I finally got to watch some European bike racing this past weekend—a rare treat with my current schedule. But I won’t deny for a second that the big story on Sunday took place several thousand miles away, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, just outside the men’s room.
For all its storied climbs, the Dauphine has long been an exercise in posturing and one-off performance. In 1999, Jon Vaughters famously used the race to “answer some questions” about his riding abilities. In 2003, Iban Mayo lured Armstrong into a deep-dug defense of his lead at the race, and it almost cost the Texan a record-tying 5th Tour de France the following month. Most commentators saw Armstrong’s “disappointing” finish in 2004 coming a mile away.
This year, while it was good to see Brad Wiggins riding with aplomb in the hills, I can’t say that there was any less gamesmanship than previous editions. Cadel Evans, for example seemed to be a bit off, but he told the press he was happy enough with second—no surprise, considering the front wheel he rode in the TT, which would have been behind the curve in the Cat 3 fields I race. It is especially strange in light of the Super Secret Project Bike he’d been on in the prologue. And then there was the heads of state bunch sprint for second on the final day, on top of a Cat 1 climb, won (behind an uncontested late jump by Joaquim Rodriguez) by a young FdJ rider who’d been in the break essentially from the gun.
Now lets compare this to the Armstrong/Hamilton incident. At first blush, it is indeed a bit dull, but a quick glance at logistics make it a bit more interesting than “two men meeting in a toilet“. After all, news of Hamilton’s visit had been well publicized—the press even extracted a quote from local flavor Charlie Tarver, who also happens to own/operate Hub of Aspen, a bike shop and Trek dealership where Armstrong goes “to be a regular person“.
On Saturday, Armstrong attended a benefit Century in Tennessee organized by Nissan. That’s probably why Hamilton thought Lance would be out of town that night. But Hamilton didn’t anticipate that Armstrong’s teammates would power through the ride at a decidedly uncharitable 25mph pace. Even with “leisurely” stops and a relatively flat parcours, that’s a pretty quick event appearance.
Now, maybe Armstrong rides that hard at most events in an effort to keep the pack around him down. Certainly the magic of the private jet would have easily allowed Armstrong to get back to Colorado by that evening after wrapping up the bike ride at noon without any special haste. And off-season Aspen is indeed a pretty small town—Tyler wouldn’t have been hard to find, and a chance meeting at one of Armstrong’s favorite eateries isn’t entirely out of the question.
But the confrontation itself went down so late in the evening—between 11 and 11:30pm—that I have a hard time believing it was a casual happenstance. Armstrong appeared at the Tennessee ride at 7am—that’s 5am Mountain Time. A long day with a century, even if he napped on the plane. Compounding the issue, reports of the meeting itself were a little scattered, to say the least. Schaffer ‘s initial tweets said Cache Cache was “crawling” with Outside Magazine staff, yet the magazine’s later blog post says most of them were across the street.
My guess? Armstrong probably got a tip after getting home that Hamilton was at Cache Cache. A quick Google search pulled up the Hamilton event announcement, and minutes later, Armstrong was on his way over, without thinking especially hard about whether this might constitute witness tampering or not. A bunch of journalists, a bit jumbled from The Pass, thin air, and whatever it is that Outside drinks, were on hand, but not quite ready to catch the meeting.
So, when you can tell me that Gilberto Simoni will jet into the TdS from the other side of Europe, intercept Damiano Cunego coming out of the bathroom of his favorite Swiss eatery, and deliver the ultimatum that he better lose the race or some long-buried positive test will be revealed, all under the noses of a gaggle of besotted writers from L’Equipe, then I’ll expect the race to be top news on every cycling site.
But if the best you can do is a daredevil descent from Peter Sagan (nothing to shrug at under normal circumstances) I’m afraid these tune-up events will continue to play second fiddle to the sort of off-course intrigue that only Lance Armstrong can deliver.