The view at the start line of stage 19 summed up the relationship — or lack thereof — between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador during the 2009 Tour de France.
Riders were lined up across the breadth of the road in the Rhone village of Bourgoin-Jallieu. A smiling Contador, dressed head to toe in yellow, was on the far right side. Armstrong was on the far left, leaning against the barriers, about as far as he could be away from Contador and still be in the Tour de France.
On one side was the legend, the cancer-survivor, the seven-time Tour champion, a force so big he had his own gravitational pull, able to charm, intimidate and overpower just about everyone in cycling’s orbit.
On the other side was Contador, a small-town Spanish boy who, not as worldly or sophisticated as Armstrong, had an unbreakable inner strength to withstand three weeks of intense pressure both on and off the bike.
Forty-eight hours later, Contador was standing victorious on the Champs-Elysées, the first man to beat Armstrong at the Tour since the seven-win streak began in 1999.
“I won two races, one on the road and another in the hotel,” Contador later admitted. “The days in the hotel were harder than those on the road. The situation was tense and delicate, because the relationship between Lance and myself extended to the rest of the staff.”
That two-dimensional conflict made Contador’s 2009 Tour victory all the more extraordinary.
Not only did Contador fend off new generational rivals, such as the Schleck brothers and the resilient Bradley Wiggins, but he also had to battle a distracting and potentially crippling psychological war with Armstrong.
Despite a remarkable third place, the Texan was in no mood to celebrate in Paris, at least not with Contador. He skipped the Astana party after the Mont Ventoux stage and instead hung with representatives from his new sponsor, RadioShack, and immediately set his sights on overall victory in 2010.
Then came the stories, leaked in the Spanish media by those close to Contador, about snubs and insults — both real and imagined — during Contador’s three-week march: stolen water bottles, disappearing team cars, no-talk meals.
To millions of Spanish fans, Armstrong seemed like a sore loser, but the Texan was simmering. Frustrated by Contador’s apparent lack of respect and lack of gratitude, both for him and the Astana team, Armstrong was already plotting his next move.
In Contador, Armstrong now had the enemy that he so often needed to motivate him during his ruthless seven-year run at the top. Contador might have beaten him, but 2010 could be a very different story.