight on one of the tough Alps stages.
In the past, it would not have mattered as much. His team was never divided as Astana is this year, and Lance would have found other ways of controlling the pack and winning the mountain stages.
But this year, Lance needs help. I disagree with Phil Liggett’s and Paul Sherwen’s persistent chatter about Lance looking as strong as ever, never threatened or under duress.
If you watch Lance closely on the climbs, he’s out of the saddle considerably more than the other race leaders. On more than one occasion his pedal cadence has been slightly higher and out of sync with other lead riders, indicating use of a lower gear.
Riding out of the saddle could be as trivial as saddle sores or a stiff back. But it also could indicate a lack of long-climb durability. As for riding in a lower gear, that seems to me a clear giveaway.
The reason that conventional analysis and the Liggett/Sherwen observations have been left unchallenged is that Lance so far has not been tested. Astana has the peloton woefully intimidated. There’s also the strategic factor of everyone waiting for the big Alps stages to really declare their intentions.
Lance isn’t the only one who hasn’t been tested. In this edition of the Tour, everyone’s been JRA like it was a Double Century or something.
When the breakout occurs, intuition tells me that Lance will become human again. And that’s fine. He’s done a great job of riveting worldwide interest on the Tour, reviving commercial and TV dollars, and generally stirred the pot as only Lance can do. Strange as it may sound, Lance doesn’t have to win to emerge as the memorable force in this year’s Tour.
All that said, he’s going to really wish he had Levi by his side when the Cols d’Enfer loom this coming week. Alberto Contador is saying he won’t follow a Lance attack in the Alps. Translated to strategy-talk: Lance better not follow a Contador attack either. And a Contador attack is a lot more likely to happen.