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Thursday, July 23, 2009
Lance, other top riders pay price in TT

By Bobby Julich
Special to ESPN.com

A day after we were treated to the best stage I've seen in professional cycling, the Tour de France field gave us another exciting individual time trial on Thursday.

Let's recap ...

There were no losers in Wednesday's Stage 17, the last in the Alps. The level of tactics, professionalism and class from everyone in the front group was top-notch and it showed the world what bike racing is and how great our sport can be.

You saw a lot of the teamwork that makes cycling unique. From Lance Armstrong sacrificing for his Astana team, to Christian Vande Velde doing the same for Bradley Wiggins, to the Schleck brothers fighting for one another on the last climb, it was one of the most beautiful stages you'll see. Now, I am not just saying this because Frank Schleck won and he's my friend; I'm saying it because everyone rode to the best of his ability. All the top riders showed sheer guts.

I know there was some controversy surrounding Alberto Contador's late breakaway from the Schlecks and his Astana teammate Andreas Kloden. I wasn't on the road with them, so I don't know exactly what was said, but I think Contador was going with his competitive instinct. He looked very comfortable during the last climb and he didn't want to hold back.

Andy Schleck told me after the stage that Kloden was losing steam and would have been dropped at some point even if Contador didn't attack right then and there. After Contador broke away, I thought he was gone and that we wouldn't see him and the yellow jersey again for the rest of the stage. But once Andy and Frank saw Kloden didn't have the legs, they caught Contador.

Either way, I don't think Contador's attack caused the crisis for Kloden.

The last time trial

You saw who had a hard time recovering from Wednesday's mountain stage in Thursday's time trial. Here's my take on the top contenders:

Lance Armstrong
As soon as Lance left the starting point, I could tell he wasn't on his game. He didn't look totally comfortable out there; you could especially see that once he threw his sunglasses off. Usually, he goes and he's in a zone. But he was out of the sport for three years; you can't make up that off time in nine months of racing.

Honestly, it was nice to see him suffering a bit. What I mean by that is, cycling fans, especially fans in France, like to see riders show that they're human. Lance paid a price Thursday after his effort in the Alps. During his seven Tour wins, he would usually go out at 110-115 rpm and take minutes out of other riders with little strain. In the past, Lance was superhuman and won without strain. I think he has won over many more European fans this Tour because he seems more human.

All that being said, he'll turn 38 in a few months and he's challenging for a podium spot in the Tour. It's pretty impressive. It's nice to see him out there enjoying himself.

Bradley Wiggins
He had a decent ride, but he made life harder for himself heading into Saturday's Mont Ventoux stage. I thought he would have won the time trial. But if you look back to Wednesday's stage, Wiggins was also paying the price Thursday.

But no matter where he finishes, Wiggo has had a great Tour. How many riders go from winning Olympic gold in track racing to becoming a Tour contender in a year's time? He has nothing to be disappointed about.

Andy and Frank Schleck
The Schleck brothers have unique frames for cycling; they're tall and rail thin. It makes them both perfect for climbing, but neither is going to be a time trial specialist. Usually, if you want to really improve in time trialing, you have to build up specific muscles in the body and, in some cases, gain weight to help with that muscle development. But Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis didn't want to go that route with the Schlecks, especially Andy.

Andy is one of the most gifted climbers in the world. With all the work we did on his bike and positioning, he was able to put more focus into the time trial and improve his time. We've had some good tests and bad tests with Andy over the past year, but he has realized he has to at least defend his position in a time trial. Andy is better at time trialing and can hold his concentration more than Frank, but both of them have improved and defended their positions today.

Alberto Contador
This is a once-in-a-generation bike rider. When I first noticed him in 2004 and 2005, I wondered how he could climb and be a good time trialist given his skinny frame. It's because he is one of a kind.

I expected him to do well Thursday because he was not at all fatigued; the freshest cyclist wins the last time trial of the Tour. He's been on the wheels of most riders in the mountains. Other riders like the Schlecks, Lance, Vande Velde and Kloden were all tired heading into the time trial, while Contador was able to sustain his effort longer.

It's also a sign of major class when the overall Tour leader wins the last time trial. It makes it hard to argue who the overall winner should be.

My good friend Jens

I was able to speak to Jens Voigt on Thursday after his crash earlier this week. He is still in the hospital in Grenoble, he's a bit tired, but he was in good spirits. He said he still has no memory of what happened; he blacked out for a bit and woke up on a stretcher in an ambulance asking, "Why am I here?"

Ironically, he didn't see his crash until he was on the phone with me. Even after seeing it for the first time, Jens doesn't know why the crash happened.

But, thankfully, my friend is OK. He has been trying to rest before he is transferred to a hospital in Berlin. He's been busy responding to texts and e-mails from friends and supporters. It goes to show you how many people respect and admire him.

Stay tuned ...

Check back to ESPN.com on Friday for my Mont Ventoux preview. Should be a great stage!

Bobby Julich will be providing analysis for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. He retired from pro cycling in 2008 and is currently the technical director for Team Saxo Bank. The American finished third overall in the 1998 Tour and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.