“Alberto came to win and, quite honestly, so did I”

Lance Armstrong, 7th July

Only last week Lance was claiming he was nothing more than a domestique deluxe in the Astana team, and that Contador was the leader. This was re-stated by Bruyneel at the start of the Tour. We’d all questioned his age, his time away from top-level competition, his ‘beach weight-lifting with celebrity buddies’ size, his broken collar bone, his improving but insufficient form from the Giro. But – by the same token – would this man really come back to ride his beloved Tour de France and play second fiddle to anybody, three-time grand tour champion or otherwise?

Just four days in and – already – Lance is only fractions of a second from the maillot jaune and looking ominously good. He looks lean, he looks strong on the bike, he seems to be orchastrating Astana’s tactics whilst using his experience to eek out time gaps on Contador and co. And finally – despite his pre-Tour protestations – he has admitted he is there to win.

Lance_TTT_09

Together the Astana team are making this Tour impossible for other contenders: one has to question the options remaining for Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre, and arguably the Schleck brothers – all between 1.41 and 2.59 back already on Lance. Denis Menchov’s Giro form – and luck – seems to have dried up, and despite much promise Michael Rogers (the best placed of possible non-Astana challengers) has always struggled on the big climbs.

Whilst putting Lance in yellow would have been nice, it does mean that – crucially – Saxo Bank and not Astana will be shouldering responsibility for the leaders jersey and the peleton in general. This means Lance and team will be fresh come Friday. The ITV4 team speculated that this was intentional (see Lance shifting down gears just before the line as the 5th man in their TTT finish); that the man can judge things to fractions of seconds is severely doubtful. But Lance oozes such control and authority that – with his pedigree for mind games and tactical nouse – it’s almost believable that even this, and the leadership battle, could be planned Armstrong/Bruyneel tactics to confuse rivals and aid his victory cause.

Now, Lance is saying the Astana team leadership will be discussed – or re-discussed – after the stage to Andorra. The Tour often throws up surprises, but if I were a betting man I’d place my money on a Lance v Contador show down for the GC win. And I just can’t help feeling that the wise old owl Armstrong will come out on top yet again!