Beyond the Peloton

July 20, 2010 4:55 PM

End of an Era for U.S. Cycling

Lance Armstrong gave it a shot. He rode gallantly for nearly 200 km, in search of his 26th and final stage win in the Tour de France, only to be beaten in the final sprint.

With that, it's curtains for U.S. cycling for this year's race, and maybe for sometime to come. Except the scandal-plagued 2008 Tour in which the best U.S. riders were kept out, an American has mounted the final podium in every Tour since 1998. But that won't happen this year. No American will win a stage in this year, either.

Armstrong will retire (for real this time) by the end of this weekend. Levi Leipheimer, the best U.S. rider in the GC, will finish somewhere in the top 10, but at 36, his best days are behind him. Christian Vande Velde crashed out early in this year's Tour and he'll be 35 next year. George Hincapie is 37. Chris Horner, 38. And it'll be easier to find Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton in a courtroom than in a bike race.

America's best hope to win a stage this year was Tyler Farrar. But for the second year in a row, he couldn't get over the hump (one named Mark Cavendish). Farrar, who abandoned after a wrist injury became too much, will be back in the Tour to contend for sprint stages, but he's not a threat for the maillot jaune.

The golden generation of American cycling, one that grew up inspired by Greg LeMond's breakthrough, is heading to the retirement home. Those guys don't have anyone to hand off the baton to.

LL.pngSadder still, U.S. cycling is at war with itself. Team HTC-Columbia and Team Garmin are already at each others' throats because of the Cavendish-Farrar rivalry, and because last year Garmin denied Hincapie a rare chance at a yellow jersey (when Hincapie was riding for Columbia). But that's like a border skirmish between a couple of banana republics compared to the LeMond-Lance all-out war.

That war, a Cold War since its low-temperature beginning in 2001, is about to go thermonuclear. LeMond for years has insinuated that Armstrong had doped and Armstrong has done his best to dismiss LeMond as a bitter ol' has-been. But because of Landis' recent tell-all, LeMond will get (and has gladly accepted) a chance to testify against Lance in front of a federal grand jury.

Armstrong has hit back, now with his own insinuation that LeMond was on something when he nipped Laurent Fignon by 8 seconds on the Champs Elysees in what's still the most thrilling Tour finish of all time. "We will have the opportunity to tell the truth to the authorities, and Greg LeMond will tell the truth about 1989, I hope," said Armstrong.

While these legends squabble, probably in front of prosecutors and jurors who can't tell a peloton from a papillon, U.S. cycling continues to rot. For all of Armstrong's contribution to cancer research and cycling, he hasn't quite inspired a new generation of American kids who would get off their Xboxes and get on their bikes.
After his 38-year-old legs failed to deliver him to the finish line first in Tuesday's final sprint, Lance knew that was it.

"Lance Armstrong is over in about 4-5 days," he said.

And maybe the American era in cycling, too?

Stage 17 Preview (Pau to Col du Tourmalet)

The epic final mountain stage should settle things. Three climbs, culminating in the Tour's first finishing climb up the western side of the Col du Tourmalet, will leave lots of riders in the peloton completely beaten and exhausted. The first two climbs are no picnic, either; each a Cat. 1 ascent at more than 7.5% gradient.

Prediction: Andy Schleck. This stage will not be yielded to some Frenchman on a breakaway. Instead, it will crown the strongest man in this year's Tour, and that would be Schleck, without question. The real question is, will he build a big enough lead to withstand Alberto Contador's assault in the individual time trial. To achieve that, Schleck will need to drop Contador by at least two minutes. The battle for third place will rage on as well. Sammy Sanchez and Denis Menchov will have their own death match for the final podium place, with Belgium's Jurgen Van Den Broeck having a faint chance to sneak by both of them. 

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