Today I am in Barcelona, following Lance Armstrong's return to the Tour de France for a documentary I am doing for Sony Pictures.
I am not a cycling expert, so do not expect unusual insights into the minutiae of strategy. However, in the course of doing the film I have come to love the sport and this extraordinary event in particular.
Of the 21 stages in this event, today's will be critical. It is the first climb of the race from Barcelona to Andorra, a small landlocked tax haven nestled in the Pyrenees mountains. (According to Wikipedia, Andorra has the highest life expectancy - 85 years - in the world. Gee, Grover Norquist must be right: taxes will kill you.) Climbing stages - along with time trials - are key opportunities for riders to open up big time gaps on their opponents. Even more than usual, this stage is important because it will likely be head-to-head battle between Lance Armstrong and his Astana teammate and key rival in this race, Alberto Contador.
So far, the race has not disappointed. In the first stage, in Monaco, Lance Armstrong appeared to be strong but not dominant as in years past. He placed 10th in this short time trial, a twisty 13-kilometer course through the hilly streets of Monaco. But three of his teammates, including Contador, had significantly better times. So much so that one member of the group pronounced that the tour was over for Armstrong! How could he make up 22 seconds on his teammate Contador? (22 seconds doesn't sound like a lot but, between team members, it can be a big number.)
Well tell that to Armstrong.
On stage three, Armstrong staged a roaring comeback. On a windy course, he sensed an opportunity. "I was about forty guys back and I saw a hard right turn up ahead." Suffering under a hard headwind, Armstrong knew that if he turned hard, he would be freed up by a crosswind. "I was like, I better move up," he said. He broke free from the main pack of riders called the peleton, and followed a group of riders in a breakaway. Leaving his rival Contador back in the peleton, Armstrong bulled forward with a group of riders that included two members of his team and a former teammate and friend, George Hincapie. (In the Tour De France, it is not uncommon for riders from different teams to form temporary alliances.) By the time he crossed the finish line, Armstrong was 19 seconds up on Contador.
Responding to criticism that he may have ignored calls for restraint from his coach, Johan Bruynel - who wanted to to save his riders' strength for the team time trial the following day - Armstrong noted that he just saw an opening and took it. Luck, as they say, is where opportunity meets the prepared mind.
But today is the big day: There will be attacks by other riders and, possibly, a showdown between the 37-year old Armstrong and the extraordinarily talented 26-year old Contador.
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Alex Gibney is a documentary filmmaker who made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. He has won an Emmy, a Peabody, the duPont Columbia Award, and a Grammy.