*Updated*: Unfinished Business

Tour de France 2009 Stage 20 Ventoux

This week Specialized Bicycles announced that they had signed Alberto Contador to a personal sponsorship contract for their bicycles. Contador in turn announced that he had come to an agreement with Astana to serve out the final year of his contract.

Whew, that’s over, isn’t it?

No, not really.

First, Contador’s contract with Specialized is significant and merits a look. In the modern history of road racing, a move of this sort is highly unusual, if not outright historic. Greg LeMond and Eddy Merckx had enough power that in negotiating a team contract they could stipulate the team would ride their bicycles. This is, however, the first time in the modern era that a rider has signed a personal contract ahead of his team, thus virtually ensuring that his team will be strong-armed into riding the same bikes.

It’s a fascinating fresh take on the carrot-and-stick approach, at least for the bike industry. It also hints at the possibility that Astana are not easy to negotiate with or even to determine who to negotiate with. This move could conceivably be less expensive than sponsoring Astana outright, but it has an additional value to Specialized: It makes Contador less portable. Obviously, there’s no way Garmin-Slipstream would allow Contador to ride a Specialized bike if they were to sign him. Ditto for Caisse d’Epargne. By offering Contador the lion’s share of what would otherwise go to the team, Specialized does Astana a service in helping to keep Contador tied to the team. There’s an obvious value in that.

Interestingly, the Belgian newspaper Sporza.be reports that Patrick Lefevre spilled the beans. After an unusually cordial letter announcing the end of the relationship, Lefevre revealed that Specialized was hoping to use their sponsorship of Contador to help lure him to Quick Step. When Contador accepted the offer and then announced his decision to stay with Astana, Lefevre said he realized that he and Specialized “no longer shared the same vision.”

Cynically, one could say that Contador took the money and ran. The more generous view is that he didn’t ignore the script, but rather, the man who expressed concerns about having the very best in equipment to race on seized on an opportunity to race some on a brand he believed to be superior.

Contador isn’t a done deal for either Specialized or Astana, though. There’s this clause in his contract that Astana must maintain its ProTour license or he climbs in the escape pod. As I’ve reported before, one requirement of the ProTour council is that all ProTour teams must have a minimum complement of 25 riders.

It is November 20 and Astana has 20 riders and one—Haimar Zubledia—is still trying to leave.

The Astana Roster to date:

Assan Bazayev

Alberto Contador

David De la Fuente

Valeriy Dmitriyev

Alexsandre Diachenko

Enrico Gasparotto

Andriy Grivko

Jesus Hernandez

Maxim Iglinskiy

Roman Kireyev

Berik Kupeshov

Daniel Navarro

Benjamin Noval

Bolat Raimbekov

Sergey Renev

Gorazd Stangelj

Paolo Tiralongo

Alexandre Vinokourov

Andrey Zeits

Haimar Zubeldia

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Robot

    I’ve been waiting so long for the other shoe to drop on this thing that I have a crick in my neck, and I don’t even know what a ‘crick’ is.

    Interestingly, Specialized dropped Quick Step for the coming season, so now they’re a Merckx team, further limiting the options for el Pistolero.

    I suspect, after all is said and done, that Contador’s people told him to sit and wait Astana out, knowing full well that they wouldn’t clear the hurdles, and he would suddenly be holding a MUCH better hand than when the Kazakh’s held his registration.

    Maybe I’m too cynical.

  2. Jim

    It is entirely possible that Astana – well known for its institutional disarray and subservience to the whims of the Kazakh government – is relying on the services of a Borat-esque negotiator to procure bikes for the team for this season. Or perhaps the Borat-esque fellow is the team’s manager, who has neglected to lock up a bike contract, thus allowing riders to pick the ones they like. Who knows…

  3. Sophrosune

    This whole thing is so out whack it’s hard to know how it will all end up. So Contador has a deal with Specialized, but there’s a very real chance Astana will not get their Pro Tour license, which will force Contador to look elsewhere. But will his Specialized contract go along with him? It’s a mess.

  4. Dano

    indeed, Contador does continue to merit a strong look as a true alpha rider. At first, this all appears like the most recently played out soap opera in disarray, but it may end up proving once and for all that Contador is bonified. We will soon see what he is surrounding himself with; bikes, equipment, roster and it will prove everything out. For now, everyone can continue to speculate and contemplate. We probably still will come the first week of July. Lick your chops boys, because so far, the appetizer has been tasty.

  5. JZ

    Truly entertaining to watch this whole thing unfold. I am wondering whether the Specialized/Contador deal may be a sign that eventually we will see a new team built around Contador either after Astana collapses this year or in 2011 with Specialized being a title sponsor, such as the Cervelo Test Team type deal. Then again I could be completely wrong.

  6. Sophrosune

    JZ, I think you may be on to something there. I was surprised about the news from Robot that Specialized had dropped Quick Step–damn they have a bike called Roubaix. Whatz up with that? Maybe this tips their hand a bit that they want the whole team, like Cervelo test team. Boonen’s escapades with cocaine couldn’t have made Specialized too happy.

    1. Author

      It’s fairly unusual to see an announcement made jointly about the end of a bike sponsorship such as Specialized has done with Quick Step. What occasioned the end of the sponsorship was the opportunity to sponsor Contador and in doing so, strong-arm their way into the Astana team. Specialized has done well with wins in one day classics, particularly with Roubaix and Flanders. However, you could win Roubaix from now through 2020 and it wouldn’t have the impact of a single Tour de France win. Three of the top five riders from the 2009 Tour de France will be riding Specialized bikes next year. Not bad for Specialized.

  7. Brian

    I find it very interesting that Specialized decided that the pros of being associated with Contador outweighed the negatives of being associated with Astana.

    The benefits of having the top grand tour rider are obvious, but the downside of being associated with a team in such disarray may be hard to quantify.

    Specialized does have pockets deep enough to go solo on a Pro Tour Team, so perhaps they are setting things up for down the road. Of course Astana doesn’t yet have that Pro Tour license (the decision was supposed to come down today), and even if they get it, that doesn’t mean that they will be invited to all the races they want to be in; Contador’s palmares vs Vino legacy should be another interesting soap opera. Will ASO,RCS, et al keep their agreements vis-a-vis the UCI & Pro Tour Teams?

    With this said, and with all the rumors per his revised compensation, perhaps Contador is cashing in, while recognizing that he may be forced to sit on the sidelines again during some prominent races. While I am sure this isn’t plan A, he is young enough to come back in 2011, and powerful enough marketwise to be able to dictate terms to his new team. I would venture to say that most teams don’t care too much about whose bikes they are riding, as long as the equipment, support and checks are there.

  8. Dano

    Good points. Additionally, naturally we look at this from a cyclists perspective, but lets look at it from a business perspective too. Specialized may be making a crap-shoot if you will putting their chips on a hunch that astana doesn’t licence and falls through which after last seasons payout is a potential, and if that occurs it would therefore oblige contador to ride under ‘team specialized’ or something the like of ‘team high road’. Big time exposure for specialized anyway.

  9. lachlan

    a new mess to add to the mess to end all messes :o)
    I’m amazed if he really is staying with Astana after all thats happened!

    Potentially an interesting PR comparison for the two big US mass+high end bike makers though (Spec + Trek).

    Trek keeps lance and the majority of non hardened cyclist interest, Specialized now has the arguably the best stage racers in the world between Contador and Saxo Bank… a moral sporting sponsorship victory for Specialized perhaps (if such a thing exists, and I’m not sure I want it to) but I bet Trek do better on the mass sales effect as a result.

  10. JZ

    Looks like Astana is still keeping us on the edge of our seats regarding its pro tour status and future, along with Contador’s. I can’t wait to see what happens with the Specialized contract. Will Specialized step in and take over primary sponsorship? Stay tuned!

  11. Henry

    Maybe Specialized is getting itself a position on Contador’s future squad. With Trek sucking up all the media oxygen in the US media with the Livestrong show what better way to break through then have Lance beaten by a rider on a Specialized add in the Schleks then maybe Lance gets beaten by a couple of riders on Specialized. The short term maybe bumpy with Astana but down the road there is Banco Santander and Renault and what might be a dominant stage racing team to complement Saxobank. It will be all Specialized all the time on the podium.

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