The Finest


When the La Vie Claire team members each took the start house at the Boulogne prologue in the 1986 Tour de France, they were the finest team ever assembled. They were to cycling what the supergroup Asia was to rock music only a few years before: immensely talented, privileged, volatile … stars.

Over 23 days that July Greg LeMond and Berhard Hinault, as assisted by Andy Hampsten, Niki Rutimann, Jean-Francois Bernard, Steve Bauer, Charly Berard, Alaign Vigneron, Philippe Leleu and Guido Winterberg all but destroyed the field. King of the Mountains leader Robert Millar, favored by some to win the mountainous edition of the race quit after contracting bronchitis. Eventual third place, Urs Zimmerman finish nearly 11 minutes down on LeMond.

By the time the team members retired, they had amassed a record unequaled to this day. Though some of these results came with other teams, the results speak for themselves; no other team has amassed such talent. Hinault and LeMond split eight Tour de France wins between them. The various members scored 11 other top-10 finishes. They combined for a total of 41 stage wins and Hinault, LeMond, Bernard and Bauer spent a total 110 days in yellow. Banesto doesn’t even come close.

As it happens, the 2009 Astana team can’t match that record. Armstrong and Contador have eight combined victories and 79 total days in the yellow jersey. Armstrong, Contador and Leipheimer account for 24 stage wins. Team members Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer and Haimar Zubeldia have nine top-10 finishes between them. It’s an impressive record, but not the ’86 La Vie Claire team. Or is it?

If we compare apples to apples, then we must consider the record of the La Vie Claire on July 4, 1986 to the record of Astana on July 4, 2009. Once we turn the clock back to the start house in Boulogne, we have a significantly different record. When Bernard Hinault rolled out of the start house clad in yellow, the team had the following resume: five Tour de France victories, three other top-10 finishes (two from LeMond and one from Hinault), 26 stage wins and 69 total days in yellow.

While La Vie Claire leads in stage wins with 26 to 24, Astana takes game and set with eight overall victories and 79 days in yellow. When you factor in the successes of the team directors, the single victory Paul Koechli could claim withers when compared to Johan Bruyneels 11 victories. Let’s put this in perspective, the L.A. Lakers’ coach, Phil Jackson, has shaped the careers of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two of basketball’s greatest stars, and in so doing has earned 10 NBA victories. It’s a record for the sport.

After Bruyneel’s 11 wins, the next best record in cycling is that of Cyrille Guimard, who led Lucien van Impe, Hinault, Laurent Fignon and LeMond to seven victories. The difference alone—four—would make any other director’s career.

Okay, so the ’09 Astana team is the best team ever assembled, even with Dmitriy Muravyev. What does it mean for the race, though? It means that to win the Tour de France, a team will need more than one GC rider. The team will have to have a strong team to cover Astana’s moves.

It means that teams such as Marc Sergeant’s Silence-Lotto are more than unlikely to win the race. In 2008, despite crashing, Cadel Evans would likely have won the race if his team hadn’t been so thin. Sergeant’s unwillingness to re-sign the one rider Evans said he needed (the hapless Chris Horner) and his willingness to sign a rider released for irregular blood values, Thomas Dekker (the peloton’s most recent positive for EPO), show his judgment is lacking.

Jonathan Vaughters is smart enough to direct a team to victory and has done an excellent job of assembling talent. However, Christian Vande Velde will need something like a miracle to reach the podium, let alone the yellow jersey.

Carlos Sastre’s Cervelo Test Team isn’t even planning to try to win the Tour. Either they are taking the most comical reverse-psychology approach to victory yet devised or they understand reality and have adapted accordingly. I hope it’s the latter.

The best Ag2r-Mondiale, Agritubel, Bbox Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Francaise des Jeux, Lampre-N.G.C., Liquigas, Quickstep, Skil-Shimano, Team Katusha and Team Milram can hope for is a stage win or two and maybe a day or two in yellow, provided the stars align.

We might as well lump Caisse d’Epargne in there as well. Oscar Periero has as much chance of winning the Tour as he does winning the prologue.

Columbia-HTC and Rabobank are in the same boat as Silence-Lotto: Sure, a Corvette is fast, but it’s hardly capable of competing in F1.

Bjarne Riis is literally the only director with the intelligence and the necessary depth of talent to meet the Astana challenge. While Andy Schleck has been advanced as the team’s lead, the presence of brother Frank gives Riis the necessary firepower to wield a two-pronged attack.

If ever the was a year when teams should forge alliances the way individual riders used to, this is it. Saxo Bank working in tandem with Columbia, Silence-Lotto or Columbia-HTC is the best chance the peloton has of beating Astana.

Strap in sports fans, this will be one for the ages.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.

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  1. bikesgonewild

    …you’ve covered all the bases w/ the exception of saying that armstrong comes out of all this smelling like roses no matter how & where he places…

    …not an unintelligent move by juan pelota…no doubt…

    1. Author

      This would be one rare instance where I don’t quite agree with you. Armstrong could face a huge backlash in popular support should he be too obvious in going after his personal goal. He faces a challenge as it is, but he’s openly signaling his desire to lead the team. He just said in a brief interview with Frankie Andreu, “Alberto is the leader of the team for now.”

      For now?

      And yet, still with the poker: “Dude I’m old; I gotta get back and get to bed early.”

      I love having him back in the race; I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

  2. halli

    I think you’ve nailed it; Chris Horner is indeed hapless. Maybe I should brush up on my Luxembourgois and figure out a way to root for the Schlecks.

  3. Fausto

    LA wins the war for himself even if it hurts the team. LA plays not to the hardcore fan who understands and follows, he plays to the American Press who don’t understand the team work and tactics. He can screw AC and the New York Times wouldn’t understand. Yesterday the NYT reported the race started with the TTT. During the Giro they reported that Andy H. won the epic Snow stage over the Gavia. Today they wrote about the “leader jersey on the team” like it was a different jersey, versus who has the number one assigned to them and is the designated leader.
    If Lance and Alberto are both in the final selection on a mountain, do you think Lance is going to admit that he is not the fittest?

  4. furk

    “Oscar Periero has as much chance of winning the Tour as he does winning the prologue.”

    Yes, it’s impossible to win something that doesn’t exist…

  5. Kevin

    Here’s hoping for an Astana implosion. Lance, Levi and Popo vs. Contador and the rest of the team. That would be an ideal outcome.

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