Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) came within a whisker of the first UCI-classified win of his comeback in the Tour de Suisse on Sunday, but finally had to settle for second behind surprise winner Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank).
For the RadioShack leader, following a highly uneven build-up in the first half of the season, second in Suisse – run off in the worst weather conditions in its history this year – could not have come at a better time.
Come the Tour de France even if Armstrong was a ‘normal’ contender, with this sort of recent result he would automatically be confirmed as an on-form favourite.
But for the 38-year-old to come so close to victory this close to July after a series of abandons and crashes represents the major step in the right direction that Armstrong badly needed to take.
Armstrong and the RadioShack management were clearly pleased with his result, which came after the American took eleventh in the final time trial, 1-09 behind stage winner Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia) – another rider clearly on the up for the Tour de July.
Finishing over a minute down on the winner might sound like a poor performance, but the fast-changing weather conditions on an exposed 27 kilometre course meant none of the overall favourites finished really close to the German.
And as Armstrong’s team manager Johan Bruyneel pointed out afterwards, it was the Texan’s consistency and final result overall, rather than the time trial performance in itself, that really impressed.
“To do so well after nine days hard racing is what really matters,” Bruyneel said later, “It’s been good and his condition is good.”
“The weather changed a lot in this final stage, and the wind switched direction too, so we couldn’t use the time references we’d taken with [Armstrong’s team-mate] Jason McCartney early on.”
“I went as hard as I felt I could go early on,” Armstrong said, “the conditions changed for the later guys but they were similar for the overall contenders – myself, Frank and [Robert] Gesink [Rabobank].”
Riding his first medium-distance time trial of 2010, Armstrong kept a steady pace and looked comfortable throughout on a course essentially consisting of an eleven kilometre steady climb, followed by 16 kilometres of descent back to the town of Liestal.
“It was a hard time trial, relentless, no real recovery time,” Armstrong said. “I was turning the pedals all the way.”
Asked what this performance implied for the Tour de France, the American hinted hard that he will not be going there just to finish on the podium again.
“Third in [the Tour of] Luxembourg, second in Suisse, I’ll do the math for the next one [the Tour de France]” Armstrong said.
“I just have to stay healthy and try to find that extra one percent.”
Schelck is supposedly a famously poor time triallist, but he pulled out all the stops to finish 13th on the stage, 1-14 down on Martin.
Whilst former leader Robert Gesink all but cracked and finally finished fifth overall, in contrast Schleck’s above-expectations ride earned him the biggest stage race win of his career. It also puts the Luxembourg born pro exactly where he wants to be before the Tour de France.
“I’m surprised because I’m not a specialist, but I knew I had to try to do well here because I was lying fourth overall the night before,” Schleck said.
“I would have preferred to be more chilled about it, but when you’re fourth, you can’t be chilled. You’ve got to go all out.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of work behind the derny, trying to improve my top speed in the time trials. A lot of the time in time trials, it’s more about staying focussed and not losing the plot , and that made a difference today too.”
Schleck dedicated his victory in cycling’s fourth biggest stage race to Kim Kirchen (Katusha), currently in hospital after he collapsed with suspected heart problems in his team hotel on Friday.
“We’re both parents, Kim’s wife is expecting twins, and I know how difficult this must be for them. I sincerely hope he gets well soon,” Schleck said, and his comments earned him a round of applause from the journalists in the Tour de Suisse pressroom.
As for Armstrong, he now goes on to check out two of the Tour’s Alpine stages, starting on Monday, and then will do a reconnaissance of two Pyrenean stages. After that, his countdown to Rotterdam will start in earnest.
Tour de Suisse 2010, stage nine ITT: Liestal, 26.9km
1. Tony Martin (Ger) HTC-Columbia in 32-21
2. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Saxo Bank at 17sec
3. David Zabriskie (USA) Garmin-Transitions at 29sec
4. Gustav Erik Larsson (Swe) Saxo Bank at 48sec
5. Levi Leipheimer (USA) RadioShack at 48sec
6. Andreas Kloden (Ger) RadioShack at 52sec
7. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Saxo Bank at 52sec
8. Maxime Monfort (Bel) HTC-Columbia at 57sec
9. Wouter Poels (Ned) Vacansoleil at 1-02
10. Stijn Devolder (Bel) Quick Step at 1-07
Final overall classification
1. Frank Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank in 35-02-00
2. Lance Armstrong (USA) RadioShack at 12sec
3. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Saxo Bank at 17sec
4. Steve Morabito (Swi) BMC Racing Team at 23sec
5. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 27sec
6. Tony Martin (Ger) HTC-Columbia at 27sec
7. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Caisse d’Epargne at 33sec
8. Andreas Kloden (Ger) Team Radioshack at 48sec
9. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 1-09
10. Levi Leipheimer (USA) RadioShack at 1-14
Final TT stage winner Tony Martin
Fabian Cancellara placed second on the stage
David Zabriskie came home in third
Final podium (l-r): Lance Armstrong (second), Frank Schleck (winner); Jakob Fuglsang (third)