When Alberto Contador attacked on le Grand Bornand and dropped teammate Andreas Kloden, he did more than just dash Kloden’s hopes for the podium. He torpedoed Astana’s historic bid to sweep the podium of the 2009 Tour de France, a feat not achieved in the modern era of the event. Maybe that didn’t matter to Contador, but this should have: He damaged his team’s ability to defend him on the slopes of Mt. Ventoux.
Had Contador not attacked, it is likely Armstrong would have come back to the leaders, if not on the climb, then on the descent. Given the way Kloden had to raise his pace to try to regain the leaders, Armstrong wouldn’t have had to work as long to pull back the gap. In a lead group of Contador, Kloden, Armstrong, Schleck, Schleck and Nibali, there would have been no reason to gift the stage to Frank Schleck, and Astana, with three cards to play, would have had a good chance of taking the stage.
Coming out of the stage 18 time trial, the GC would have still been Contador in the lead, but Wiggins would have been second at 2:28—enough to dismiss him as a threat to Contador on Mont Ventoux, but Armstrong would have been third at 3:06, with Kloden at 3:10, both close enough to have a real shot at taking second and third overall could they drop Wiggins on Ventoux, an act they both have previously managed. Schleck would be an also-ran to this quartet with obstacles on all sides to GC advancement.
With two teammates so close in time to Contador, their defense of yellow would have been easier by neutralizing virtually any attack before it started. Instead, Contador’s attack lifted the two Schleck’s from 5th and 8th on GC to 2nd and 6th.
As it stands now, there are four riders within 34 seconds of each other, each within striking distance of a podium spot. If Contador hadn’t attacked, he could well have had a tranquil ride up Mont Ventoux, but now the Tour organizer’s very wish—fireworks—is guaranteed on the slopes of the Geante de Provence.
Based on his unwillingness to listen to his team director before attacking on le Grand Bornand, and his previously stated distaste for Levi Leipheimer’s podium finish at the 2008 Vuelta, it is fair to surmise that Contador isn’t comfortable having other capable GC riders on his team. In his particular instance, as both the best time trialist and best climber present at the 2009 Tour de France, we must grant that Contador doesn’t need a team to win the Tour. But what of those riders who toiled for him no matter how superfluous their efforts might seem?
Even Eddy Merckx knew when to throw a domestique a bone. Why deliberately torpedo the aspirations of your teammates? Armstrong had already conceded the win to Contador. Contador said he attacked to neutralize Wiggins. What? Wiggins was already dropped. No one attacks a dropped rider. When you attack, you are attempting to drop someone on your wheel, which makes Contador either a liar or not very bright.
If it seems that I have a personal stake in this, a desired outcome, that’s not the case. I find the possibility of an Astana podium sweep to be an interesting and historic outcome, but I also find historic the possibility of Great Britain’s first podium finish. Wiggins’ transformation from Olympic Gold Medalist on the track to Tour de France contender to be fascinating. And should the two Schlecks take the lower two podium spots that will mean Contador will face a very formidable threat in 2010. Maybe Contador didn’t need a strong team this year, but the confidence that would come with finishing second and third could make the Schlecks a force majeure in 2010.
Carlos Sastre won the 2008 Tour de France not because he was the strongest rider, but because he was on the strongest team and the strongest rider in the race—Cadel Evans—stayed with Andy Schleck when Sastre attacked. Evans knew he couldn’t follow every attack and so he chose to stay with the stronger of the two teammates, hoping they would bring Sastre back. He rolled snake eyes on that one.
The 2010 Tour could play out similarly: Contador on a weak team isolated and Frank Schleck attacks and Contador stays with brother Andy. And who would Contador have to thank for boosting the Schleck’s confidence? Himself.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International