Whither Contador?

Tour de France 2009 Stage 21 Paris

As October begins to blow leaves from the trees and the European season winds down, there are two big races left in 2009. The first is Paris-Tours. The second is the race to pry Alberto Contador out of his Astana contract. This is a race with a number of riders, all hoping to cross the line with 2010’s presumptive Tour de France favorite on their roster.

First, Contador has a year left on his Astana contract, so Astana have to be favorites to keep the mercurial Spaniard. This is technically true. But if the Kazahks lose their ProTour license, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has indicated that the governing body is evaluating Astana’s licensure, they might be inclined to cash out their assets (i.e. Contador) and pull out altogether.

Whatever posturing Alexander Vinokourov has done in his comeback from a two-year doping ban is just that, posturing. No one is going to run a pro team on the back of a 36-year-old unrepentant doper. If they’re daft enough to soldier on, and remember they’ll need to sign a full roster of riders after the Lance walked off all the strongest riders for his new RadioShack team, they’ll do so knowing they’re not likely to get invited to the Tour de France, both because of Vinokourov’s past and they’re own dearth of quality riders.

Next in line is Caisse d’Epargne, and they don’t need Contador unless they believe Alejandro Valverde’s troubles with the doping authorities aren’t going away. They’ll want a horse in the Grand Tour GC race in that case. I suppose they might think of sweeping the Tours with Valverde and Contador doing the podium tap dance. That would be a good trick, but does anyone think they have the support team to do that? No. I don’t either.

Garmin-Slipstream, who won’t talk about signing Contador except to say how awesome that would be, don’t need Contador either, unless they think Bradley Wiggins is going to force his way out of the team and into a Team Sky uniform. Sky is a British team. Wiggins is British. They can offer him a uniform that doesn’t look like a preppy car accident. You can see why Wiggins would want that. In the event of Wiggo’s defection, then Jonathan Vaughters might do worse than picking up Contador as a replacement.

Then there’s Quick Step. Now this one really makes sense to me. Packed full of talent for one-day Classics, the Belgian squad only needs to add a real GC man to strike bowel-clenching fear into the rest of the peloton. Signing Contador will cost money Quick Step doesn’t have, but the Spaniard is a bankable asset. Perhaps the Belgian floor maker can secure an additional loan to do a deal. Patrick Lefevre, the team’s manager, has even promised to hold five roster spots open to hire support riders just for Contador. Really, it’s shameless.

Finally, there has been talk of Contador forming his own team, but with the Shack and Team Sky entering the fray, the ProTour simply won’t support a third brand new team, even if Contador and his handlers could pull together a passable roster in time, which they can’t. So forget about it.

These are the moving pieces: Astana’s license, Alejandro Valverde’s DNA, Bradley Wiggins’ sense of national pride, Jonathan Vaughter’s argyle sweater vest, Quick Step’s line of credit.

Everything depends on Astana. Allegedly they’ve made all the financial guarantees necessary through the end of 2010, so there oughtn’t be a repeat of 2009’s bounced paychecks. But between 2009’s foibles, the return of the pariah, Vinokourov, and the loss of so many top-riders, it might be too big an ask for the Kazakh’s to go on. Once the door is open for Contador to leave, and believe me it will be, then it’s race on.

If the Kazakh consortium behind Astana is smart, they’ll let Contador’s price rise over the next month before doing a deal. As the holiday lights go up, what Astana can hope to get in return for their prize pony will dwindle. Teams will have to finalize rosters, make out budgets and firm up plans. Astana will be seen as desperate if they hold on too long.

It may well be that Garmin and Caisse d’Epargne are just waiting to see what happens with Wiggins and Valverde before tabling their best offers. Quick Step’s best bet is to make a deal before one of those other dominoes falls, because they likely don’t have the cash to compete otherwise.

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7 comments

  1. CK

    I disagree with you wholeheartedly on the point that Caisse wouldn’t have a support team for him if valverde had to go into timeout…They just hired Bruseghin and Soler, the team that won the Vuelta plus men like Moreno and Kiryienka and other men like Luis Leon Sanchez…They might not be as old like the guys at Retirement Shack but they could hold there own.

  2. Henry

    Seems to me if Contador is planning a new Spanish super-squad that is still a year away he should take a page from Lance at Astana. Go to Caisse d’Epargne on his own nickel if he has to and commandeer the team and DS to launch his own team with Alonso / Banco Santander / Renault backing the following year. Caisse d’Epargne would make the perfect base for such a team.

  3. Da Robot

    @CK I don’t dispute that Cd’E has the support staff to win a Grand Tour. They proved that with the Vuelta this year. My contention was that they don’t have the staff to win all three Grand Tours in the same year.

  4. Jza

    Paris-Tours???? How ’bout Lombardia?!?! The only race that counts besides San Remo.

    Every year, it’s entertaining to watch the cycling press pretend that anything matters besides a Saturday in March and one in October.

  5. Larry T.

    Interesting thoughts Padraig. I can’t see the Kazahk’s caring about getting a payoff for AC since their TdF invite goes out the window without him– unless they’re planning to fold up the Astana tent anyway. Keeping the Vino-team (and I believe the recent Astana setup was just a place holder while Vino was serving his suspension) going is what they want and AC is key since the defending Tour champion gets ‘em back in Le Beeg Shew. Once the Kazahk’s realize Vino is past his sell-by date I think their interest in the whole deal will deflate pretty quickly without a big star/winner to fly their colors– as a matter of pride. AC’s gotta be hoping UCI will pull the ProTour rug out from under Astana soon so he’s got a chance of cancelling his contract. I think the logical choice would be Caisse d’Epargne if they can find the euros to pay him. This setup has won a few Grand Tours along the way and would seem to still have good infrastructure and organization to back up their Grand Tour race mindset. Garmin should “keep on keepin’ on” and stay out of high-price bidding wars/bringing in a big star, it’ll mess up their whole atmosphere. Shame on you for omitting Giro di Lombardia, it’ll be much more interesting than Paris-Tours!

  6. lachlan

    A situation such as this would have been quite impossible to imagine a few years ago. It speaks volumes on the recent doping and knock-on effect politics and sponsorship…

    IF the french retesting has its worst ourcome, I dread to think that this will seem like only a mild pretaste of terrible and utterly anti-sport reasons behind the shape and perception of our sport.

    A champion like Contador (and I give him the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise, like i do Armstrong) of such clearly superior ability in his generation should never be in this situation. And never would have been had it not been for the 1990’s and 2000’s doping escapades of the peloton.

  7. Da Robot

    @ Jza and Larry T.

    Don’t blame Padraig for the omission of Lombardia. It was my post, and I didn’t mean to slight the Italian race. It was really just a conceit for opening a rant about the Contador situation. Though, if I think about it, I believe Paris-Tours is a better race, but that’s just an opinion.

    @lachlan

    Doping has always been in sport. The ’90s and ’00s have merely dragged it out into the open and turned it into a topic of conversation, as well as a dynamic force in the off-season transfer mill. I find the ongoing issues with doping really fascinating. It doesn’t really impede my ability to enjoy the racing. For example, I think it was a shame that diLuca was doping at the Giro, but wow, what a race! His combativity turned Menchov’s clinical execution into a real battle. I would rather no one doped, but unfortunately we don’t live on a planet where that happens. I think it’s my job, as a fan, to put my faith in the latest testing and get on with the business of loving bike racing.

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