With just 48 hours to go before the 96th edition of the Tour de France kicks off in Monaco, you have to love the mind games being played out in front of our very eyes.
If Alberto Contador was attempting to mess with Silence-Lotto leader Cadel Evans’ head at the Dauphiné Libéré, staying glued to his wheel the whole time whenever the road went uphill but doing no more, then the 2007 Tour champ’s getting some of his own back from within his own team – and from none other than the king of mind games himself, Lance Armstrong.
In the few interviews Armstrong’s given of recent, it appears the Texan’s slowly working his way inside the head of the 26-year-old Spaniard. Though not just to get inside, but get inside and mess him up, like the puppeteer found he could do in that wonderfully un-Hollywood film, Being John Malkovich.
Since announcing his comeback and onto the team whose directeur-sportif Johan Bruyneel brought him so much good fortune (or is it the other way round?), both Armstrong and Contador have played down any scenario of internal rivalry at the 2009 Tour, with the former saying he’s happy to work for the latter – “the best stage racer in the world”, the American gushed of his team-mate earlier in the year – but in recent days, comments from both in recent days have changed fractionally though notably.
"I feel strong, I feel strong enough to win," Armstrong told French radio station Europe 1 earlier this week. "It will be close. [I have a] three to one [chance of winning]."
Fuelling the talk and excitement of a potential Contador-Armstrong rift is the exponential sum of money being exchanged online at present, and that the two team-mates are, according to those willing to throw their hard-earned cash at a possible winner in 2009, first and second favourites by some margin.
The bookmakers give the seven-time Tour champion a slightly lesser chance of success than his own forecast: Armstrong’s at 11/2, behind overwhelming favourite Contador, at 11/10.
Still, for a guy that only returned to professional racing six months ago after a three-and-a-half year lay-off that apparently involved numerous nights of beer swilling and Tex-Mex, those odds are pretty damn good, and better than Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck (7/1), Evans of Silence-Lotto (10/1) and this year’s Giro champion, Denis Menchov of Rabobank – my pick as the best outside chance to take cycling’s greatest prize.
Given the Giro-Tour double hasn’t been achieved since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 – coupled with the fact that many of the Italian’s achievements have been under constant scrutiny both before and after his cocaine-induced death in 2004 (for those interested, it’s worth reading Matt Rendell’s ‘The Death of Marco Pantani’) – it is, admittedly, a pretty big call, but it’s almost certain Menchov will be even stronger at the Tour. He’ll have to be, if he’s going to win.
It is not just the pundits who are wont to speculate about Lance, but the majority of the media as well.
Following his fortnight-long media block-out at the Giro d’Italia, where a number of scribes raised his ire following the circuit race in Milan that was apparently neutralised at his behest, then felt his wrath all the way to the finish in Rome, saying not a word to us hacks, Armstrong still isn’t being particularly accessible. It’s a far cry from the Lance we saw in January this year, where he rode the Tour Down Under for the very first time and promised comprehensive online access to his anti-doping records and test results, then decided against it.
While he’s been more accommodating of late, albeit to certain favoured publications, it’s a long way off what one would call open; depending on how things go with the French press, Armstrong may find himself in contention for another title at the Tour: the basket of lemons handed out to the rider who the press has the poorest relations with. Not that he gives a hoot.
Still, it’s too early to say if the Armstrong v Contador relationship will be anything like that between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault at the 1986 Tour. So far, despite the subtle changes in tone from the two Astana leaders, all within the camp say there is no rivalry – even those outside Astana aren’t so sure.
American Chris Horner, one of the strongest Astana domestiques at the Giro before he crashed out, found himself left on the bench (mainly as a result of his unknown form). Given his outspoken and less than complimentary views on Armstrong in the past, he can be viewed as an outsider with inside knowledge, and told his local newspaper The Oregonian that Contador is only the team's leader on the surface.
"Well, on paper it's pretty easy to see it's going to be Alberto Contador," Horner said, "but sometimes you gotta look a little further than the cover."
Even Tour director Christian Prudhomme is hopeful there’s a bit more going on than what’s been said in the papers.
"I would love to be a little mouse and see how it goes within Astana," Prudhomme told Reuters last Sunday. “Contador will have only a week, and actually two stages, to show he is the boss in his own team.”
The two stages Prudhomme’s referring to is Saturday’s 15.5-kilometre opening time test in Monaco that kicks off the 3,459.5-km jaunt, and the seventh stage from Barcelona to Andorra Arcalis – the first mountain-top finish where, in the past Tours he’s won, Armstrong made a none-too-subtle point of asserting his authority and crushing his rivals’ hopes in one fell swoop.
1997 was the last time the Arcalis climb was used, when Jan Ullrich decimated the field en route to a convincing overall victory for the German juggernaut. Many believed there was plenty more where that came from, but it turned out to be ‘Der Kaiser’s’ last, his tracks impeded first by Pantani, then Armstrong, then Operación Puerto.
As competition director of the Tour de France Jean François Pescheux says in the official Tour de France guide: "The riders start in Barcelona at an altitude of 230 metres and finish at an altitude of 2,240 metres at Arcalis. That says it all. In addition, the first climbs of the Tour are always tough."
That’s just the way Armstrong likes ‘em. I’m banking on a showdown on the Arcalis corral, but before that, a bit of Texas Hold’em Poker.
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