Lance’s return spiced up the Tour

The 2009 edition of the Tour de France was the best in years.

With four former champions taking to the start, there was bound to be an intense battle for the top spot on the podium.

However, the greatest amount of speculation surrounded seven time champion Lance Armstrong and whether at 38 he would be able to make a return to his winning ways after leaving the sport after his final Tour de France win in 2005.

There were also rumours of tension within the Astana team, especially between Armstrong and the 2006 Tour champion Alberto Contador, who was the odds-on favourite to claim the coveted yellow jersey.

From the opening time trial in Monaco it was clear that Contador was in excellent shape as he claimed the best time among the overall contenders, although finishing a couple of seconds down on stage winner and time trial specialist Fabian Cancellara.

The first couple of stages favoured the sprinters and young British sprint sensation Mark Cavendish did not disappoint.

After winning four stages in the 2008 edition of the race before quitting to prepare for the Olympic Games, Cavendish ruled the sprints, claiming a massive tally of six stage wins by the close of the Tour. This included an imperious win during the closing stage on the Champs-ÉlysÉe in Paris.

The first stages did deliver a bit of a shock to Contador as he was caught in the second group on the road as the peloton split during heavy cross wind conditions on the third stage of the race, thereby losing valuable seconds to team mate Armstrong.

With Astana widely expected to win the fourth stage team time trial, Armstrong seemed set to make a triumphant return to the yellow jersey.

The Astana team worked hard to close the 40 second gap between Armstrong and race leader Cancellara, but although the team claimed the stage, Armstrong fell short of Cancellara’s time by a fraction of a second.

On the first major mountain stage of the race, a breakaway managed to stay clear to the finish on Andorra Arcalis, putting Rinaldo Nocentini of the AG2R team into the race lead at the end of the seventh stage.

However, the biggest news of the day was a devastating attack launched by Contador, which none of his competitors were able to follow.

Although he gained only 21 seconds on team mate Armstrong, the attack proved that Contador, not Armstrong, was likely to be the dominant force in the mountains.

Contador finally managed to claim the yellow jersey on the fifteenth stage, which climbed up to the mountain top finish at Verbier.

He showed once more that he is the best climber in the race, finishing well clear of his rivals after launching a devastating attack some five kilometres from the top.

However, Contador’s attacking style did not always win him fans, not even within his own team.

On the seventeenth stage, Contador launched an attack from a leading group containing Frank and Andy Schleck of Team Saxo Bank, as Contador’s Astana team mate and podium contender Andreas Kloden.

Contador’s attack distanced Kloden, but his two rivals were able to stick with him to the finish, where Frank Schleck claimed the win in what was clearly a pre arranged finish as Contador launched a feeble pretend sprint.

The final time trial in Annecy the next day changed little to the overall rankings apart from Frank Schleck losing his position in the top four to superior time trialling by Armstrong and surprise overall contender Bradley Wiggins of the Garmin Slipstream team.

Wiggins, a track specialist, was not regarded as an overall threat at the start of the Tour, but his remarkable performances in the mountains elevated him to a credible contender for a Tour podium in the next couple of years.

The penultimate stage up the Mont Ventoux, probably the most feared climb in all of cycling, proved less decisive than many had anticipated. There were few changes to the overall, with Contador marking his main competitors and thereby securing his yellow jersey.

After the largely ceremonial stage into Paris, Contador claimed the top spot on the podium, with Andy Schleck in second and Armstrong third. The King of the Mountains jersey was claimed by France Pelizotti of the Liquigas team, with Thor Hushovd of Cervelo Test Team claiming the points jersey.

However, the conflict between Contador and Armstrong dominated much of the headlines during the Tour, with Astana director Johan Bruyneel’s announcement that he would leave Astana at the end of the year and Armstrong’s subsequent announcement that he would be riding for a new team in 2010, to be sponsored by Radio Shack, getting at least as much press as Contador’s win.