Who’s the Boss?

Dundrum Ireland August 1987

The ongoing talk and writing on the subject of Lance Armstrong vs. Alberto Contador has pretty well played itself out. The world is full of two alphas fighting for dominance. Whatever. The most interesting observations and most challenging disagreements have been made concerning the tension between Contador and his director, Johan Bruyneel. (Oh, and I apologize to all of you who thought of the 1980s sitcom starring Tony Danza.)

When is it okay for a rider to disobey his team director?

The question may seem academic, but our perception of what’s acceptable can determine our attitudes toward riders, their directors and even whole teams. Opinions have been so sharply divided on Armstrong and Contador, they might as well be charted as red or blue states. But the issue of Contador and Bruyneel isn’t necessarily as clear cut. Sure, plenty of Contador fans see Bruyneel as having been in league with Armstrong, but the fact is, Contador disobeyed his DS. It’s one thing to consider your teammate another competitor, but it’s another to think your DS can’t or won’t guide you to victory even if they know you’re the strongest rider in the race.

Tour de France chronicler Bill McGann, occasionally of these parts and more often of Bike Race Info asked me what I thought of Stephen Roche’s attack of Carrera teammate Roberto Visentini at the Giro d’Italia. Visentini was in the maglia rosa when Roche attacked.

The English-speaking press has traditionally portrayed Roche’s actions as justified, the acts of a guy who never was fully supported by his team. The fact is Roche attacked his teammate who was already in the lead.

My initial reply to McGann was that Roche’s attack was almost certainly wrong at the time but that history had vindicated his attack. Wait a second, though. At the time of Roche’s attack no rider from the Ireland or the U.K. had ever won a Grand Tour; statistically, his eventual victory was unlikely. McGann believes Visentini would like have won the Giro had Roche not attacked.

Cyclists may like Roche’s self-confidence, but that doesn’t change the fact that he attacked the Giro’s previous winner and current leader. It’s easy to come up with objective arguments in either Armstrong or Contador’s favor for why they should have been unquestioned leader of Astana, but there was virtually no reason to consider Roche for leadership.

Again, this may seem an academic argument, but the potential for this sort of conflict comes up all the time. It is increasingly common (likely, even) that a team will have two riders capable of a strong GC ride in a stage race. Some times it is easily resolved; consider Garmin’s example with Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde. Other times there is some tension, but the upstart asks for permission to ride for himself. Consider Silence-Lotto’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck who asked permission to ride for himself following following Cadel Evans’ implosion.

The ’09 Tour has been often compared to the ’86 duel between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, but it is the psychic alter ego of the ’85 Tour when LeMond was the young upstart who by many—if not most—accounts was stronger than Hinault and could have beaten him. LeMond fans wring their hands about how he was screwed by his team, how Paul Koechli lied to him, how the promise of support in ’86 was penance for his incredible sacrifice in ’85.

But here’s the real question: If winning a race requires your utmost in fitness, strategy and even politics, when isn’t the winner deserving? Should winning come at any cost, even if it means virtual destruction of team cooperation?

Do, as Macchiavelli wrote, the ends really justify means and does that give a rider the right to overrule his director? In starker terms, does the fact that Roche won justify his attack.

Photo: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Rich, SfS

    I’ve got to put you right on this one Padraig. Steven Roche is from Southern Ireland which is not in the UK at all. Now that Hampstein bloke, wasn’t he from Montreal!!

  2. Doug

    Thank God for blogs or I would never had known about Contador’s mistreatment at the hands of his team. Interesting how the article in El Pais has received no mention in the anglo press.I believe witholding information to be equal to a lie. How many English speakers have even heard of this article?? Those who attempt to win by propaganda and subterfuge deserve the title of cheaters!

  3. Marco Placero

    I think Alberto will be spending a lot of time and effort convincing his future sponsors and team structure that he won’t be doing anything rebellious. Did Alberto give his future employers a lever with with which they might be apt to offer him less money because of his past– if it’s fair to call it this– insubordination? Would that be offset by his clear superiority? Kid is fortunate that he’s a super-fit athlete who’s apparently worked very hard at the skill of cycling, I hope he matures into a great rider. He’s got one of the greatest Grand Tour career starts ever.

    What of endorsements? An interesting exercise would be to name some corporations that would capitalize on an image of doing what’s in one’s personal best interest, at the sacrifice of your partners and against your employer’s wishes. This isn’t meant as a negative comment. Question Authority.

  4. Simon

    > Roche from the UK? I think you might get some mail on that one.

    With a name like Padraig I wouldn’t have expected such a fundamental error.

  5. BBB

    Why do you keep writing this nonsence? Contador disobeyed his DS – really. Do you get this from press quotes or is this your own independent analysis? Contador was the team leader and should have been given unquestionable support by his team. This simply did not happen. Why not? Contador was the strongest rider in the race and certainly the strongest rider in Astana. The portrayl of his role by his team mate(s) and DS and english speaking websites, including this one, is quite ridiculous. While Astana won the race, courtesy of Contador, Bruyneel directed the team quite poorly. There would have been no tension had Bruyneel put the brakes on Armstrong’s ego. This unfortunately did not happen. Stop smoking the Armstrong peace pipe and look at the race as it really happened. Even better, look at what happened from September 2008 onwards. If the ends justify the means as you note in your conclusion, then Contador rode the perfect race. End of story.

  6. Kevin

    Contador was justified in disobeying orders from Bruyneel as Bruyneel’s interests were aligned with Armstrong and not Contador.

  7. Lachlan

    Some of you are talking as if Alberto was a longshot neo-pro who shot to fame this year, just pipping the current champion (lance in your mind) at the post…. In reality back on planet earth: he was the overwhelming favourite who had already won many big races including all three grand tours, while lance was more the longshot, though unknown because of his talent and results several years past. To talk about him being seen as rebelious or somehow being less employable because he supposedly ‘disobeyed JB’ is pretty far fetched to say the least. Sorry to say it but this thread increasingly reads like the “Bill O’Reilly” show of cycling anaylis! Entertaining in a way, but definitely a bit whacko… ;+)

  8. Sophrosune

    I agree with Lachlan. Once one of the commenters confesses that Armstrong could torture small animals and he would still be a fan, the arguments begin to sound more than a little hollow and just ring of blind worship of Mr. LA. And BTW: receiving an offer from your current team for 16 million Euros over four years makescomments that no one will employ again is more than absurd, it is WRONG.

  9. Da Robot

    In principle I agree with what I infer to be Padraig’s point-of-view, that it’s really never ok to disobey your DS. In essence, it lets the whole team down, the folks you want to work for you. The team compact (the unwritten one) is that everyone pulls in the same direction for the best possible result. Some have suggested, in this case, that a podium sweep was possible for Astana.

    Without addressing that possibility directly, since it was only ever a remote possibility, I think the team compact, in this case, was broken by Bruyneel. While it’s certainly true that a team leader needs to obey his DS, the DS is likewise and equally obligated to earn his charges’ trust. Further, I believe it’s the DS’ duty to work for his current employer (in this case Astana), rather than his future employer (the Shack).

    There are, of course, details missing from the debate. How much did Contador know? How much did Bruyneel disclose? What did Bruyneel actually say about LA’s push for yellow, if there even was one?

    Unlike the Roche case, where the rider took a prize that was only arguably his to take, in the context of the team, I think Contador had every right to expect the team would ride for him at the Tour. The ambivalence from his DS is something LA would never have tolerated if, say, Floyd Landis had wanted to ride for GC in ’05.

    There is also the possibility that Contador believes he can win 7 Tours de France, but giving LA another win, and simultaneously losing a year to rack up his own win, might rob him of a chance to grab that brass ring. That consideration is not a reason to disobey your DS, but once you’ve decided to go off reservation, perhaps it adds fuel the fire to win.

  10. mark

    I only have the perspective of an amateur racer, where I’m paying for the “privelege” of racing rather than getting paid to do so. But for me it comes down to one simple thing: it’s a bike RACE. It’s not a group ride, and it’s not a popularity contest.

    In a race, if someone doesn’t want to take a pull, there’s no way to make him do so. All you can do is attack and hope he can’t hang or suffer him sitting on your wheel. Most of the time people will cooperate, take their turns, doing their part to ensure the success of the racers they’re working with.

    But depending on your perspective, what some may call wheelsucking or cheating or not cooperating or whatever, someone else may call good tactics. I know we like to get all full of ourselves as if there’s some code that you have to follow that trumps all other priorities. But the reality is that a win is a win. And the great champions have all been committed to winning more than they were to team, to DS, or to anyone else. Case in point: Hinault ’86.

    I’m no Contador fan, but you can no more fault a champion for winning than a snake for biting. It is what it is, and it’s going to do what it’s going to do.

  11. Alex Torres

    Mark you hit the proverbial nail here. Aside from intentional dangerous moves and plain lame bike-handling, it´s hard to fault a bike racer for cheating or unsporty attitude. It´s usually tactics or just the opposite: lack of tactics, no-plan, and indeed it depends on the perspective and the side of things you are. I´m also an amateur racer and I couldn´t agree more.

  12. Henry

    I agree the real drama was not Armstrong/Contador. The Astana problems were all about AC and his director. Was it OK for a DS to sign on a leader promising he would be leader and then refuse to let him out of his contract insuring him that things would be as he promised and then on the eve of the Tour to do a 180 and start working as if he reported to Armstrong?

    Was it OK for the DS to risk the yellow by trying to put the weaker rider in yellow because of their personal/business relationship? If he had managed to get Armstrong in yellow and could have forced AC to ride for him Andy Schleck would probably have been on the top step in Paris.

    Should Contador have sucked it up and allowed Bruyneel to toss his business commitments to him in the trash to advance Bruyneel’s own future deal with Armstrong? Contador’s comments after the race were unfortunate even if true. Maybe he felt the need to give context to his actions. My problem is that I don’t believe Bruyneel was working for the team. He was working for Armstrong. The DS abandoned his responsibility to the team and so lost his authority.

    As far as AC having a problem finding sponsors, funding and team mates that has already been proven to be not a problem at all. The competitors at the top all have huge egos, that includes Contador and Armstrong. They demand teams built around them. This was not a case of a leader not being able to concede gracefully when he proved not up to the task. If Bruyneel hadn’t gone off the reservation first, Contador would not have followed.

  13. Chris

    Alberto was wearing bib number 21 – so he was, by tradition, the team leader. Everyone else – including Mister Texas-sized Ego himself, wearing #22 – should ride in support of the leader. The DS should work team strategy in support of the leader. Pity that didn’t happen.

    Has anyone *ever* seen Lance fetch bottles from the team car? In any race, ever?

    1. Author

      Thanks everyone for your comments.

      Roger that on the UK. I took leave of my senses briefly. Don’t know how I came to type that.

      As for Contador/Armstrong/Bruyneel, I’m not too concerned with them at this point. For me, the question is as simple as I put it—Who’s the Boss? Who really ought to be in charge and under what circumstances can and should that authority be challenged. I honestly think there are some DSs that are dumber than a box of thumbtacks and that they probably deserve to be challenged, but in the case of someone like Bruyneel, who has previously been clear and consistent in message and mission, is certainly different. Even fans of LA will likely agree the messages coming out of Astana were confusing and the situation only seemed clear once you chose a side.

  14. Henry

    “previously been clear and consistent in message and mission”. I think you hit the nail on the head there with previously being the key word. Maybe he should have reminded Lance there is no I in Team when Lance publicly challenged him (JB) after the Monaco press conference:)

  15. Lachlan

    I second Mark’s comment… The boss in cycling is, and I hope will always be he who crosses the line first, makes others grovel and who raises both hands to the sky while others are still making their ‘red kit prayer’. ;+)

    and the DS? BS! -its the legs on the road that count in the boss stakes.
    C’est la vie sur deux roues mes amis! And I hope it always will be…

  16. swissarmy

    I’m not going to take sides in this debate–I’m neither a fan nor a hater of Armstrong, Contador, or Bruyneel. I see them all as strong individual competitors, which inevitably would involve their egos and, by virtue of their histories and previous alliances, conflicting interests. These circumstances may not have even been completely understood by each of them at the time and none of them may have been able to completely foresee what was to come, so it remained to be played out during the race. Although it makes for good discussion, in evidence in this thread, I don’t think we will ever have a complete picture of the dynamics of all that went on between them during the tour this year.

    To answer Chris above, I did see Armstrong carry bottles for the team during the Giro, shown several stages before the one where Leipheimer cracked on the climb to Monte Petrano and fell to sixth place. He also droppped back that day to pace Levi to the finish. So despite what some say he has shown a willingness to be a team guy, although one might argue that’s only when it suits him.

  17. Henry

    “So despite what some say he has shown a willingness to be a team guy, although one might argue that’s only when it suits him.”

    Contador played the part of super domestique for Levi at the Vuelta a Castilla y León and when he no longer felt threatened by Lance rode for him on Ventoux despite the personal animosity. So as you say when the roles are clearly defined it is in the leaders interest to be a good team player.

  18. bikesgonewild

    …there is so much speculative bullshot (no, padraig, i didn’t miss the “i”) on this, i’ll be glad when the vuelta comes up & then we’ll likely have a whole new set of circumstances to harp over…

    …i’m amazed to read to some of the negativity accredited to armstrong & his supposed domineering of “every” situation…like his friend eddy merckx, armstrong is a domineering rider, no doubt but the man shows a certain amount of grace when not winning, just like monsieur merckx…

    …the truth is i’ve watched & noted finishes for years wherein armstrong & another rider(s) come up to the line, granted when he’s not fighting for a win or a time bonus & in practically every case, if the rider is of lesser position or even ability, armstrong acquiesces & allows that rider to cross first…

    …but then, i have the ability to note that because i’m watching the race rather than looking for excuses vilify the man & sneer at his abilities…

    …***speculative question*** as per armstrong’s ‘challenge’ to contador in monte carlo…what if armstrong really was stronger than ‘berto ???…i don’t recall a lotta folks even believing he’d podium but again, what if he actually turned out to be the strongest guy on the team ???…was he supposed to sit back & let contador win ???…

    …i’m turning the tables on all the contador fans who suggest that all of ‘berto’s actions were justified…

    …i’ll tell you this…barring any actual health issues, armstrong will come back even stronger next year, w/ a winning attitude & a dedicated team…
    …think contador won’t be concerned ???…

  19. Robot

    What’s funny about how this whole Astana melodrama played out is that, I think, almost everyone saw it coming within about ten minutes of Armstrong announcing his comeback. The real failure (if there can be said to be a failure) is that LA, JB and AC had a long time to work all this stuff out, and didn’t.

    And I think they all come out looking badly as a result.

    I’m not a fan of any of them particularly (sadly, Sastre was my favorite in this last Tour). I don’t like that Armstrong came back and behaved so presumptuously about his role in the team. I don’t like that Bruyneel failed to manage the egos on his team, and I don’t like that Contador vented his spleen after the race. Also, he’s got that AWFUL victory salute.

    In the end, Mark’s point about champions being champions is a good one. Armstrong didn’t want to give an inch. Contador didn’t want to give an inch. And Bruyneel just couldn’t come up with enough inches to satisfy them both.

    The DS should be the law, but in this case, he wasn’t up to the task.

  20. bikesgonewild

    …that’s just my point, robot (oh great…now i’m talking to a robot)…during this particular race, armstrong did back off & gave more than a few inches…

    …yes, granted, in the beginning, he forewarned contador that if he was up to the task, he’d give ‘berto a run for his money but when that proved not to be the case he happily rode for a podium spot & yet if contador had cooperated, armstrong mighta had second…

    …while even a podium was beyond most folks expectations, if armstrong was everything certain people accuse him of, he prob’ly coulda forced himself into second…despite what a lotta folks suggest, armstrong, much more than contador rode for the team…

    …& bruyneel ???…given the egos his ego had to deal w/, the bottom line is, he did a great job…he took two of the three podium spots for his sponsor…

  21. Robot


    Yes. You’re right. Armstrong gave an inch or two, but only when he was forced to. As Mark said above, that’s probably just cause he’s a champion, and he doesn’t know any other way.

    I also agree that Bruyneel didn’t really fail here. He took 1st and 3rd and secured a new team with a marketing juggernaut to work with for next year.

    I wish I could fail like that.

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