The Distance from Les Arcs to Avoriaz

The comparisons are surely looming, if they haven’t come already, between Miguel Indurain’s dramatic collapse on the stage to Les Arcs in 1996 and Lance Armstrong’s on the road to Avoriaz yesterday. And not without reason. Both men, obviously, were the dominant Tour de France riders of their generations – one was the man most people believed would finally break the five Tour barrier, the other is the man who actually did it. And the similarities between the breakdowns in their final Tour appearances are indeed striking. Both met their downfall not deep into the race, but on the first true mountain stage – Stage 7, from Chambery to Les Arcs for Indurain, Stage 8 from Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz for Armstrong. Both stages were in the Alps, and though they occurred about 170 kilometers and 14 years apart, both men lost the same 12 minutes, give or take. And both days were remarkable in that the grand champions were not just left behind by some remarkable challenger, nor by an upstart playing the giant-killer, the David to their Goliath. They were left behind by everyone.

Given the similarities, it is almost inevitable that people will note the two days' similar look and that ultimately, both men's Tour de France Waterloos will be remembered as being much the same. There’s really no point in fighting it. But it is important that now, in the moment, we should acknowledge that they are not the same in at least a few fundamental ways. Most obviously, when Indurain finally cracked, he was still the favorite, the highest-value scalp in the race and the keystone that anchored his competitors’ tactical schemes. Armstrong, while still a valued scalp, started the race as an outsider for the win, a man understandably made mortal by the simple inevitable force of time, if nothing else.

As their spots in the competitive hierarchy differed when the big cracks came, so did the impact. While the memory has been blunted by age, Indurain’s demise was much more of a surprise at the time -- unlike Armstrong's, it wasn't preceded by a third place the previous year. But more importantly, it left a much bigger hole. Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich stepped into the vacuum in 1996, and the rest is history, as both men went on to become major forces in the sport for the next decade. Armstrong’s departure from Tour contention in 2010, by contrast, leaves no vacuum at all, except perhaps in the hearts of some cycling fans and Phil Liggett. The reason that’s so is at least partially due to the arc of Armstrong’s career, and namely the rich crop of grand tour contenders that have flourished in the three-year absence of his considerable shadow. Nothing much was able to sprout under Indurain’s continuous shade, and a lot of what was already growing – Greg Lemond, Tony Rominger, Charly Mottet – wilted over his five years of dominance.

But the most dramatic way in which Armstrong’s collapse differs from Indurain’s is that Armstrong’s was, in a sense, more voluntary, or at least a more known risk at the time it occurred. Indurain’s day at Les Arcs was simply a marked endpoint to a career – the point at which, for whatever reason, whatever it was he’d had just suddenly left him. He just rode until he didn’t have it anymore, then retired. Not so Armstrong. On his retirement in 2005, Armstrong had managed to get out of the game before that moment struck, and left the sport without giving it the sweaty-faced, fall-of-a-champion, the-king-is-dead snapshot to go with the written obituary. It was remarkable – a degree of restraint rarely seen in cycling.

As we all know by now, though, retirement didn’t take, and Armstrong returned to the sport after a three-year hiatus. He did so of his own accord, and being Armstrong, people ascribe that decision to any number of things from one end of the spectrum to the other – from charity, selflessness, and passion to jealousy, vanity, and greed. I’m not going to wade into that swamp, but one thing’s for sure: when he returned to the sport last year, Armstrong had to know he risked erasing the triumphant memory of his first departure and replacing it with this very moment from his second. And here we are.

The irony is that, after so many years of victory and that first smooth exit, it may well turn out that the dismal ride to Avoriaz was exactly what Armstrong needed to leave the sport on a high note, and I suspect he knows it. Even the early signs point to yesterday’s stage becoming the sympathetic moment in the career of a man who had, over a decade, inspired a number of emotions – among them respect, fear, love, and hate – but never anything that would likely be called “sympathy.” In the coming weeks, I suspect he’ll drive those feelings home by playing the loyal, bottle-toting teammate to Levi Leipheimer. In other sports, it might be seen as a sad or shameful slippage down the lineup, the old quarterback dropping from starter to second string. But this is bike racing, and while cycling fans love a winner, they also demand that bit of humanity and humility to go along with the accolades. Indurain had that in spades, even before that day in 1996 when the Tour suddenly passed him by. Armstrong never did, though, and you can bet that he'll seize this second opportunity for all its worth.

People often write that it’s just the French fans that like that sort of thing, but I don’t think that’s true. I should know for sure in a few weeks.


  • How else are Indurain and Armstrong’s collapses different? Well, while people might have cheered Indurain’s downfall for competitive reasons, very few cheered it at a personal level. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case with Armstrong. To be fair, though, Indurian probably didn’t have quite so many mourners, either.

  • Yes, yes, all the above completely ignores all the dope allegations and insinuations that surround both Indurain and Armstrong, as well as Riis, Ullrich, and everybody else who’s so much as touched a bicycle since the early 1990s. Doping is an important issue, but sometimes, if you want to write about some other aspect of the sport and not get completely bogged down, you just have to leave doping aside for a few minutes. It would be an absolute pleasure if doping was so rare that you could mention it every time it was warranted, but unfortunately, its pervasiveness means that if you didn’t leave it out of the equation from time to time, you’d never write anything about cycling under 10,000 words. You might well go crazy to boot.

  • I have no doubt that Armstrong’s difficulties yesterday were genuine, mostly because I’m not among the legions who like to think everything the man does is some meticulously calculated tactical ruse. I do wonder, though, if once he found himself in deep trouble, he eased back even more, hoping to dump enough GC time that he’ll be allowed a bit of leash to go for one more stage win down the road. Comments from the capos would indicate that a little complicity might not be out of the question. Honestly, I hope he doesn’t get in that position, not out of malice, but because if he gets a final stage win, I can’t face an eternity of huffy “was it a gift?” arguments.

  • I think Armstrong and Chris Horner (RadioShack) need to have a chat and get their stories straight. To his credit, Armstrong went with a pretty modest “had a bad day, and my crash was my fault.” Horner goes with an Armstrong bonk on the climb, and a pileup leading to Armstrong’s roundabout crash. If there was a bonk, I suspect Armstrong wouldn’t mention it in order to avoid the inevitable Twitter-sniping he’d receive as a result of his own infamous “much to learn” message after Contador bonked in Paris-Nice last year.

  • Speaking briefly above of the Riis/Ullrich ascendancy in 1996, I’m reminded of the fact that the Telekom team was still in its relative infancy in 1996, having only been allowed a Tour start as a composite squad with Italian outfit ZG Mobili the year before. How strange does the idea of a composite squad in the Tour sound now? I sort of miss that devil-may-care approach to team selection that came before the ProTour debacle began. Yeah, the sponsors want guarantees of what sort of race exposure they’ll get for their Euros now, and rightfully so, because they’re coughing up a lot more of them than they used to just to get their names on a shirt. But the more stringent invitation rules have strangled a lot of the offbeat team selections that added some fun to the races. Here’s hoping Colombia es Pasion gets their wish for a pro-continental license next year. I hear everything 1980s is making a comeback – why not Colombians in the Tour de France?

  • If you’ve been following the Floyd Landis accusations/investigation story, you’ve probably seen at least one of the New York Daily News stories, if not more. It’s not luck of the assignment desk draw that Nate Vinton is the guy doing the coverage, or if it is, it’s an amazing coincidence, since he used to be a VeloNews staffer. Looking at the articles he’s writing there versus what his former colleagues in the cycling press are doing is probably a good illustration of what Josh Kadis brought up in the previous post’s comments: namely, that mainstream media outlets are often more vigorous pursuing these stories than the specialty cycling press. Whether the cycling press really can’t take a harder look (due to the need for constant, ongoing access to riders and officials, as well as support from industry advertisers), just doesn’t want to, or is incapable of it, warrants examination. But not by me, or at least not right now…

  • Just saw that Vladimir Karpets (Katusha) won’t be starting Stage 9 tomorrow due to a broken hand. So, the mullet was the source of all his powers.

  • I didn’t think Andy Schleck’s victory salute was that bad, probably because I like them a little spontaneous, and he seemed refreshingly unprepared for the eventuality of a stage win. Whatever you want to call what he came up with – I’ve seen “punching the speed bag” as well as “angry chimp” – it’s a nice change from the other options: a) the over-rehearsed three-act-play that requires subsequent explanation in the media; b) the tasteful if rather staid two-hands-in-the-air; or c) variations on the always popular “arrogant prick.”

  • All this talk of Sunday’s stage, and nary a word of Cadel Evans (BMC) status as the new race leader. It’s out there, of course, but compared to the hand-waving and hand-wringing over Armstrong’s losses, Contador’s non-response to Schleck’s attack, and Schleck’s subsequent maiden Tour stage victory, Evans’s yellow jersey feels a little lost in the shuffle. Even if flying under the radar isn’t ideal for his sponsors at the moment, I’m guessing Evans is pretty happy with the low-profile. He always seems at his best when he’s not under scrutiny.

  • On a similar note – if we can just rewind to Saturday’s long-forgotten stage for a moment – how many new fans does Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) have now? When people talk about riding with guts and passion, that’s what they’re talking about. Patrick Lafevere is a fool if he hasn’t locked the guy down for two more years over the rest day.