By Andrew Hood
Maybe Lance Armstrong will like Mont Ventoux a little more now.
Armstrong hung tough on the mountain that’s always given him trouble to fend off attacks from the Schleck brothers and secure a podium spot with third place going into Sunday’s finale at the 2009 Tour de France.
“I cannot complain for an old fart coming here,” Armstrong said after the stage. “Getting third on these young guys is not so bad.”
During his seven-year Tour reign, Mont Ventoux proved elusive. In 2000, he “gifted” the stage to Italian rival Marco Pantani in a gesture that backfired. In 2002, Richard Virenque won out of a breakaway ahead of the chasing Armstrong, who crossed the line third.
On Saturday, the stakes were dramatically different and Armstrong was riding to defend his hold on third-place.
Some 38 seconds separated Armstrong from sixth-place rival Frank Schleck, with Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream) and Andreas Kloden (Astana) sandwiched in between for a four-way battle for third.
The Saxo Bank tandem needed to dislodge Armstrong, Wiggins and Kloden if they wanted to move Frank Schleck from sixth to third to join Andy Schleck on the final podium in Paris.
Astana had a clear strategy, with Alberto Contador marking the attacks from Andy Schleck and Armstrong staying with Frank Schleck. With Wiggins fighting to hang on and Kloden slipping into a support role, Armstrong had the odds stacked in his favor.
Andy Schleck unleashed several aggressive attacks in the lower wooded section, drawing out Contador, but Frank Schleck was unable to shake the stubborn Armstrong.
“It was a little aggressive at the bottom, lots of wind, lots of teams riding at the front. I cannot complain,” Armstrong said. “It was kind of simple. Follow Wiggins and follow Frank Schleck and I had the legs to do it.”
The leaders regrouped after coming out of the woods at the Chalet-Reynard with about 6km to go. With strong winds battering the riders, Armstrong knew the toughest part of the fight was won.
“It was not as windy as advertised. It was windier near the top, but not as strong as we thought,” he said. “I have never seen so many people on the Ventoux. It seemed as if half of America and all of France showed up. It was so packed, and when you have a lot of people lining the road, it blocks a lot of the wind.”
Astana sport director Alain Gallopin said the longer, steeper slopes of the unrelenting Mont Ventoux climb better-suited Armstrong’s style.
“We are very pleased with the confirmation of Armstrong to finish on the Tour. First and third is not bad for us! It was impressive what Armstrong could do today, but we were confident,” Gallopin said. “Arcalis and Verbier were shorter and faster than a climb like Ventoux, so we expected him to be able to fend off the attacks. He’s better on the longer climbs like Alpe d’Huez.”
With Spanish rider Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank) staying clear from a breakaway, Armstrong marked the wheel for the final kilometers and crossed the line fifth at 41 seconds back with his podium view in Paris secure.
Armstrong settled into third place at 5:24 back, a remarkable achievement following his three-year retirement.
At 37, Armstrong is one of the oldest podium finishers ever. His experience and race savvy proved decisive throughout the race, most evident in key moments when he snuck into the front group when the pack split in stage 3 to Le Grande Motte.
With new sponsor RadioShack, Armstrong promises to be back next year even stronger.
“I will race next year with my team and I think I will be even stronger,” Armstrong said. “We will have a strong team. I am already looking forward to next year.”
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