Something very unusual has overtaken this year's Tour de France: Everybody's still interested in the race. In a normal year, the identity of the race's overall winner, the holder of the famous yellow jersey, is pretty much apparent long before the Tour enters its fourth and final weekend. This year's edition, however, will not only be a race to the finish—or at least close to the finish—it's also promising to be one of the great Tours of the postwar era.
The fact that the Tour can be decided long before the racing actually ends understandably makes the whole business seem impenetrable, or pointless, to folks who aren't cycling fans. But it's an unavoidable side effect of running an event that really is as difficult as it is portrayed in its hype. Add to the mix an unwritten rule that winning the Tour de France requires dominating two uncomplementary disciplines, and suddenly it's not surprising that the likes of Lance Armstrong don't appear that often. And when they do, it's even less surprising that they dominate the race. Except this year, that is.
Before we go any deeper, a little background for Tour de France know-nothings. The Tour de France is a collection of separate races, 21 in total this year, and it changes its route annually. Speaking generally, the races—or stages—are either flat, mountainous, or time trials where the riders ride separately and race against a stopwatch. At the end of every stage, some of the people in those official cars that race around the riders while blasting funny air horns add up everyone's accumulated racing time to that point. The yellow jersey (so colored to match the paper used by the newspaper that started the Tour) is pulled on by the rider with the shortest elapsed time. The real prize, of course, is to be the person who gets the jersey after the final stage in Paris. To do that involves either being very, very lucky or, more reasonably, mastering both the time trials and the mountains, the only stages that offer significant time advantages. Being the best at both those cycling skills is like being very good at both blues guitar and the cello.
Armstrong's exploits during his first four Tour wins were every bit as dramatic—and difficult—as portrayed in those TV vignettes that are inevitably in slow motion and backed by soaring music. They were also deadly in terms of maintaining interest in the Tour de France. Most reporters arrived at this year's start like condemned prisoners. Their widespread assumption was that after a tedious first week (it's the time for sprinting specialists to display their complete lack of concern for personal safety), Armstrong would once again humiliate his opposition during the first big alpine stage. Everyone in the press room would then be left spending the final two weeks struggling to build drama around, well, pretty much anything. Armstrong hasn't been the only such dead hand on the Tour. Miguel Induráin, a taciturn Spaniard, played the same role during the '90s. Eddy Merckx's domination during the '70s was so profound, and yawningly predictable, that the event organizers feared financial ruin.
But this year, things went differently right from the start. Part of the job description for Armstrong's eight colleagues on the U.S. Postal Service team's payroll is to keep their boss out of trouble during the first week. With a full complement of nearly 200 riders and narrow roads, it tends to be every Tour's demolition derby phase. Somehow, Armstrong crashed this year. His injuries were minor, but coming on top of another crash in a pre-Tour race, it's wasn't really what the team director ordered.
In the Alps, the usual Basques in orange T-shirts and the usual drunken Dutch fans with orange wigs were doing their best to block the roads. But it wasn't the usual Armstrong that passed by them. Instead of blowing the race apart, he was simply trying to keep up with other potential contenders. As the race moved through the Alps, things only got worse for Armstrong and better for the Tour de France hacks. A minor obsession of the American cycling press is how Armstrong is perceived by the French. As far as I can tell, most them are of the opinion that he can't help not being French. The inhabitants of the Tour de France press room, who are overwhelmingly European, have strong feelings and don't hide them. Any attack by another rider against Armstrong in the mountains provoked immediate cheers of approval.
The good-bad and always exciting news has since continued. Armstrong was forced into a bizarre diversion through a hay field while plummeting down a mountain descent after melted asphalt brought a Spanish rival down in front of him. A spectator dangling a cloth bag knocked down Armstrong while he was making his way up to a ski resort in the Pyrenees. Armstrong got up again but just a bit farther up the road, damage to his bike's gear changer sent him crashing crotch-first onto his bike.
Most surprising, however, was Armstrong's defeat in this year's first individual time trial. It went (along with more boisterous press room cheers) to Jan Ullrich, one of the last products of East Germany's sports machine. Since winning the Tour de France in 1997, Ullrich hasn't exactly led the life of a dedicated champion athlete. He tested positive for Ecstasy, drunkenly reversed his Porsche (appropriately) into a bunch of bicycles, and suffered such wild weight swings that some reporters call him Fat-Boy Slim.
After his embarrassingly painful two-in-a-row crash, the old Armstrong reappeared. He dramatically won that mountain climb to a particularly ugly ski resort, slightly expanding a slim lead over the newly slim and seemingly reformed Ullrich. A time trial on Saturday, the race's penultimate day, will likely decide things between them. Or, given how things have been going, produce a completely unexpected winner. The last time things were this close at the Tour was in 1989 when another American, Greg LeMond, took the overall title by eight seconds in an unusual last-day time trial. (The race hasn't finished with a time trial since, and the result has left Laurent Fignon bitter that he's better remembered for losing the Tour by a few seconds than he is for winning it twice.) In any case, if Armstrong manages to win the Tour de France for a fifth time, he might even be cheered by the European habitués of the press room—if only for saving them from another sleepy Tour de France.