Stage 10 had everything you could ask for from the Tour de France: spectacular scenery, dramatic racing, a few crashes just to mix things up. This was the first stage this year where, if you weren’t watching, I think you really missed something.
Between the scenery and the racing, it’s hard to say which was more impressive. Even on TV, the cloud-wrapped peaks, towering waterfalls, and serene lakes of the Alps were too much to process. In person, it must be completely overwhelming.
The riders were not enjoying the terrain quite so much. This was an absolutely insane stage featuring two separate climbs of more than 6000 feet each. Now, I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but I don’t think that’s such a smart idea. Shouldn’t you get the altitude sickness from that, or worse? I kept waiting for one of the cyclists to just explode, showering the crowd with blood and gristle.
You have to give much respect to anyone who’s willing to even attempt such a thing. And the climb isn’t even the most dangerous part of the day; that would be the downhill, where the riders routinely reach speeds of 60 miles an hour. Think about that for a minute. That’s 60 miles an hour, not kilometers. On a bicycle. Downhill on a winding mountain road. And if you pussy out you’re going to be disdained by your peers, yelled at by your boss, and possibly called out on international TV. No pressure there.
After ascending and descending the 1967-meter Cormet-de-Roselend, the riders got a little break in the valley and started up a 2000-meter peak called Courcheval. Up to that point, there had been some breakaways and some people getting left behind and some shifting around in the peloton, but nothing of major import.
On the way up Courcheval, Lance Armstrong’s Team Discovery took over the front of the peloton and set a brutal, grinding pace that started leaving riders behind almost immediately. One by one, the team members used up everything they had riding at the front and dropped away. Finally, with 7.1 miles left to go, Armstrong rode up beside his one remaining teammate, rookie Yaroslav Popovych, and yelled something in his ear.
That was Popovych’s cue to exhaust everything he had left in one furious 30-second burst and get lost, leaving Armstrong alone at the front of the pack. From that point on it was Armstrong alone against everybody else.
As with Michael Jordan, at some point you get tired of trying to come up with new ways to say how awesome Armstrong is. Just when you think you’ve had enough of the guy, he does something to remind you how he got to be who he is.
This was simply a superhuman performance. Armstrong put on his game face and did not change expression the rest of the way up the mountain as the world’s greatest cyclists struggled to keep up with him. Three of them were up to it: Mickael Rasmussen managed to look cool even in the polka-dot jersey, while two guys from the Illes Balears team, Francisco Mancebo and Alejandro Valverde, kept hanging around even though they were clearly in pain.
Speaking of pain, Jan Ullrich modeled an impressive repertoire of grimaces while riding two minutes behind — but give Jan some love, he didn’t quit, just kept propelling his big body up toward the finish. Meanwhile Alexandre Vinokourov had faded more than five minutes back and the man in the yellow jersey, Jens Voight, looked as if he’d lost the will to live, pedaling very tentatively about ten minutes behind the leaders.
Armstrong started the last kilometer still in a group with Rasmussen, Mancebo, and Valverde. Rasmussen prematurely tried to get away and was easily caught; then Armstrong, after riding 120 miles and climbing 12,000 feet, somehow found an extra gear and shot away from everybody. But wait — Valverde kicked it up a notch and stuck with him, and those two rode together to the finish line, where Armstrong appeared to ease up and cede the stage to the 25-year-old Spaniard.
After the finish Armstrong gave Valverde a nice handshake, as if to say, “You done good, kid.” Of course, had the stage win been important to Armstrong, things might have been different; as it was, Valverde got his day in the sun, Armstrong got the yellow jersey back, and all was right with the world.
There won’t be much chance for anybody to relax and enjoy it, though. Believe it or not, Stage 11 will be even harder than Stage 10, with two beyond-category climbs: the 1993-meter Col de le Madeleine and the 2645-meter Col du Galibier. Better start carbo-loading right now.