Tour wraps up dangerous first week


After watching the Stage 3 carnage on the cobblestones, I think the Tour de France directors should really have spiced things up by ending a stage in a major city during rush hour without closing off the road to traffic.

Phil Liggett: "Lance Armstrong is absolutely seething at this red light, Paul. He's so upset his yellow Livestrong band has turned purple."

Paul Sherwen: "It could not come at a worse possible moment. He had two minutes on Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans, but I'm afraid he's lost all that waiting for the light to change."

Liggett: "He is waiting impatiently, NOT turning the pedals in anger, while having a very heated discussion with the driver of the SUV who nearly drove him off the road. He's giving him the same look he gave Jan Ullrich on Alpe d'Huez. But at least Armstrong stopped at the red light. Mark Cavendish went through the intersection. Or more accurately, he got partway through the intersection."

Paul Sherwen: "Yes, the Man from the Isle of Man will definitely feel that tomorrow, Phil."

Liggett: "Still, we should have a very interesting finish, as long as the police have dispersed the striking transit workers on the Boulevard Jambon et Fromage."

Actually, I loved the cobblestones. Yes, they increased the odds of good or bad luck affecting the outcome (Armstrong had a flat tire at a most inconvenient moment), but that's life. Ask Quick Steps' Sylvain Chavanel. Thanks to a sudden rainstorm that took down rider after rider behind him, he broke away to win Stage 2 by almost four minutes and take the yellow jersey. The next day, he flatted three times on the cobblestones and fell a minute back.

As Armstrong said after Stage 3, "Some days you're the hammer and some days you're the nail, and today I was the nail. I've been the hammer a lot."

Mostly, the cobblestones were far more dramatic and entertaining than the usual early flat stage with 120 miles of chateaus and sunflowers serving as prelude to the peloton catching the breakaway with three kilometers to go, followed by a furious sprint in the last kilometer. Stage 3 was a spectacular stage, one fans will probably be talking about for years. It certainly made the first week more interesting.

"It definitely was a very stressful first four or five days," Armstrong told reporters at the end of Thursday's Stage 5. "I think even people who've been at this event for 40 years would agree this has been an extremely volatile, dangerous first week."

The American cyclists know that best of all. In addition to Armstrong's trouble, Garmin's Christian Vande Velde crashed out on Stage 2, while teammate and sprinter Tyler Farrar broke his wrist the same day. Farrar has been hurting, but has looked better each day since.

How has the first week gone? I caught up with Liggett, the legendary voice of cycling who is calling the Tour for Versus with broadcast partner Paul Sherwen, for a breakdown of the first week's winners and losers:

• Lance Armstrong, RadioShack: He had a bad spring but was rounding into form in recent weeks. He had a great prologue, finishing five seconds ahead of Contador and fourth overall. All that was wiped out, however, by his flat tire. By the time he crossed the line, he was 50 seconds behind Contador overall, 1:21 in back of Andy Schleck and 1:51 down on Evans. He stands to gain ground on Schleck in the time trial, but the question is where Armstrong can possibly pick up all the time on all those riders.

"That's a very difficult question," Liggett said over the phone. "He might be able to steal a few seconds here and there if he can. He is in a very difficult position to win the race now."

• Alberto Contador, Astana: The reigning champ was the overwhelming favorite entering the Tour, though he and his team were supposedly vulnerable on Stage 1 due to possible crosswinds, and on Stage 3 because of the cobblestones. Neither obstacle was a problem. "For me, Contador still remains the favorite," Liggett said. "He has yet to turn the pedals in anger and it was a big coup for him not losing time."

• Cadel Evans, BMC: Evans finished second in 2007 and 2008 and has been criticized for a dull, non-aggressive style of riding. But he seems to be riding with more confidence since winning the world championships last fall. He had a great ride on the cobblestones, hanging with Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara at the front to put himself 1:01 ahead of Contador.

"I think he won the battle of the first week," Liggett said. "He's put himself in the position where he can win and his mindset is very good right now. He's a personable guy, but has always thought the press is against him and it knocked him down a lot. I think he has his best mindset now."

• Andy Schleck, Saxo Bank: He finished second to Contador last year and is nearly as great a climber. But his prologue (122nd and 1:09 behind Cancellara) showed his time trialing still needs work. Paced by his Saxo Bank teammates, he had a great stage on the cobblestones, gaining 1:13 on Contador after that stage (he leads him by 31 seconds overall). Unfortunately, he lost key support when his older brother, Frank, crashed out during the same stage.

"I think Andy will miss him terribly," Liggett said. "Not just not having him around as a rider, but also as a good friend and brother."

The cobblestones are behind us now and the Tour heads toward the Alps for the first mountain stages this weekend. Liggett said he thinks Evans will take the yellow in the Alps, but the real battle will be in the Pyrenees over the final week of the race, when he expects Contador to really show what he can do.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.