Lance now faces mounting odds at Tour
Myyyy headddd annndd hannnddss arre stilllll shakinggg.
And I only watched the cobblestone-filled Stage 3 of the Tour de France on TV. Lord knows what the riders actually feel like after bumping along the pavé and swallowing dust much of Tuesday afternoon.
More than 60,000 feet of climbs still await in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but, as expected, it was those nasty little cobblestones in Belgium and northern France that played an equally important role in the Tour de France. Stage 3 sent riders crashing painfully to the ground, kept mechanics dashing for spare tires and dealt a substantial blow to a certain American's attempt to add an eighth yellow jersey to his well-stocked closet.
Lance Armstrong's hopes to go out a winner in his final Tour were damaged when he had a flat tire and lost 55 seconds on reigning champ Alberto Contador (Astana) and 2:08 to Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck and reigning world champion Cadel Evans (BMC). Armstrong's tire punctured on a section of cobbles, and although he rode with impressive power to bridge the gap to one chase group afterward, he was simply too far back to catch the leaders.
"Bad luck was with me today," Armstrong told reporters after the stage. "Just look at the results. Everyone thought the climbers would lose minutes today and they're the ones who were at the front, and the one who was supposed to take advantage of that was at the back. That's the nature of racing, and I just have to go on and do my best for the next 2½ weeks."
He faces an uphill climb as imposing as the Tourmalet. Armstrong is 18th overall, trailing Contador (ninth place) by 50 seconds, Schleck (sixth) by 1:21 and Evans (third) by 1:51. Schleck is a superb climber, but not a good time-trialist (he was about a minute behind Armstrong in the short prologue Saturday), so Armstrong stands to gain time on him in the Stage 19 time trial. Schleck also lost his main support rider, older brother Frank, who crashed out of the race on the cobbles.
Perhaps more worrisome for Armstrong are Contador and Evans. Contador is the heavy favorite, and Armstrong needed to gain time on him on the cobbles, where his strong RadioShack teammates and vast cycling expertise could have made a difference. Instead, he lost significant time, and it will be difficult making it up, given that Contador is the world's best climber and an excellent time-trialist.
This was the stage where Contador was most vulnerable -- he doesn't have a lot of experience on the cobbles and weighs only slightly more than helium -- but he survived. He could have finished stronger but fell back when he was forced to ride the final kilometer or so on what appeared to be a flat rear tire.
Evans, who finished second in the Tour in 2007 and 2008, is another big threat. He's riding much more aggressively and confidently since winning the world championship this past fall. He finished an impressive third Tuesday, riding in with the stage leaders, including Andy Schleck and current leader Fabian Cancellara (the Saxo Bank rider is not a threat to win the Tour). Evans is a force to be reckoned with, not just for Armstrong but for Contador, as well.
Oh, and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), another top contender, has 41 seconds on Armstrong. So Lance will have to ride at his absolute best and probably also hope something goes wrong for someone else between here and Paris. A lot can happen in the next 2½ weeks (something always does at the Tour), but we're not talking about just one other significant contender ahead of him, we're talking several.
Asked to describe his chances, Armstrong said, "They dropped. We lost significant time. We just have to keep our heads up and take our chances on the climbs."
Armstrong did predict "carnage" heading into Tuesday's stage, the first time the cobblestones have been in the Tour since 2004. After the many crashes in Monday's stage, the riders must have dreaded them more than Floyd Landis clearing his throat to say, "Oh, and one more thing " There were 8 miles of cobbles altogether, including sections of the Paris-Roubaix route, the infamous Hell of the North.
Tuesday's stage was so demanding that France's Sylvain Chavanel began the day in yellow with nearly a three-minute lead and wound up fifth overall at the end of Stage 3, more than a minute down because he needed to change his bike three times on the cobbles.
"Going in, I thought it was a good idea to have this stage, and I'm not going to change my mind," Armstrong said. "I think it's a dynamic stage. We can say it was a disadvantage to the climbers, but look who was at the front today [Schleck and Saxo Bank]. They had a great team and rode a great race as a team. I think there's a place for that in this race."
You really got a feel for what it must have been like when there was a shot of a couple of team cars bouncing along in a cloud of brown dust as if they had no shocks. Armstrong eventually emerged from the cloud, but I wouldn't have been surprised if Mel Gibson had come riding out as Mad Max.
But hey, the dust was better than having it rain, as it did during Monday's Stage 2, when riders tumbled on the slick pavement, with Americans landing the hardest.
Christian Vande Velde, who finished fourth in 2008, was the top contender for Garmin-Transitions, but he had to withdraw before Stage 3 because of broken ribs suffered in a Stage 2 crash (it was the third time he has crashed and broken ribs this year after crashing and breaking vertebrae last year).
Garmin teammate Tyler Farrar came into the Tour with high hopes for winning at least one stage, but he crashed Monday, as well. He broke his left wrist, but persevered through the pain and finished Stage 3 to keep his stage hopes alive. Farrar is one of the world's best sprinters, but he lost a great chance to win Stage 1 when a rider's wheel got stuck to his derailleur just before the sprint.
All the drama is a good reminder of just how dangerous cycling is and how capricious it can be. It also is a testament to how good Armstrong was during his jersey run when he overcame every obstacle, be it a fan's musette bag catching his handlebar, a rider forcing him off the road and onto a cross-country ride, or the combined efforts of the rest of the world's riders to beat him.
Can he overcome his current deficit? He trailed by 2:18 in 2005, 2:27 in 2003, 5:54 in 2000, 9:35 in 2004 and a whopping 35:19 in 2001 and won each time. So two minutes or so doesn't sound like much, but bear in mind that the time behind the leader isn't nearly as important as the deficit behind another top contender. Armstrong also is considerably older and is no longer the world's strongest cyclist.
Armstrong told ESPN.com on Sunday that he thought his odds of winning improved from 10-1 to 5-1 after his strong ride in the prologue. If so, they fell considerably on the cobblestones.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.
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