I follow sports maybe 20% more than the average sports fan overall, but a big chunk of that is covered by sports that are not so gripping in the Chicago area, and in some cases, America as a whole. So today, you get a dose of sports you might otherwise not know or care about.
Tour de Lance - Despite his best effort and the hopes of a Cinderella story across the pond, Lance will finish up bicycle's #1 event in not-first for the first time in his last 8 tries. Since Lance's last win in 2005, we had an American win (Floyd Landis) who appeared to be ready to carry on the Lance tradition for a few more years. Instead he became the first winner to ever be stripped of his yellow jersey. This awarded the win to 2nd place finisher Oscar Pereiro, and set of a run of Spaniards claiming the title...a streak that will continue this year, just a few hours after I finish posting this blog. Pereiro is not now, and was not then considered a top contender for the win. He was involved in a breakaway that stretched too far one day, and the main field gave up too much time to recover in the final days...enough to retain what would have been a 2nd-place finish. Pereiro got the win, but not the respect of a winner.
In 2007, Alberto Contador raced for American sponsored Team Discovery. In cycling, specifically stage-racing like the Tour de France, teams are composed of 9 riders, each playing varying roles. (Come to think of it, the similarities to baseball go beyond the 9-man team, but I'll talk more about that later.) Typically each team has a sprinter racing for the green jersey, a climber racing for the polka-dot jersey, a young rider chasing the white jersey, a general classification rider vying for the yellow jersey as best overall time, and the remaining racers playing varying support roles. Contador was Discovery's young rider competing for the white jersey; American Levi Leipheimer was the team's yellow jersey hopeful. However, once they hit the big mountains, Contador proved he could not only stay with the leaders, but accelerate away from them at any moment. Although more riders were probably dismissed and suspended for illegal activities in 2007 than all other years combined, Contador showed me he would be a contender for years to come...not just a fluke winner like Pereiro the year before. He won convincingly, and he had the respect of the other riders.
One team in particular that was ravaged by cheating in the 2007 TDF was Team Astana. Following their expulsion halfway through the '07 Tour, nearly all the riders and trainers were fired in the offseason. Astana then went out and signed both Contador and Leipheimer since Discovery opted not to sponsor a team for '08. Despite the Astana facelift, Tour organizers prohibited them from entering the race in 2008. Therefore, Contador didn't have the opportunity to defend his title. While being kept out of last year's race, Contador instead went on to win the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana, cycling's other two Grand Tours. He became only the 6th rider to win all 3, and the youngest to do so by far. Carlos Sastre went on to win the 2008 Tour de France as the 3rd different Spaniard in a row...then Lance came out of retirement, and that pretty much brings us to the start of the '09 Tour de France.
Contador was the major favorite headed into this year's July race in France, and Lance was the ultimate wild card, racing for the same team (Astana) as Contador and Leipheimer. Rather than take you stage by stage, all you need to know is Lance kept it close until the final week or so of the race, even being tied for the lead for a few days early in the Tour. Contador finally claimed yellow one week ago after winning a major mountain stage by a significant margin, and then proceeding to win the individual time trial a few days later. He now holds a 4+ minute advantage over 2nd place, and about 5 and a half minutes over 3rd-place Lance with only tomorrow's "parade" stage to go. Unless Contador falls and breaks something, he will have won his 2nd TDF in as many tries, and he's only 26. Maybe he won't win 5 or 6 more in a row like Armstrong accomplished, but he will probably finish with at least as many wins as Lance, if not more.
The best thing to look forward to in next year's race is that Lance has already announced his return (unlike some star athletes that drag the retirement decision out over months and months of speculation), and he'll be riding for an America sponsor again. Will he beat Contador? Almost certainly not, but his odds a 9th straight podium finish look pretty good.
I could go on about Lance's near-death battle with cancer which became a global campaign known as LiveStrong, and Lance's dual purpose for this year's race, but that story is old. If you want to know more, there are probably a dozen best-selling books on Lance's fight with cancer.
I could write about Armstong's recent womanizing ways, but that is better suited for gossip magazines. Besides, it would diminish the pride and glory he brings to Americans watching his nearly impossible feat this year.
I used to think that Lance was another performance enhancer. For all those that have been caught, how could he have possibly won seven years in a row without cheating somewhere along the way? This is probably the first 100% clean Tour in years and year, and after the show he put on at 37, suddenly I'm not so sure he ever did cheat. Go Lance, go!
(Come back tomorrow for a NASCAR update)