This Is No Charity Ride

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Gifts are for birthdays and anniversaries, not bike races. This was the sentiment expressed by five-time Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault as Lance Armstrong walked to the podium Thursday after winning his third stage in as many days.

The issue of “giving” stage victories to other riders has been around for a long time. When it has been done, it ‘s usually been in a situation where a rider helped the race leader or favorite, and that rider was in turn given the honor of winning a stage because it didn’t affect the leader’s chances of winning the overall title. For example, if in a two-man breakaway with a non-threatening rider you gained so much time that you knew you would become the race leader, you might allow the other rider to win the stage because his breakaway work helped you earn the yellow jersey.

That wasn’t the case today. Of the four men with Armstrong in the final kilometers, three occupied the second through fourth positions in the general classification, and one was a teammate. Andrée;as Klöden, Jan Ullrich, and Ivan Basso are fierce competitors, just like Lance. If they could have left him behind on the slopes of the day’s final climb, the Col de la Croix-Fry, they would have. If they could have left him behind at any point over the past 17 days of racing, they would have.

Every man in the lead group at the base of the final climb this afternoon was and is still racing. While some people are beginning to say Armstrong has already earned victory number six, the racers and everyone close to the race know otherwise. The Tour de France is not won until you cross the finish line in Paris, and it would be both foolish and dangerous to think the men closest to Lance in the general classification have given up on their dreams to take the yellow jersey.

In this context, there’s neither room nor reason to give away a stage victory. What’s more, among such savagely competitive athletes an act meant as a gesture of thanks can instead be taken as an insult. These men want to win because they are faster, stronger, and smarter than the other riders in the race, not because someone who could have won decided not to.

All the same, Lance Armstrong gave his teammate Floyd Landis the opportunity to win Stage 17, but it wasn’t going to be a gift. To win, Landis had to attack 13 kilometers from the finish line and careen down the side of a mountain faster than Ullrich, Kloden, and Basso. The man whose climbing pace had just reduced the lead group of 13 riders down to just five attacked, but was quickly chased down by Jan Ullrich.

From then on there were a serious of surges and accelerations, culminating in a strong attack from Klöden within the final kilometer. It looked like the German would take the stage, but then he started to slow as the cost of the effort took its toll. Armstrong saw his chance, and there were no thoughts of backing off just so Klöden could win. It was a bike race and there was a man in between him and the finish line. There’s only one thing to do: try to get there before he does.