After a couple of mellow stages where the main contenders sat back and watched the also-rans compete for stage wins, things heated up in Stage 14.
I mean, literally, it was hot. The cyclists were pouring sweat as they suffered through one climb after another in the Pyrénées. They were taking any water bottle they could get from anybody, and most of the time just dumping it over their heads to cool off a little. It was so hot that one the guys from Euskaltel-Euskadi burst into flames at one point.
Or I may have imagined that. I was suffering too, for different reasons having to do with Scotch whisky. I was having trouble getting enough caffeine into my system to get my brain started, so when the moment came I’ve been waiting two weeks for — when somebody finally got Lance Armstrong in their crosshairs — I almost missed it.
Thank goodness for Phil Liggett, the main OLN play-by-play guy, who has mastered the baseball announcer’s art of speaking in a relatively soothing voice most of the time, then kicking it up a level to jolt you out of your stupor when things get exciting.
In my semi-consciousness I noticed that Phil was getting all worked up about something, then I saw that Armstrong in yellow was surrounded by guys in pink instead of his usual coterie of Discovery teammates in pale blue. As in Stage 8, the rest of Armstrong’s team had dropped out of the picture, leaving the boss to fend for himself.
Not only that, but he was being challenged by T-Mobile’s three best riders, Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov, and Andreas Klöden. So this is it, I thought; T-Mobile is finally putting together a coordinated attack on Armstrong. Vinokourov surged ahead, and then something very strange happened: Instead of hanging back and letting their teammate get away, Ullrich and Klöden stepped on the gas, in effect leading Armstrong back into contact with Vinokourov.
Liggett and his partner Paul Sherwen started freaking out, wondering what the hell Ullrich and Klöden were doing. I couldn’t figure it out either, and I still haven’t. Even the official Tour de France Web site, usually totally devoid of opinion or insight, openly questioned T-Mobile’s strategy: “It was a tactic dreamed up to taunt Armstrong but the American didn’t need to do anything. Why? Because Ullrich and Klöden teamed up and set off in pursuit of their colleague. Huh?!”
Just like that, after momentarily looking vulnerable, Armstrong was back in charge and started pushing the tempo as the race climbed the 7.9 km, 8.3% slope to the ski resort at Ax-3 Domaine. Georg Totschnig, the eventual stage winner, was off on his own and mostly forgotten; all the attention was focused on Armstrong, who was accompanied by an ever-changing group that eventually came down to just Ivan Basso, the only rider who’s shown a consistent ability to stay with Armstrong on climbs, and Jan Ullrich, implacably soldiering on after Klöden and Vinokourov had dropped away.
Ullrich tried to move ahead, but overestimated the amount of energy he had left and was caught, then left behind by Armstrong and Basso. Finally, inside the last kilometer, Armstrong found a little burst that Basso couldn’t match, and managed to finish two seconds ahead. Ullrich came across 18 seconds after Basso.
Well, if that’s T-Mobile’s best shot, so much for them. The only riders who appear to still have a chance to create any problems for Armstrong are Basso and Mickael Rasmussen, who lost a little time in Stage 14 but remains in second, only one minute and 41 seconds behind. Both Basso and Rasmussen are strong climbers and will probably go all out in Stage 15, the last in the Pyrénées. Ought to be a great race; come to think of it, I already have Stage 15 recorded, so why am I sitting here?