On the last two sectors of cobbles, six and seven, 5,000 meters of the unforgiving granite, groups were splintering all over the pavés and Lance Armstrong was there, chasing back onto the lead group being powered away by the current King of Cobbles, Fabian Cancellara. And then as Paul Sherwin always cautions about cobbles, "it's not about having good luck, it's about not having bad luck" - bad luck struck, in the form of a front flat. What happened next was awing. After teammate Popovych worked like a dog, LA took over his own fate and rode the pavés like a man possessed. I have no clue what his watt output was over that last section, but the numbers must surely be beyond what mere pedaling mortals can fathom.
I have many mixed feelings about Armstrong, doping, his impact on the sport, etc. but on the Haveluy sector of pavés you saw why this man beat cancer. When he crossed the finish line, his face breaded in dust and shellacked in sweat for me his return to the Tour this year just became victorious.
Long time sports journalist Rick Reilly over on ESPN.com wrote in Armstrong Keeps Passing Tests,
"Look, I don't know whether Armstrong doped. He might have. He says he didn't, but athletes say a lot of things. Still, I do know he is the most tested athlete in American history. A man who's had people watch him pee more than 1,000 times, by his own count, and yet he's never failed one of them. The man is a test passer. He's had tests of scalpels and IVs, lungs and muscle, and now age and will. For 23 days, he will be trying to pass this 2,262-mile test against riders whose fathers he raced. He'll be trying to pass it every day, and it mesmerizes and astonishes me. But because of Landis, nobody's noticing."
Stage 3 Tuesday's route between Wanze and Arenberg Porte du Hainaut was peppered with pavés, seven section of classic cobbles, pavés shifting in their graves for hundreds of years before humans invented the bike - dice-like chunks of granite unkind to man and machine. It was a time for "noticing."
Jens Voigt, truly one of my favorite peloton-people, said Stage 3's pavés had no place in the race, on this point I am in 100% disagreement - pavés as well as occasional dust roads, wet descents, 300km stages, scorching heat, they are the chaotic real-world crucible in which this monument of sports was born 106 years ago; a wild concoction of human perseverance once penned the Tour de Souffrance. Suffering is bike racing. And what we saw yesterday was bike racers really racing their bikes. Unlike the cobbled classic Parix-Roubaix, where time is of little consequence and fastest survivor into the Roubaix velodrome is all that counts, yesterday's detour through the cobbled countryside was about the ticking of the GC clock. Time played a factor, a deciding demon rearing up out of the crevasses between those historic pavés. From minute to minute leads exchanged, gaps opened and closed, hopes grew then faded with wheel changes, then surged once more in some masterful pieces of bike racing.
Ya, in the end the seven-time champion fell from fifth overall to 18th, 2:30 back of renewed leader Fabian Cancellara, and more importantly 1-2 minutes off key GC rivals. But if that performance on sectors 6 and 7 of pavés was any indication of the Armstrong we are going to be treated to over the next two plus weeks, then we may just see Henri Desgrange stir with pride from his grave - his Tour has been reborn, and that is definitely worth noticing.