MARSEILLES, France – The port of Marseilles knows all about the perils of making the wrong choice of leader.
Go back a couple of millennia and the fledgling trading post lost out on future prosperity by throwing its support behind Pompey the Great instead of the ultimately triumphant Julius Caesar.
As the Tour de France prepares to leave what is now France’s third largest city on Monday and head into the gusty marshlands of the Camargue, cycling’s premier event shows that some ancient dilemmas still resonate.
The uneasy truce that exists within the Astana team, where seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong has given his tacit agreement to play second fiddle to chosen leader Alberto Contador, has held through the first two days of this exhausting slog toward Paris.
Yet while it is possible that Armstrong is truthful in his assertion that his primary objective is to finish the race and raise awareness for his cancer charity, there is an unshakeable sense that bicycle racing’s first statesman has an underlying motive.
The skeptics of the Texan’s commitment to backing Contador can be excused. A decade of witnessing this man laugh in the face of impossible odds to create a contemporary legend makes it a stretch to imagine that he could ever be satisfied with not going all-out for victory.
So far there has been no legitimate opportunity for Armstrong to provide a show of force that would indicate he, not Contador, is the natural focus for the team’s exhortations. But one may arise as early as Monday.
Strictly speaking, the relatively flat stage from Marseilles to the beach town of La Grande Motte should offer little in the way of positional change among the contenders for overall glory. However, the unpredictable Languedoc winds ruptured the pack in 2007, leaving several team leaders struggling toward the rear of the field.
And no one really knows what would happen if Contador were to experience trouble. In any other team the leader would be protected at all costs, and a collective effort to pull him through would immediately be organized if he encountered difficulty.
But with three other verifiable potential leaders in the Astana camp – Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloeden – might team director Johan Bruyneel elect to ditch Contador and install a new leader if the Spaniard started to struggle? And if faith was retained with Contador, how would Armstrong feel about providing assistance to a weakened team figurehead?
Certainly, if Armstrong were feeling rebellious, there would be few better places to indulge such thoughts. (The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, was first chanted by a force leaving this region to take part in the Revolution.)
For now, it is more likely that Armstrong is going to play a waiting game. While it remains to be seen if the flesh is willing enough to get him to the Champs d’Elysees in optimum shape, the mind is still as sharp as ever.
The 37-year-old’s intuition for this race is a factor that is often overlooked and he perhaps understands the Tour’s inner workings better than anyone in the event.
For the second straight day, he accurately predicted the stage winner on Sunday, as Mark Cavendish of Great Britain and Columbia-High Road emerged first from the route from Monaco to Brignoles.
Cavendish, a powerful sprinter, charged away from the pack over the final few hundred yards to take the win. Another sprint finish can be expected on Monday, as any attempted breakaways are likely to be blown backward by the severity of the gales.
The smart men will conserve energy by sticking in the protected cocoon of the pack. Contador will be among those who make that choice, though just how lasting his cloistered title of leader will be remains to be seen.
Armstrong waits. Cycling awaits.