Its speed, elegance, and cohesiveness could easily lead you into believing that it all happened naturally. That you were observing one of those rare phenomena of nature in which everyone moves in sync flowing uniformly past obstacles, undeterred by the unexpected, moving ever forward. Ahh. Think a school of fish, a flock of birds, an army of ants. And even where the occasional yet inevitable glitch—the surprise yet inevitable speed bump–can do nothing to sap its energy or stall its momentum.

But the participants, hunched low over their gleaming metallic bikes, faces masked by shining helmets, taut in their multi-color suits revealing only team affiliations and not national ones, were anything but a natural phenomenon. They were the world’s top racing cyclists. And they were gathered in Monaco on July 4, 2009, for the beginning of the 96th edition of the Tour de France. Even Lance Armstrong, unprecedented winner of Tour from 1999-2005, had decided, after several years of retirement, to return. Not necessarily to win, but to simply take part in the world’s most exciting cycling event. He was part of the Astana team, based in… Kazakhstan. Yet for all the Americans who had crowded along the Place du Casino that morning, and for the French who had finally come to embrace him, Armstrong remained wholeheartedly theirs’.