Tour Day 1

Well, I guess Lance is in good form. His performance today was like coming out in the decisive game 7 of the World Series and knocking out the other team's starter in the first inning, or coming out in the first round of a prize fight and knocking his opponent to the canvas twice. Or like Michael Jordan reversing baseline to elude a double team against the Knicks and then throwing down on Patrick Ewing. In actually catching and passing Ullrich, Lance dealt a humiliating psychological blow to one of his chief competitors. It sounds as if Armstrong and Brunyeel and everyone in the know consider Vinokourov the chief competitor from T-Mobile anyway, but it was still a bit shocking and sad to see Ullrich actually passed in a medium length time trial (TT). Mentally, it's always easier to chase a target on a bike than to be out front, and as soon as Lance saw Jan, everyone knew what was going to happen.

(Image by famed cycling photographer Graham Watson): check out Lance's

sweet custom Bontrager rear disc wheel, covered with graphics of significance

from his life, including the number 7 and the Zodiac symbol for Cancer.

Another timely pic by Graham Watson: Armstrong lines up Ullrich.

Ullrich was fortunate to be able to mount his bike at all today. In a TT training ride yesterday, Jan was pacing behind his team station wagon when a truck cut them off. The station wagon braked hard, and so did Jan, but as anyone knows, road bike brakes suck. Jan flew through the rear window of the station wagon head first and ended up in the back seat, shattering the rear window. He's lucky to be alive.

Prologue winner Dave Zabriskie showed that his TT win in the Giro was no fluke. He rode the second fastest average speed in a TDF TT ever. Amazing! In 19km, he was putting gaining about 3 seconds a km on riders like Vino, Landis, Cancellara, Voigt, and Ullrich. On a flat TT course that's massive, requiring a large advantage in power output. The future of American cycling may not be that grim after all.

The future may be grim for Lance's Shimano rep or mechanic, though. I'd hate to be that guy. Lance came out of his pedals at the start of the TT, just as at the Dauphiné. I believe Lance still rides Shimano Dura-Ace pedals. Don't expect Lance's cleat to pop out in Tuesday's TT, or they'll be building another roadside memorial for someone.

Bill Gifford writes in Slate that the Tour de France has become a bore and suggests some ways to spice it up. The article is a bit of a mess, and it's not entirely clear what Gifford claims is boring. At first he blames the French and the course layout. He feels the template of flat stages, a time trial, followed by the mountain stages is dull. The Tour organizers have actually altered the course every year the past few years to try and make things more challenging for Armstrong, but it doesn't work because the best rider is the best rider, and Armstrong adapts to each course and turns it to his advantage. I don't think Gifford seriously considers going back to a Tour with fewer, longer stages (in the past, some stages have run nearly 300 miles and forced riders to ride on into darkness) or to a Tour with riders slogging through unpaved roads. He cites both as evidence of the good ole days of the Tour.

Then Gifford writes that the riders today are "overtrained automatons," reminiscing about colorful characters like Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil, "whose ideal race preparation consisted of 'a good pheasant, some chapagne, and a woman.'" The truth is that there are colorful characters in cycling now, but a cyclist who drank and ate and didn't train to his full potential wouldn't survive in today's Tour, nor would they in most other sports.

Gifford's first suggestion is to put more mountain stages in the first week of the Tour, or insert some steeper mountains like Spain's Angliru, a mountaintop finish so steep that David Millar got off his bike a foot from the finish line and retired in protest after riding up Angliru in the rain one year. I'm fine with more mountaintop finishes, even steeper mountains, but adding these, especially in the first week of the Tour, would likely just give the Tour to Lance sooner. You'd also lose all the top sprinters, many of whom retire when the mountains arrive anyway, and I enjoy watching the huge sprinters haul ass towards the finish at some 45mph the first week.

Gifford also suggests adding more unpaved roads to the route a la Paris Roubaix. Well, the Tour added cobblestones in last year's route. By virtue of having the strongest team, Lance was out front safe while Mayo crashed and never recovered, effectively dropping out of contention that day. Gifford wants more mountains to separate the contenders from the pretenders, then asks for more unpaved roads, which just add more random accidents that might actually hurt the real contenders.

His next suggestion: lose the dope. Sure, everyone would love to see that, though that doesn't necessarily correlate with a more interesting Tour. It's just the right thing to do, but Gifford doesn't offer any proposals as to how to clean up the sport.

Lose the race radios. An interesting idea, to remove the element of on-course tactical coaching. This is how cycling used to be. It could be interesting to do so, allowing for more breakaways and forcing cyclists to rely on themselves on the road. In practicality, live television coverage means even the average spectator knows how far ahead a breakaway is, and without radios domestiques would simply have to ride back to the team car to get an update from a coach watching a live feed on television or hearing it over the cell phone from someone in a hotel room. Gifford believes this would allow more breakaway packs to stay away, which might be true, but a pack of unknowns in a breakaway has never really been all that exciting to me. A solo breakaway? Yes, that makes for good drama, and with race radios, they're all the more compelling when they succeed, which still happens at least a few times each Tour.

I agree with Gifford that the French are over-represented in the Tour. The race organizers favor French teams, even when they don't earn their spots on merit. It dilutes the field, and last year the Tour missed the flamboyant Italian sprinter Cipollini, who earned a fine in every Tour for wearing an outlandish costume of some sort.

Finally, Gifford comes to what feels like the crux of his argument: "Lance must lose." Gifford felt Lance rode defensively last year. I seem to remember Lance sprinting to a stage win over Kloden, even when he didn't need it. Asked why he hadn't just given Kloden the meaningless stage victory, Lance replied: "Pas de cadeaux." Lance won five out of the last eight stages, hardly riding defensively. I think Gifford simply doesn't like the fact that Lance dominated the Tour last year. Maybe Gifford should mail Lance a pheasant and a bottle of bubbly to share with Sheryl in the hopes of throwing the king off his game.

What the Tour needs are some challengers to push Lance in the mountains, like Pantani did in 2000. Vino, if healthy, is a lot of fun to watch, always attacking, and if Ullrich throws his support to Vinokourov, that would be a compelling storyline. Another potential adversary of not would be Iban Mayo if he survives to the mountain stages without losing too much more time and if he can find his pre-Tour form from last season. Maybe former teammates Floyd Landis or Levi Leipheimer or even Roberto Heras will attack in the mountains.

Another way to spice up the Tour might be to toss in a time trial as the final stage, as in the 1989 Tour when LeMond edged out Fignon to win by 8 seconds in the closest Tour ever. In all of Lance's Tour victories, the final stage has been ceremonial, a victory parade up and down the Champs Elysees.

The truth is, however, that Lance peaks for the Tour and is always the strongest rider coming into the race. No amount of meddling with the course will hold off the inevitable, especially when he rides on the strongest team. Contrarian sentiments are always refreshing, but Gifford's critique of the Tour lacks punch.


I wouldn't go so far as to call Wimbledon a bore, but the absence of the pure serve and volley game at the All England Club saddens me. On the women's side, all the top girls are baseline mashers. Since Navratilova, I can't recall a single woman other than perhaps Novotna who played the serve and volley game on grass. On the men's side, Tim Henman and Taylor Dent seem like the last of the serve and volley grasscourters. Federer actually came to net less than Hewitt in their semi. Part of this is because racket technology has increased the effectiveness of the backcourt game. You can hit a lot more winners off the ground, and increased spin and pace on passing shots and service returns decreases the effectiveness of going to net. There was something beautiful, though, about seeing guys like McEnroe and Edberg charge net and turn a huge return into an unreachable, angled volley. Maybe with so many hard hitters and big returners in the juniors, no one ever develops a serve and volley game. Grass court tennis is starting to look just like tennis at the Aussie Open or U.S. Open.

Doyle Brunson wins his 10th World Series of Poker bracelet. And, though I didn't even know she played poker until James and Angela told me she did, actress Jennifer Tilly won one, too. There are so many WSOP events that soon there will be as many WSOP bracelets going around as Livestrong bracelets.