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.