LE MONT VENTOUX, FRANCE — Way down this photogenic mountain and way up this photogenic country, they'll take one very loud photograph today in Paris.
Far from your run-of-the-mill tourist photo with which your friends and neighbors bore you from their gawky ambles up Avenue Champs Elysees, this image will feature three guys who appear gaunt to the verge of emaciated yet in a sense barely fit in the frame together.
Barring any shocking catastrophe in the largely ceremonial final stage, the photo of the top three finishers' podium for the 2009 Tour de France will include the Tour de France Terminator of the past, the Terminator of the present and a looks-like-a-Terminator of the future, while remembering that the Terminator of the past does maintain the capacity to loom over proceedings.
When they finished the 20th and penultimate stage Saturday up a mountain so steep you might've felt the urge to suggest they just use helicopters, the daunting and closing 13-mile climb cemented the overall standings with the elderly Lance Armstrong in third place, the superior Alberto Contador in first, the onrushing Andy Schleck in second and the giddy Juan Manuel Garate of Spain winning the stage.
Contador had spent the day all but affixing himself to Schleck to make sure he didn't stray ahead; Armstrong had spent the day all but affixing himself to Schleck's brother, Frank; Andy Schleck had spent the day trying to help Frank to the podium while also trying to threaten Contador; and seemingly much of southeastern France had spent the day either at 6,272 feet up Mont Ventoux or in stultifying traffic thereabouts.
Everybody seemed pretty happy even without optimum oxygen.
Armstrong's securing of a place on the podium highlighted a return to the sport at 37 after a 3 1/2 -year retirement for the seven-time champion, and his enthusiastic Twitter feed went on about the thick crowds around the route, reveled in preserving his podium place and concluded with, "Happy."
He will turn 38 on Sept. 18 and loudly will return in 2010 with a new RadioShack team that will discontinue his brief stint as Contador's teammate, avoiding any overrated or underrated ticklishness there.
Armstrong's appearance will mark a deepening of his fresh and second incarnation, for if his first return in 2009 won him quiet skepticism from those who point to the unofficial positive doping test of his 1999 samples released in 2005 after his first retirement, it more so won him a fresh wave of support, even from the very summit.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy lauded Armstrong's "state of mind as a young man" and his "giving hope to all the ill people," a reference to Armstrong's survival of cancer, and by Saturday the 26-year-old Spaniard Contador told reporters Armstrong represents "a dangerous rival in the future."
That assessment came from one who just won the second straight Tour de France in which he entered while expanding his methods for doing so.
Contador won in 2007 both because the leader after 17 stages, Michael Rasmussen, was dismissed by his team, and because Contador unexpectedly held firm in an individual time trial in the 19th stage. This time around, he won both with a climb up a mountain last Sunday and with a climb up the mental mountain of serving as race favorite while doubling as the teammate of the former Zeus.
So to reporters on Saturday he said: "This Tour was very difficult. . . . I was in a strange situation; each day I told myself it was one day less."
While the 2007 Tour had proved difficult on the body, and the 2008 Tour he had missed because the Tour de France that February forbade his team from entering because of doping cases involving other cyclists, the 2009 Tour had wracked the body and mind.
His mental challenges this time may have included the former three-time American winner Greg LeMond, who in the French newspaper Le Monde questioned the legitimacy of Contador's climb up the Swiss mountain Verbier last Sunday, but they definitely included Andy Schleck, the younger -- by five years -- of the two Luxembourgian Schleck brothers whose father, Johnny, also raced professionally in the 1960s.
At 24, Andy Schleck wears the white jersey as best young rider heading into Paris, and on Saturday with his serial attacks he played a primo role in what Contador labeled as suffering, even as Schleck's brother wound up remaining in fifth place (40 seconds behind Armstrong) with the Briton Bradley Wiggins in fourth (37 seconds behind Armstrong).
This, after the field spent the day approaching its most harrowing climb, rising above the lavender fields and sunflower fields and the tree line toward something that resembles a moonscape, toward the memorial of the British rider Tom Simpson who died on the route in 1967, and toward the summit that registers the 1,912 meters in its brown-and-white sign, just above its sign denoting the winemakers of Mont Ventoux.