Breaking Rank

Astana climbs

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.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, new in our product line is Lance Armstrong Signature Damage Control.

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.


  1. joarc

    Turns out, this Tour is now more interesting than ever before!
    Conti was on Lance’s wheel the whole day, and Lance was even up there leading out and doing lots of hard work, while Contador still didn’t do much, until the last two Km…
    Stage 8 is going to be real 😉

  2. Jim Morehouse

    The two of them on the same team is a bad mix. It will make the Tour much more “velo”dramatic, though! Watching what they do, and then listening to the words that come out of their mouths to “explain” it will make for miles of articles, speculation, and gossip.

  3. George

    It’s like Hinault Lemond all over again except this time, the younger is attacking.

    Over all I’m personally frustrated by Armstrong. It seems as though all up until the tour, it was Contador who was supposed to be the team leader. Then, the day before stage 1, Armstrong started with, “we’ll see who’s strongest in the mountains.”

    Why any rider with personal ambition would be willing to ride on a team with him (Levi, Kloden, et al) is completely beyond me. I for one, would not.

  4. George


    Astana may not support Contador, but I bet there’s a team or two who will.

    I would bet that the ink is already dry on his 2010 contract with another team.

  5. michael

    i think Contador was just pulling a stereotypical spanish “my young cojones are bigger than your old ones” routine. he wasted the energy of youth to try to strike a bit of fear into LA. while i am NOT an LA fan in any way shape or form, I am a realist, and athletes strive on perceived slights to fuel their engines.

    if i were Contador (or anyone else in the peloton), i’d be very, very concerned about an anger fueled Lance igniting the afterburners in the very near future.

    i hope we get the mano y mano show showdown between the 2 on a climb that this tour deserves!

    1. Author

      Thanks everyone for the great comments.

      George: I’ve enjoyed watching the role reversal of Lance and Alberto relative to LeMond and Hinault. As for what Lance has said, on only a very few times did Lance say anything other than “Alberto is the strongest rider in the world. We’ll be riding for the strongest rider.” He has to be the strongest rider to lead the team. It’s subtle, but left the door open for him asserting his leadership.

      It’s unlikely that any team will work too hard to help Alberto because those teams, while they might want to sign him next year, still need to please their sponsors this year. A team like Garmin-Slipstream needs to support Wiggins and Vande Velde rather than sacrifice their own chances for the guy they almost signed.

      Stay tuned.

  6. bikesgonewild

    …astute review of the physical & psychological moves of the day, sir…contador tipped his hand but showed little other than his insecurities & basic immaturity…
    …it was a beautiful acceleration but what did it really lead to ???…assertive team &/or race leadership ???…not a chance…as you stated, it just wasn’t a dominant move & he did nothing more than stoke the fire under armstrong…the comments by liephiemer & bruyneel afterward subtly revealed who the real boss is…

    …armstrong has said & done all the right things thus far…he’s also spoken volumes by what he hasn’t said…to wit:– “like i’ve said all along, my responsibility is to the team” – in response to his reaction to ‘the move’…
    …”oh, the problem isn’t w/ ‘the team’ ” – enuff said…

    …& frankie andreau is obviously a little too delighted by the controversy but he just can’t get the soundbite he wants…c’mon, frankie…these guys are smarter than that & they’ll speak w/ their legs when the time is right…

  7. velomonkey

    This was a good write up, but I think you left out some items. This is Conti sticking to his “I have to win this by beating my own team.” The guy saw an opportunity and took it. Let me ask this, how is this any different than LA helping Columbia once he knew the break was sticking and he got 20 seconds? No difference. It’s also clear, as per the Landis book, once you break rank Johan and LA will air the dirty laundry – with Levi playing the fool to boot.

    LA got his 20 seconds on a tactic, Conti got his on sheer power. Both are one on the same at the end of the day. What matters is the end of the tour and LA is showing he knows he doesn’t have the power. “It’s all abut the team.” Puhlease. “There are two ways to be a leader: experience or strength.” How much you want to bet the team meeting tell ASTANA riders to back experience?

    LA is lucky there have two TTs and one a TTT. He’s also lucky the mountain was windy, 2 minutes in 1.5k is pretty decent with that wind.

    Conti has this thing bagged and he’ll do it working against the team. Too bad the guy doesn’t know how to play the media – cause then it wold be really dramatic.

  8. JMack

    This race is definitely shaping up to be more exciting that I would have thought in June. It’s an interesting point that Contador’s attack was late and of little signifigance, other than trying to demonstrate to his team that he is the leader.

    That attack resulted in little gain and it only served to demonstrate that even Contador has doubts as to who the team leader is.

    And Patrick, the site gets better everyday. Keep up the good work.

  9. jeff bean

    Maybe AC is “interviewing” for $$$ and new contract with Garmin or other team? While LA keeps saying “team”, I have to wonder what’ll be left of Astana as an organization in a month, especially given the pre-tour Vino weirdness, “Team Fade” controversy and 11th hour sponsor funding renewal at the Giro, and Kazakh oddities, in general.

    1. Author

      Velomonkey: I think Contador’s willingness to go it alone, that is, to not follow the team script suggests he may not have learned much about the team he’s riding for. It was a pretty damaging move in terms of him solidifying support for his leadership within his team. I do think that Armstrong’s riding in the lead group with Columbia was just smart riding; never give up time. Also, while Armstrong was near the front, I didn’t see him taking pulls. Someone should have shepherded Contador into that group, but I don’t think it was Armstrong’s job to do that. However, I view Contador’s attack very differently; attacking the lead group drove a wedge between him and his teammates–all of them.

      Jeff: It’s possible some new teams will emerge in the fall to offer Contador a contract as other riders’ contracts expire, but the reality is that even if he doesn’t win this Tour, he’ll still command big Euro and most teams would need to lose three or four of their best riders to afford him on their existing budgets. Almost every team would need to go back to existing sponsors or sign a new sponsor to recruit him.

      Astana is unlikely to be a ProTour team next year, if it even survives. The license is almost certain to follow Bruyneel to his next sponsor. Vino’s Astana would have to be Pro Continental to sign him. What happens at the end of this month when his suspension is up will just add to all the stories coming out of Astana.

  10. Alex Torres

    I couldn´t agree more.

    In fact, I got pulverized by the anti-Lance Squad at our local forum by posing exactly the same considerations and questions after yesterday´s stage: “what was on Contador´s mind to pull that mini-attack at that point”. He proved he´s strong, but has anyone ever doubted that at ANY point leading to this Tour and into it? Not that I know.

    If he did it to put pressure on Armstrong, that was the stupidiest move he could come up with indeed (at least a close one to Gaul´s “Cheri-Pipi” on Bobet back in the 1957 Tour). And it also shows that, like Ullrich and the whole T-Mobike team did before, he may be biting into the proverbial Armstrong´s psychological bait.

  11. Craig

    Or perhaps, as has been stated all along, Contador is the team leader. Perhaps Lance will pull on the Yellow for a day or two, keeping it in Astana’s hands, allowing him to get his cherished publicity shots, and providing the ultimate distraction for Contador to put big time into the rest of the field.

    Despite American fans’ desires, the Tour remains a thoroughly European race, and Armstrong is now an old man. Contador is the best climber in the world, and will lead the tour out of the mountains. Only the most blatant sabotage would facilitate Armstrong taking the lead in Paris. Astana is a proverbial hydra, but it is Contador, and Contador only, who has the legs to hold off the schlecks, but with Armstrong and Leipheimmer to suck some wheels and keep people guessing, it will be a good deal easier.

  12. Jason

    I for one am anxious to see the launch of the 2010 “Mellow Johnny’s” squad backed by Nike and Livestrong. 🙂

    In almost all respects, I can’t say I blame Alberto for the move. The race this year was designed to minimize the impact of mountain finishes all except for Ventoux. He went when he needed to and got the time he needed. The fact it was at his team’s “expense” I actually think is beside the point. Seriously…as much as I’d love to see Levi win and Kloden is pretty much always a super strong 3-week guy…did anybody really think either of them would be given a chance to win barring some calamity that wiped out LA and AC?

    What would we all be saying had the roles been reversed and Lance needed to make up the 20 seconds on Alberto so he made the move???

    If I’m THE BEST of the best when it comes to climbing, Grand Tour racing, and made myself into a damn respectable time trialist to boot based on power/talent/whoknowswhat, it’d be really hard to play the political game and save it all for the next to last day. While I admit it would’ve been a very smart play by AC to let LA live in the jersey for a few days, he chose not to. Too bad, cause it might’ve been even more fun to watch the implosion on Ventoux when he drops the entire peloton.

    But it will still be the most entertaining Tour in years.

    Keep up the great work, Padraig!

    1. Author

      Jason: Thanks for the kind words.

      Now, if you were the best of the best, you’d have had the guts to go at the foot of the climb and not wait for 2k to go. That’s confidence and the way to get what you need. All Alberto did was show his good hand without winning the pot; don’t show your hand, make the others fold or beat them outright.

      Man, to have legs like he has …

  13. Jason

    True, true Padraig. Man up and ride from the base, I couldn’t agree more.

    Still, I wonder what we’d be saying if Lance popped forth and scored 20 needed seconds in the same manner? Would we be applauding his grit or calculating determination or saying he wasn’t a true team player? Fun to think about. And yes…if only to have those legs. Either set actually. 😉

    My only Contador story…on my way out of the convention hall at the close of Interbike 2007, I’m chatting on the phone with my good pal in Seattle while my head is turned to the side. I look forward and narrowly miss running straight into Alberto coming the opposite way. Now I’m 6 foot tall and then around 145 pounds…I told my best bud, “I almost literally knocked over this year’s Tour winner…man is he TINY!”

    Dude is a twig. I’ve never seen anybody look better made for going uphill fast.

  14. Lachlan

    I’m surprised you subscribe to the “contador was off-plan” view – which distorts the quotes of Bruyneel which actually say it was open – ie no plan to attach OR not… Moreover even Lance knows that at the top of a mountain stage like that there is no meaningful ‘plan’ (of the ‘lets not try and take time, even if we can’ kind), you race, and if you can take time from your rivals you do.

    It’s also too easy to say that the great Lance years were a tightly scripted plan – the reality of reactions on the road were otherwise in the truth of the day-by-day . Luckily for lance he was (mostly) head and shoulders the strongest at those times. But more importantly he was the sole leader of his team… surely everyone would agree that even Lance knew long before Monaco that there were 2 (maybe at a pinch more) leaders of the team. So unless you think Bruyneel is really really really stupid, it was not the slightest surprise to him that given a chance Contador would and should attack on a mountain finish. As you say, the real surprise, for everyone, was that he didnt go earlier…

    Lance angry -yes. Team surprised or upset -no chance! They’re pros, thats how it is. And in this specific case it’s what everyone has been talking about for months!! Dead “on-plan” seems more appropriate.

    1. Author

      Quotes I saw from AFP strongly suggest no one on Astana was supposed to attack; what he told AFP was not that the plan was open.

      As for the scripted–or not–plans of Discovery and Postal, given the discipline they showed on the mountains with certain guys knowing which climb they were obliged to drill it on and then pull off, those efforts were longer lasting and more orchestrated than even Cav’s train. To think Bruyneel had no plan for Arcalis is to completely underestimate his understanding of the race.

      And concerning Astana’s four leaders, even Andy Schleck doesn’t think that’s the case. Can anyone possibly think that Kloden or Leipheimer ever had a snowball’s chance at team leadership unless Contador and Armstrong were in an ambulance? Astana has only ever had two lead riders, but they’ve had the two strongest domestiques all year.

  15. Brooke Hoyer

    I think we need to sort through some of the facts to come up with a coherent story:

    1) Astana is done after this year. If Vino comes back, it drops to pro continental and the best talent scurries. If Vino doesn’t come back, the Kazakh sponsors aren’t going to pony up any money and the team is completely kaput.

    2) Bruyneel is going to ‘have’ the ProTour license but is going to need some sponsors.

    3) Lance and Yohan have already been working hard to round up some sponsors. Bruyneel’s success in the marquis Tour and the Lance brand are powerful marketing tools. And when asked whether this was going to be his final Tour, Lance replied ‘probably not.’

    Bruyneel is running the show at Astana but he knows on which side his bread is buttered. Lance is going to be paying the bills over the coming years so if Armstrong wants the Tour, then Armstrong will have the Tour.

    I have found that if you are left scratching your head about motivations, then consider the money. Bruyneel has two (or four?) riders who can win. Which rider is the money maker?

  16. Lachlan

    rather… To think Bruyneel did not expect a contador attack at Arcalis is to completely underestimate his understanding of the race.

    He may not have wanted it (for the reasons Brooke points out amoung others), but thats a very different thing! He’s not stupid, and I doubt he thinks Contador is either! You can’t compare the domestics pulling turns for Lance in 1999+ to the role of race favourite Contador in this years tour.

  17. GuyS

    Brooke: You say “which rider is the money maker?”. It doesn’t matter! If Lance wins this year, he returns to the Tour next year as defending champ, under the Livestrong banner, going for his 9th. If Contador wins, Lance comes to the Tour under the Livestrong banner, trying to unseat the champ with his own “All-American” team. Either way is a marketing dream and money will be spun like golden thread, don’t you worry. It doesn’t make a deifference to JB who wins this year from a monetary perspective.

    In general, I think that it would be different if either one was in yellow. As it stands neither can make that claim, yet. I believe the attack by Contador was meant to get the yellow jersey thereby neutralising Lance completely. It was a near thing and Alberto obviously blew his calculations as to how far from the finish he needed to go from to get it. As it was a surprise tactic, it was something he would have had to figure out by himself without the benefit of coaching. The italian climber must have had more in his legs than Contador figured on. Whoever gets yellow first will have it in the bag.

    As to who would help Contador, Caisse-D’Epargne is the obvious choice. They’re a big side with no real leader this year. Being Spainish and looking to replace Valverde for next year – if his doping problems remain – they’ll be going for AC hard. I can see them helping if they can.

  18. bikesgonewild

    “the Tour remains a thoroughly European race, and Armstrong is now an old man.”…well, well, craig…just how is that day-job as a comedian working out…

    …look at the actual number of riders in the ‘tour’…of all those riders, just how far down in the standings do YOU think armstrong is gonna be at the end of the race…a lotta guys a lotta years younger than the “old man” are scrambling to simply make the time cut every day…

    …& while many of them have jobs to do within their own teams, fact is, if they had the talent & the motor, they’d be leading their teams…

    …armstrong may not win this tour but he’ll finish in the top 5, which, given all the actual facts, may just be more remarkable than contador’s probable win…

    …don’t underestimate a man, who i guarantee you is still riding himself into shape & who is, despite his advanced age, craig, only 8 seconds out of the lead…

  19. Michael

    Jason raises a great point, actually. If LA had attacked (and there was an attacker up the road a bit), the VS crew would be talking about how the team set him up beautifully for the attack. This is a clear double-standard. Lance and Levi could very well be in damage control mode, as they are clearly attempting to work public opinion, although I’m still not convinced that Lance knows he’s not the best, and they are playing mind games with the media/fans.

    Interesting to see what might happen when the two are unleashed on Ventoux. What would be Bruyneel’s script for that day when everyone is letting it all hang out.

    1. Author

      There’s no doubt that the Versus crew are biased. If I was as close to Armstrong as Roll is, I’d have already declared him the winner. As a writer, I don’t much care how they cover the race, only that they do and in as detailed, if biased, manner as possible. They are most useful in identifying riders as rapidly as possible.

      Lance (or any other great champion) doesn’t work on the premise that he may not be the best. He works from the conviction that he can be the best. Besides, Lance doesn’t have to be the fastest, he just has to win the race. Tactically, he is far superior to Contador.

      I’m still not positive on what’s on Bruyneel’s mind but I’d put money on a preference for Lance to win, just because he can guarantee high-dollar sponsorship for next year. Anyone who thinks Contador can bring in the same piles of money Lance can hasn’t worked in marketing. It takes fairly large dollars to run a team the way Johan does and he runs a program a particular sort of way. If Contador is already unhappy enough to leave, win, lose or draw, then why not back the horse with the best future dollars-wise?

      I know, that sounds crazy. Contador has more years ahead of him than behind him. Bruyneel is likely to win the Tour. More likely than Riis and Riis is more likely than anyone else. Which would you rather win if you were Bruyneel? The guy who is a sponsorship bonanza or that other guy.

  20. Lachlan

    It is basically sure Bruyneel is closer (personally and business wise) to Lance… As are Vs and the weirdos ;+)

    That obviously doesnt translates to morning team briefings that say the plan is “don’t attack if you get the chance at the top of the last climb (unless you’re lance)… and lets conserve for the stages Lance can win”

    Duh. Its a much more subtle game going on than that, other wise Alberto and the rest of the team would just laugh.

    And thats where Lance’s Mr Nasty shows all too plainly. Lance has done an AMAZING thing to come back to the level he is at, at his age… even given his undoubted ability. It’s more than would/could be expected even for him. But he also takes every opportunity to continue to be a selfish arogant asshole, of the sort you would run a mile from in your personal life. Makes Hinault look like a really nice sweet, gentle guy!!

    I personally hope neither he nor Contador win. (!some hope?!) But my real worry for Contador is that he will (intentionally) not get the specific, detailed tactical advice from Johan, while Lance as always will – which is a real professional and sporting injustice. If he wins despite it, its a double victory.

    Meanwhile, in sporting terms at least: contador took lots of time per Km in both the only time trial and only attack so far in a mountain stage (real) thus far. That, more than anything is why Lance is looking pissed off… he’s a champion, a pro, and an asshole – he can’t react any other way.

  21. Willem

    What if it were the shleck brothers. no one would think that either of them weren’t riding for the team. The only difference here is LA’s ego. I think that what AC did was incredibly smart. He’s down 20 sec on LA, so get it back and stay even. This puts both of them in the best possible place for either of them to win the overall. Johan is a smart guy, and he is really lucky if that was an unscripted move. Both LA and AC are going to be in the mountains together at the end of the tour, and chances are that both will be seperated by only a few seconds. When one attacks nobody can let it go, setting up the other one for the next attack. Its called team work, and last I checked this wasn’t a cat4 race. I think Johan is smarter than we can even imagine. let them fuel their little war, either way it is good for Johan cause he is going to win another tour. Think back to all the other teams that had more than one real leader. Almost always both leaders ended up on the podium, with one in the top step:
    * 2007 Alberto Contador / Levi Leipheimer
    * 1996 Bjarne Riis / Jan Ullrich
    * 1986 Greg LeMond / Bernard Hinault
    * 1985 Bernard Hinault / Greg LeMond
    * 1984 Laurent Fignon / Greg LeMond
    * 1976 Joop Zootemelk / Raymond Poulidor

    Now how do you like them apples?

    1. Author

      Willem: I like your apples. Anybody who’ll reach back to 1976 to make a point needs to comment more often. I still think Contador’s move on Arcalis was timid. Had he attacked at the bottom of the climb, this race might have been all but over, and if not, we would have had a spectacular day.

      Everyone: Thank you for keeping your comments civil but lively. I really appreciate how there haven’t been any real insults or name calling (easy on the guys at VeloNews). Your comments really keep me thinking. Thanks!

  22. Marco Placero

    My thoughts prior to reading this string became an echo from other comments above yet not stated plainly: it could be that Contador’s move on Arcalis revealed that he’s frightened of an “old man.”

    Regardless of opinions about Armstrong not showing the proper attitude, either he stayed back and followed properly during the chase uphill toward Contador, or he really didn’t have the burst to drop the others (AC did) and join with Contador in order to catch Nocentini and ride on to an assured Astana stage win, a yellow jersey, and a significant yet un-bonified overall time gap by one, the other, or both. That’s how Tours can be won, not by adherence to a script.

    Those who guessed that Contador was seizing a moment of opportunity are the ones who probably do well in their own racing careers, although all of the comments were pertinent, informative, and entertaining. BTW Contador comes off as a twerp (think marketing) but he’s a very entertaining one.

    Padraig this is a no b.s. site I’m diggin.

  23. Lachlan

    Lance showed some good form tonight in making it plain, and with some conviction, that the Astana rank-and-file are now behind (or in front, in paceline) of Contador from now to the Champs…. Unless of course Alberto repeats this year’s Paris-Nice mistake ;+)

    All said a great display… more like what I think most of us had hoped from him on Arcalis. Still not minutes and minutes. But might fairly clearly above and beyond the rest.

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