When Alberto Contador attacked the leaders with 2km on stage 7 to go to the finish at the ski station of Arcalis, the move looked as natural as Derek Fisher backing up to shoot a three. Tactically, it made sense. Other attacks, notably Cadel Evans’ move that Contador jumped on immediately, had been tested, but rather than wait for someone to bring the race to him, Contador launched. He’s a climber and stage 7 is the only mountain top finish in the Pyrenees. To make the most of his climbing ability, he needs the uphill finish.
Contador’s acceleration, which no other rider was able to match, left Lance Armstrong to follow wheels. At no point did the seven-time Tour winner appear to be under pressure, but then, this was the first real mountain stage and for Armstrong the experience must have been tantamount to racing with a restrictor plate.
The surprise was learning that Contador’s move wasn’t part of the plan.
“No one had specific instructions to attack,” said Bruyneel told the AFP when asked if he had given Contador the green light to go.
Johan Bruyneel’s Tour de France teams have been marked by a singularity of mission and disciplined racing. Each rider knows his role going in. There is no freelancing.
Those who bothered to read Positively False by Floyd Landis got a window in to the running of the U.S. Postal Service team that isn’t widely available. No matter what you might think of Landis, we have little reason to think he would fabricate a deteriorating relationship with his team leader and director.
In telling the story of the 2004 season and Tour de France, Landis details his frustrations with broken equipment, his inability to get a time trial bike to train on and contract negotiations (or lack thereof) for most of the season.
In his telling, the frustrations seem reasonable, not the petulant tantrums of some narcissist who things he’s the new star. But Armstrong and Bruyneel decided they had a problem on hand. Landis was a “rebel.”
He tells how Bruyneel and Armstrong treated him with suspicion, spoke in sarcastic tones to him—and perhaps more importantly—about him to other members of the team. There’s a lesson to be learned in those pages: Don’t break rank.
Contador broke rank. Armstrong said, “I was a bit surprised.”
What he added was a first. “Things didn’t go according to the plan we’d set out earlier, but it didn’t matter. It was a fine day overall.”
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Armstrong was content to let the other teams wonder who was in charge as long as it appeared he was free to play his hand. But Contador as a loose cannon? I wonder how many people have imagined that possibility.
Seven straight Tour de France victories taught those who watched closely an important lesson about Armstrong: His name could just as easily be Dr. Bruce Banner. An angry Armstrong is an Armstrong difficult to beat, and if he thinks Contador isn’t going to stick to the game plan, then all bets are off.
In theory, Contador’s move should have put him unquestionably into team leadership, but because he waited until 2km to go, the attack didn’t result in much. While the acceleration was impressive, it came so late it could be considered timid. That wasn’t Eddy Merckx charging across the Pyrenees alone for more than 100km to take the stage, it was a kid racing his engine at a stoplight.
Two seconds on Armstrong is a sneeze. If Contador truly wanted to assert his dominance within Astana, he should have attacked at the foot of the climb, pulled back Feillu, won the stage and pulled on yellow.
Of course, then he would have saddled his team with defending the yellow jersey for an inconceivable 14 stages, but it would have shackled Armstrong with the role of super-domestique for the remainder of the Tour.
As it is, all Contador did was prove to Bruyneel and Armstrong that he can’t be trusted.
Isn’t this the guy who complained that he couldn’t get his team’s full support? He didn’t like Leipheimer’s riding at the 2008 Vuelta, suggesting that Leipheimer pursued personal ambitions when he should have been saving energy to defend Contador’s lead. Contador can’t complain about his teammates freelancing if he can’t stick to the script. By breaking rank, he’s not just racing Saxo Bank, Garmin-Slipstream, Cervelo Test Team, Silence-Lotto and the few other teams with GC aspirations, he’ll be racing his own team.
And while Sergio Paulinho may have been selected precisely for his loyalty to Contador, Bruyneel and Armstrong can use Contador’s disloyalty to drive a wedge between him and the rest of the team.
Contador will find out the true meaning of isolated on stage 8. Worse yet, he has played his best card; he’ll have trouble catching his team by surprise again.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.