Commentary

Lance loses ally in Leipheimer

Updated: July 17, 2009, 5:49 PM ET
By Bobby Julich | Special to ESPN.com

I am back after a few days of flat stages at the Tour de France. Not exactly the most exciting days of the race, but you can feel the anticipation building. You know something is going to happen as the Tour returns to the mountains Sunday.

The one thing I was not happy about was hearing Levi Leipheimer had to pull out of the race because of a broken bone in his wrist. It's just so disappointing to see a rider of that caliber leave the Tour. He was forced out of the race after crashing within two miles of Thursday's finish, fracturing the scaphoid bone in his wrist. It stinks to see guys go out in little mundane crashes like that one. At least Levi was able to finish the stage and receive immediate treatment.

I broke my wrist twice in the Tour; each time, the injury was not initially seen on the X-rays. It was like going through biology class all over again; it's amazing how many bones make up the hand and wrist. But fracturing the scaphoid bone is a typical injury for cyclists since it is in an area of your hand and wrist where a rider braces himself.

I actually won a time trial bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics with a broken wrist, an injury I suffered in the Tour that same year. It was misdiagnosed at first, but I noticed something was wrong when I picked up a bag in Athens. The Team USA doctor allowed me to race in the time trial as long as I promised to put on a cast as soon as the race was over. It was a done deal. I had a cast and an Olympic medal. Not a bad tradeoff.

While I was able to race in the Olympics, the Tour de France is a different story. With all the pressure riders put on their hands when getting out of the saddle for a climb and maneuvering during stages, it's almost impossible to race with a broken wrist without causing permanent damage or disability. That decision is something Levi could have faced Friday.

You can't replace a rider like Leipheimer. He has reached the podium at Grand Tours and has tons of experience. He was also fourth overall in the Tour heading into Thursday's stage!

I know Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong are close. I am not saying sides have been picked within Team Astana (remember, only two seconds separate third-place Lance and teammate Alberto Contador, who sits second overall), but Lance lost a faithful ally in Levi.

With Leipheimer out, that means more work for the other Astana workhorses -- Andreas Kloeden, Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia -- once the Tour returns to the mountains Sunday. Leipheimer could have helped there. Now Astana will have one less guy on those steep climbs. Maybe that levels the playing field a bit.

But my best wishes go out to Levi. I hope he can quickly recover from the surgery and maybe race in the Vuelta a España.

What now for Armstrong, Contador?

Even without Leipheimer in the lineup, I expect either Armstrong or Contador to be in yellow at the end of the day Sunday. Stage 15 is a climb to the finish in Verbier, Switzerland, one of my favorite climbs from my Tour days.

No one will be soft-pedaling that day. Keep an eye out for a group of about eight riders -- Armstrong, Contador, Christian Vande Velde, Bradley Wiggins, Andy and Frank Schleck, Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre (he's been riding under the radar) -- to be battling to the finish. One of them may not win the stage, but they'll be two weeks into the race, and we'll start to see a few riders really separating themselves from the overall contenders and make a statement for the podium in Paris.

The race won't be decided Sunday, but I expect we will see Rinaldo Nocentini relinquish the yellow jersey to Lance or Contador that day.

My own riding hell

I swore to myself I'd never ride up Mont Ventoux again. I always hated that climb. But I guess you should never say never.

On Monday, while the Tour takes its last rest day, I will be riding with about 10,000 of my cycling friends in the L'Etape Du Tour. Tourists and cycling enthusiasts will ride the actual route of the Tour's penultimate stage up to Mont Ventoux. Some folks plan their vacations around this ride. I'll be riding with them, along with some Specialized Cycling executives.

I don't know if I'm exactly prepared for this. I've ridden my bike five straight days this past week, something I haven't done since late last year. Since I retired last year, my wife, Angela, is now the athlete of the family with all the running she's been doing. You gain a little weight after you stop racing, and you feel like you're the kid getting picked last in a dodgeball game!

It may take me nine hours to finish, I may be in a bathtub of ice before it's all over, but I am going to have fun with all of the cycling fans taking part and supporting our great sport. Wish me luck!

Bobby Julich will be providing analysis for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. He retired from pro cycling in 2008 and is currently the technical director for Team Saxo Bank. The American finished third overall in the 1998 Tour and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.

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