If you want great content, nothing beats a compelling story.
It’s the first rest day of the 2009 Tour de France cycling race and in the absence of having to follow live updates from the roads of Gaul today, let’s look at nine elements of great storytelling as illustrated by this year’s Tour.
- A rich backstory. This year’s iteration of the Tour has something that has been sorely lacking for the past few years: a compelling backstory. The backstory is one that’s as old as human civilization: the conflict between the power and vitality of youth versus the wisdom and experience of age.
- A young brash upstart. 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, known as “El Pistolero,” (The best cyclists get cool nicknames, unless they already have a Saturday matinee idol name, like Lance Armstrong.) was the heavy favorite coming in to the race. Not only was he riding for the strongest team, Astana, but he has proven himself to be one of the best climbers in cycling, winning the trifecta of cycling’s grand tours—Spain, Italy and France—already in his young career.
- The old lion, back for one more shot at the title. Seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong stunned the cycling world last fall when he announced he was returning to competitive racing and planned to compete in the Tour de France, cycling’s biggest race. Armstrong, who spent more time in the tabloids than on his bike in the past few years, said he was mainly coming back to draw attention to his Lance Armstrong Foundation , one of the premier cancer education and support resources, but most pundits speculated that if Armstrong was going to race, he was going to race to win.
- A grueling test. The Grande Boucle, as it’s known in France, is cycling’s most demanding test. Three weeks. Thousands of kilometers in the saddle. Tens of thousands of feet of climbing. Nowhere to hide. This year’s course is somewhat peculiar for several reasons. The team time trial was back, but the individual time trials are short and technical. The race’s two forays into alpine territory feature only three summit finishes and one of the Tour’s legendary obstacles, the Col du Tourmalet, was placed in the middle of stage, reducing its race impact to nil.
- A shot across the bow. In the race’s only summit finish in the Pyrenees, into the ski station at Arcalis in Andorra, a select group of contenders rode together toward the summit until Contador, apparently not acting on team orders, attacked the field and rode away alone toward the finish. This show of strength added fuel to the fires of discord between Armstrong and Contador and indicated a possible split in the team.
- The French. Can you minimize the fact that this race is taking place in France? No way. The French love a good story and they love to be right in the middle of it. After a love/hate relationship with Armstrong while he was winning the Tour, the French have jumped on the Lance bandwagon this July. As Velo News editor-at-large John Wilcockson (@johnwilcockson) noted last week, “The French love an underdog—and old dogs.”
- An unwritten code of conduct. When Contador took off on the road to Arcalis, Armstrong was bound by the part of the cycling code that does not allow you to attack a teammate once he goes up the road alone. Armstrong instead stayed back to mark the other contenders, none of whom tried to follow Contador. Contador is bound by the same code (of course, they are more like guidelines than actual rules) and has stated that he won’t follow an attacking Armstrong when the race hits the Alps later this week.
- A near insurmountable obstacle. What happens in the Alps may not even matter because of what stands in the way of riders on the penultimate day of the Tour. Two words that strike fear in the heart of every cyclist: Mont Ventoux. A summit finish on the “Giant of Provence” will likely decide who will ride into Paris the next day wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey.
- Wild cards. Armstrong and Contador are not the only world-class cyclists competing in the Tour this summer. In addition to two other potential podium finishers on the Astana team (Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden), 2008 TdF winner Carlos Sastre, two-time runner up Cadel Evans and others lurk, waiting for an opening.
Can Lance Armstrong beat back Contador’s challenge and the sands of time to win an eighth Tour? Coming back to “win one more” rarely succeeds, but Armstrong can look at one other great champion who made it happen: Pete Sampras. Sampras won his fourteenth and final major championship, the U.S. Open, two years after most pundits had written him off.
The 2009 Tour de France has all the makings of race for the ages and certainly has more intrigue than the last few iterations. When will we know the true quality of this year’s story? Not for a while yet.
A story only becomes truly great when it passes into legend and someday when that legend becomes myth.
Photo of Mt Ventoux Summit by Pereubu