The 97th Tour de France begins Saturday, but in effect it began last July 26, when Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong stepped up to the Champs Elysees podium for their divorce proceedings.
Despite being teammates on Team Astana, the dueling alpha dogs never as much as glanced at each other as Contador claimed his yellow jersey for good and Armstrong took third. The team was almost immediately broken apart as just about everyone, sans Contador, moved on to Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel's new outfit, Team Radio Shack.
Fast forward to 2010, Bruyneel has his usual formidable organization in place, with Lance as his centerpiece. It will be Armstrong's final Tour (he tweeted it as much himself, and now that he's 38, we believe he's sincere), and he's doing it for no other reason than to beat Contador and maybe claim his eighth maillot jaune.
Yep, you heard it right. It'll be nice for him to walk away for good with another Tour victory, but it's imperative that he beats Contador, for whom Lance has special contempt and venom in plenty of reserve. While Armstrong readily concedes that Contador is a spectacular talent, Contador's behavior as a "teammate" and lack of deference had him fuming even during the Tour last year, while the two shared the same trailer. This time, it'll be all out war.
Armstrong will have plenty of help, more so than Contador. Besides the brilliant tactician Bruyneel (think Phil Jackson as a Belgian behind the wheel), Team Radio Shack also boasts Tour podium finishers Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer, plus several veteran Tour riders such as Yaroslav Popovych and Chris Horner. Contador has the volatile and unpredictable Alexandre Vinokourov on his side, coming off a two-year suspension for doping, and Oscar Pereiro, the 2006 Tour "winner" after Floyd Landis was caught and disgraced.
But don't be fooled by the talk that Team Radio Shack has "several leaders." This is Lance's show unless he falls off the bike and can't get back on it. Armstrong didn't come back for one more ride to be somebody's domestique. He might be happy fetching bananas and water bottles during the Tour of California while he gets himself in shape, but that's just not gonna happen while he's up on the Alps and Pyrenees.
Especially when he's busy trying to chase down Contador.
Photo of Contador (AP)