Nine years ago Lance Armstrong won the Tour de Suisse en route to his third Tour de France victory. Today he starts the concluding 26.9 kilometre time trial with the possibility of scooping the final yellow jersey, but he needs to make up over two seconds per kilometre on race leader Robert Gesink.
The Rabobank climber is 55 seconds ahead and is determined to fight all the way to the line in Liestal. In all six riders are ahead of Armstrong going into the test; Rigoberto Uran (Caisse d’Epargne) and Steve Morabito (BMC Racing Team) are 26 and 19 seconds ahead respectively, while Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank), Joaquin Rodriguez (Team Katusha) and Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil) are closer.
If this was the Armstrong of five years ago, many would consider the time trial to be a foregone conclusion and the final race victory to be almost certainly his. However, as Armstrong admits, his time trialing since his return has been inconsistent and this means the final result is up in the air.
Does he think he can win? “I would say yes, but my time trials have disappointed me in the last two years,” he told Eurosport. “But we'll see how it goes Sunday. I will do my best and I think the fact that there is only one race against the clock in the next Tour is a real chance. But I must be happy. I am almost 39 years, I am professional cyclist for 17 years and I'm still ahead, despite the nonsense I read in newspapers or on internet every day.”
Armstrong is presumably referring to the recent hullabaloo caused by Floyd Landis’ accusations against his former team captain and the US Postal Service squad. USADA and federal investigators are taking the claims seriously and investigating further.
Whether or not that will have future consequences remains to be seen, but for now Armstrong will focus on the immediate task at hand. Today’s time trial is gradually uphill for the first 11.4 kilometres, gaining approximately 250 metres in altitude in that time, then descends for almost all of the remaining 15.5 kilometres to the finish.
At a glance it’s similar to the opening time trial, although that was almost 20 kilometres shorter and the climb was considerably steeper.
Armstrong didn’t perform as expected in that test, clocking a time 29 seconds behind that of Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and taking 44th place. He said afterwards that he backed off due to the wet conditions, but nevertheless had been just 35th at the intermediate time check at the top of the hill.
Gesink was a second slower at this point and kept the same deficit until the end. On that form, he should hold off his Texan rival today.
One who will be watched by both is the Swiss rider Steve Morabito, Armstrong’s Astana team-mate last year. He is very motivated by the thoughts of winning what he terms his ‘second home tour’ – his real home race is the Tour de Romandie, as he is from that region – and will hope that things go well. He performed better than both of his rivals in the prologue, finishing 19th in the test and beating Armstrong and Gesink by ten and eleven seconds respectively.
Rodriguez and Uran were also quicker, with the former posting a time one second behind that of Morabito, and the latter conceding a further two seconds. Both Frank Schleck and Matteo Carrara finished just behind Armstrong.
One thing that points to a better performance by the RadioShack rider is the solid form he has shown in recent days. He was fifth on the mountain stage to La Punt and was prominent on yesterdays lumpy, Ardennes Classic-style race to Liestal. He’s undoubtedly motivated to give it a shot in today’s test.
If he succeeds, that will give him a major morale boost prior to the Tour de France. If not, he’ll at least head away from the race knowing that he is gaining form relative to his other performances this year.
Either way, he’s chosen to play down his chances. “It will be very difficult because of my age, 38 years, the explosiveness of other guys, my difficulties in shining in the time trials in the past couple of years,” he told Eurosport. “It will not be easy, but I have to be smart, be lucky and play the team card a little. To summarize, I would say that there are guys who are bigger favourites than me.”