Astana-shing Attack

Far be it from me to disagree with Paul Sherwen. That guy has probably raced more pro races than I’ve seen.

Having said that, Sherwen’s take on Alberto Contador’s Stage 7 attack at Paris-Nice last weekend really surprised me. As the stage played out and the GC boys came to the front, Contador attacked in a group that included his two main rivals, Alejandro Valverde and Luis León-Sánchez, both from Caisse d’Epargne.

Sherwen thought it unwise for Contador to drop all his teammates, isolating himself with a pair of riders less than a minute behind him on GC. At first blush, this is an entirely reasonable criticism, and one that highlights the weaknesses of Astana’s roster and maybe, on some level, Contador’s tactical naivete.

To me, however, it seemed like a smart move, and one that demonstrated that Contador has learned much from his Grand Tour wins. It was just last summer, after all, that el Pistolero found himself alone with the Schleck brothers on a steep Tour climb, watching as they took turns trying to break him with attack after attack. He was able to hang in that day, but rivals took note. It might not be possible to beat the diminutive Spaniard one-on-one, but there is greater strength in numbers.

And so, coming to the pointy end of Paris-Nice, Contador did the simple math. The Caisse boys were clearly going to attack. None of his teammates would be able to stay with them, so rather than sit back and defend, he went on the attack, effectively preventing either Valverde or León-Sánchez from imposing the pace.

It was a blistering attack. His rivals sat on and let him work, probably hoping he’d punch himself out, but he played it perfectly, holding his speed high enough to discourage a burst from either one, while still riding within himself.

What Sherwen seemed to assume was that there was someone other than Contador on the Astana bus who could stay with Valverde and León-Sánchez on the attack. That was clearly not the case. What el Pistolero knew that Sherwen didn’t is that neither of the Caisse riders could stay with him on the attack either.

It was bold, smart and decisive. And it put him on the top step of the podium.

At this summer’s Tour de France, the GC competition will be much stiffer than it was at Paris-Nice. The Shleck brothers will be there. Cadel Evans with his new BMC team. The Shack and their geriatric posse. The chances of a strange alliance coming together are good. That sort of thing is Johan Bruyneel’s stock-in-trade.

In short, the world’s top stage racer just won’t be able to attack for three weeks. What worked on the road into Nice, won’t work in the French heat, day after day, up Alps and down Pyrenees. But then, come the summer, the Astana bus should have Alexander Vinokourov on it. David de la Fuente will be there for the mountains, too. Maybe also Oscar Pereiro and some of the other riders who’ve been busy at Tirreno-Adriatico, or Maxim Iglinsky who won this year’s Eroica.

If anything, Astana have proven this spring that they have the peloton’s strongest man AND a team that can support him, if and when he needs it, which, despite Paul Sherwen’s doubts, he didn’t on Sunday.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. sophrosune

    I agree with you on this point, Robot. While I can’t cite for you specific instances, both Sherwen and Liggett’s commentary have sometimes baffled me.

  2. Simon Lamb

    Sherwen and Liggett’s commentary has unfortunately (they were the voice of cycling for me) begun to make less and less sense, race by race. I think they have lost any objectivity they had and seem bent of criticizing Contador at every opportunity. That is a shame as they have seen every champion there has been in their careers but have taken a dislike to Alberto. Maybe something to do with working for Versus and their obsession with Lance Armstrong, maybe not, but a sad end to an ERA for me. IT’s Eurosport everytime now as David Harmon and Sean Kelly are amazing.

  3. randomactsofcycling

    I thought Contador had proven when he won the Giro that he doesn’t need to attack. Pistols can be used in defence as well as attack!
    And while we’re on it, I don’t get the whole ‘assistance in the high mountains’ thing. If when you get to the last climb (which is generally the only place a GC guy will attack anyway because they’re all pussies and scared of bonking if they attack earlier) you’ve got two full bottles, a couple of gels and the Mavic Moto is doing it’s thing correctly, what good is it to have your domestique chase the attack of the GC rider? GC guy is hoping to put time into the other GC guys, he’s not going to give up if he sees Jens on his wheel.
    Similarly, if the Saxo Schlecks team up on you, so what? Frank attacks, Alberto has to attack to keep up with him, Andy has to put in just as much effort to keep with Alberto. And on it goes until the strongest attacks the longest and gets away.
    Am I missing something here? I’d be happy for someone to point out something blindingly obvious that I am too inexperienced to know.
    On a different note, I think Phil Liggett actually commentates for two different networks during the Tour. You can often hear him in the background when Paul Sherwen is delivering one of his monologues. It’s frustrating because he is forever repeating what Sherwen has already observed.

  4. George

    Personnaly, I love it.

    In the modern age, it is really refresshing to see a guy hang it out over the edge. Just like Sastre did when he won the tour on the alp, sometimes you have to go all in. I’m also happy that there’s so many guys fighting for the top of the podium again. I got really tired of seeing Ulrich fighting the peloton for 2nd.

    I think we’re over analyzing a little bit. It was the one serious mountain stage in the race and Astana didn’t have their Tour squad in attendance. Just because he did it on that stage doesn’t mean that he’s going to do it on every mountain stage.

    @randomactsofcycling, it’s all a head game. Being attacked repeatedly by the Schlecks may not have worked on a climber as capable as Contador, but constantly closing the gap has a different impact on different types of riders. I think that this sort of tactic is much more devastating mentally to a guy like Evans or Ulrich who needs to climb at his own steady pace. When you force a guy like that to keep changing his cadence, it breaks them a lot quicker than just riding a high tempo.

  5. João Araújo

    Me too I’m happy to see Contador taking the iniciative to attack, changing the way cycling has been for the past one or two decades, in which top racers would opt on too much calculism and man-to-man defense, always waiting for the other to make first move. At least he gives this impression, even if Paris-Nice is not exactly the Tour and even if people take it as tactical naivete… And the same way Bruyneel can make strategic alliances it wouldn’t surprise me to see Caisse d’Epairgne riders giving a hand to Contador in change of stage wins, one of their main goals nowadays in grand tours.

  6. Greg

    doesn’t it seem that when the chips are down liggett and sherwin always get the call wrong? i like both and they are undoubtedly the english speaking voices of our sport, but man they can’t seem to recognize riders or read race numbers even on close-up shots especially when it matters most. maybe a few second delay on the video so the boys can get it right and not blurt out exciting, but often wrong commentary? on the contador thing, it’ll take the other 197 riders riding against alberto to stop him…

  7. Robot

    @randomactsofcycling It’s dicey up there, on the steep climbs, when the GC contenders attack. The advantage of having a climbing domestique with you is that you can put him on the front (a la Landis in LA’s last tour win) and have him drive the pace hard enough to keep your rivals in check. The domestique is never going to win the stage. He’s just there to hold the pace high enough to discourage attacks, to hold the group together. That’s how you defend in the high mountains. It’s still possible to attack a group like that, but the attack has much less force, because the speed at launch is already quite high.

  8. cboss

    And what of all the talk last fall about AC joining Caisse D.E.?
    And AC getting help from Valverde and LL Sanchez during the 2008 Vuelta?

    I think that the attacks “on” or “from” AV or LLS were not intended to drop anyone but the rest of the feild.
    Think of it… 3 friends from Spain who really would like to be on the same team end up taking #1, #2, #3?
    That sure seems like teamwork to me.

  9. Big Mikey

    randomacts has a point. There aren’t too many domestiques (Heras, Azevedo, Landis, etc.) that can drive a high climb fast enough to prevent attacks. At the end of the climb, it’s just the heavyweights. And the grand tours are boring lately b/c nobody wants to risk losing a GC place with a long attack.

    WRT Contador, if he had full/undivided Astana support last year, he wins the tour going away. He spent at least two high mountain stages playing defense, and only spent a couple of minutes in the entire tour on the attack. If he has that form this year, it won’t even be close, no matter how many people gang up on him. And if he’s isolated, as the best climber, his best strategy is to go on the attack, thin the crowd and dictate the race. There aren’t two GC climbers out there that are close enough in ability to consistently challenge him. If AC makes it to/thru the TdF in one piece, it won’t be close.

    And now the requisite LA mention. Sherwen/Ligget are strongly anti-AC, due to whole Astana business last year, right? Say what you will, but those guys stick to the talking points. That coverage is so watered down anymore, that it’s probably better watched in a foreign language. Even if you can’t understand it, it tends to make more sense.

  10. Robot

    As regards Contador’s form carrying him to Tour success again…yes…possibly. The thing with a three week stage race is that there are so many opportunities for things to go wrong. AC will be the strongest in the race, no question, but without support he’ll be vulnerable to attack from multiple strong climbers. He may weather those attacks, but again, three weeks is a long time to depend on brute strength to win you the race.

    As regards, more generally, the television commentators…I notice that American sports broadcasting is prone to narrative predestination. My other sporting passion is football (soccer), and when you watch broadcasts of the domestic league here in the US, what you get is a story about the star players, regardless of how those players perform. On the cycling side, Versus is fully committed, it would seem, to selling American cyclists, and so, regardless of what the Lance is doing in a race, fully half the narrative is about him. To those of us who appreciate the sport more than the personalities, it’s annoying. So I appreciate the insights of Liggett, Sherwen, et. al, but going into any broadcast I know I just have to ignore fully half the commentary. They’re busy selling cycling to non-cyclists. I get that. We’re a growth sport. But I already bought in.

  11. Souleur

    Guys, there is gonna be alot of this til July, strategery & tactics, a little slop, he said she said…and then there is some racing thrown in for fun in the interim.

    I suppose the question is: was Sherwins take on stage 7, was AC wise or unwise??

    Or perhaps, does it really matter either, thats a possibility also.

    Of course, for us cyclists, everything matters. Every pedal stroke is analyzed, everything…absolutely everything is considered in wins, loss’s and otherwise. In this, Sherwins observation is IMHO skewed. I think clearly AC is the one to beat in July. I didn’t think he would come out in Paris-Nice as strongly as he did, but he did and he put his stamp on it like a real GC’r.

    Was it unwise?

    Only if he was bluffing, but I didn’t see a bluff here. Perhaps if he hadn’t, and simply accepted the yellow jersey in succession on stage 7, perhaps some would have garnered impetus toward a mindset that they could successfully challenge Contador, as he is the GC’r. I think his defense clearly removed that in stage 7. I suppose Sherwin would also contend, perhaps rightly, that Contador also stepped on toes then as well, over stepping his bounds, and hurting alliances. But I am not so sure on this front either, because what I did note, throughout P-N, Astana was largely absent, minus AC. They weren’t necessarily there on stage 7, they weren’t there when he took stage 4. AC really carried the water for himself from what I saw, and therefore, IMHO, he showed an oddity we haven’t seen in a very long time…a GC’r who appears to be fiercely independent in a John Wayne kinda way. Lance always needed a team, in fact poignantly managing such to his benefit knowing at times it was the difference between his win and his loss.


  12. jza

    It’s a deep 3 pointer. If it goes in, good shot. If it doesn’t…”Holy hell, what in the f@#K were you thinking? YOU’VE GOT A TEAM HERE…USE THEM!” Or the spanish equivalent of that.

    If you’re the strongest rider, there’s really no reason to ever attack a bunch just to narrow it down.

    Contador’s signature move seems to be backing his way into a corner and then punching his way back out of it. Entertaining to watch? Sure. Good tactics? No.

    1. Padraig

      All: Thanks for the lively conversation.

      Yes, one question is, “Was the move smart?” And as JZA points out, because he won, it was smart. That the question came up at all is the bigger question. Yes, it’s true that Liggett and Sherwen are partisan. There are a couple of reasons for this. One has to do with Versus; for them Lance = ratings and ratings = ad revenue. Also, Sherwen has big history with Lance. He (Sherwen) was the press officer for the Motorola team. Liggett and Sherwen do English commentary for multiple networks and their commentary is skewed to favor that country’s riders first and English-speakers second.

      I can’t imagine why anyone would criticize Contador for that attack. Tactically it was brilliant and God forbid we should endure another five years of a strong guy winning the Tour by riding just hard enough to take victory in the time trials (Indurain). A climbing domestique would have been very useful by, as Robot pointed out, keeping the pace just high enough to discourage attacks. The Caisse duo was very dangerous and putting them on defense with an all-out attack was a move worthy of Merckx. I watched that attack a half dozen times. That’s why we watch bike racing and criticizing fireworks for being loud is short bus material.

  13. sophrosune

    @Robot I am intrigued by your comment that cycling is a growing sport, to which I suppose you mean in the US. But oddly, the sport of cycling seems to be dying a long, lingering death here in Europe.

    As I understand it, in the sixties and seventies during the eras of Anquetil and Merckx, cycling was one of the biggest sports in Europe. But now it has been so totally eclipsed by football (soccer) that when Contador wins a race the coverage of it on the news is little more than a few seconds.

    I had a cycling friend state-side who asked whether there were huge celebrations when Contador won the Tour to which I replied not at all. (Pinto holding a celebration hardly qualifies) Instead there was like a week-long celebration with a huge parade for when Spain won the European Cup.

    So it seems strange to me that in the US cycling is seen as this growing sport when here in Europe where it once reigned supreme it is going the way of some long forgotten traditonal sport that nobody cares about anymore.

    Just an observation.

  14. Robot

    @sophrosune An excellent observation, and I should have been more clear. Here in the States, I think there is a loose (maybe it’s tighter than I realize) conglomeration of bike makers (I’m thinking of Trek and Specialized), Versus and attendant sponsors who are promoting cycling, trying to turn Lance’s legend into cyclo-dollars. You would have a hard time counting the people who, inspired by his Lanceness, went out and bought a road bike. I suspect this number is probably equal to those in Europe who have had scandal after scandal cause them to flip over to Eurosport for the Champions League coverage.

  15. Gus_C

    robot, very nice piece as per the usual. people can back and forth about “can he, could he, astana, radioshack, darkhorse, etc.” aside from pistolas and older, savvy racers, to me you hit bulls’ eye by suggesting on-the-road alliances as bruyneel sees fit. though not at all a new practice, jb as a ds is very skilled, intelligent and well-flanked by equally smart racers. lance has been cutting deals on the fly for at least 10+ years (million dollar triple crown in 93 anyone?), johan is from the skin-your-elbows belgian cycling culture, so these guys are already envisioning and forecasting where the wind might blow this summer. yes, contador has raw, brute and explosive talent, which counters the not-so-deep talent pool of his bodyguards. the shack is not asleep at the wheel either, and though they’re fully aware of pistolero’s obvious talents, it’ll be 18 teams against 1. more like 50 super fit, motivated riders against one. his pistola will sure fire, but he only has so many bullets in the chamber.

  16. thom

    I will be very surprised if Vinokourov is on the Astana bus at the Tour this year. Or put another way, if he’s on the bus, I wonder if Astana will even be at the Tour.
    And even if he is on the bus, he won’t be helping Shooter much in the mountains.
    Just my guess.


  17. Alex

    Taking from all these perspectives and quite pertinent and precise insights, the only thing I´m sure is: these guys will serve us one hell of an exciting Tour this year!!!

  18. steve

    The foolish move was the bridge to the Rodriquez group on the climb. Contador should have probably let that move go. He took Valverde and Sanchez with him on that move and found himself all alone. The attack was only necessary because of a lapse of judgement in the moments prior.

    Watching the race live I thought it was too risky to do so much work when all he really needed to do was mark Valverde’s wheel, but attacking in the hopes of dropping Sanchez was definitely a move worth considering. Contador didn’t have a huge time gap to Valverde in GC and if Sanchez and Valverde could isolate Contador there might have been enough distance after the summit to at least make the GC interesting.

    I am going to say the move was confident and well played. Tactics are not the only way to win a race when you are a superior rider. Alberto knew he was the strong man of the three and he also knew he was not racing the TDF. There were no Schleck’s or Armstrong’s in this race so implying that his tactics were flawed doesn’t hold water. He knew who he needed to beat on that day and did so like a true champion.

  19. SinglespeedJarv

    Sherwen, and Liggett should be ignored. Their bias is a disease on the spread of cycling and cycle racing through the lands in which they are considered to be the voice of cycling. It seems a lot of cycling fans in the UK are starting to see through them, sadly I can’t see TV bosses doing the same so I’m getting satellite and learning French. Thankfully Padraig has already posted all I was going to say about Sherwen’s cycling connections. An aside would be to point out Sherwen’s business interests, as depending on your socio-political standpoint they might leave you wanting to ask questions of his ethics/morals/integrity.

    @sophrosune, you make an interesting point about cycling dying in Continental Europe, something that has been suggested in the ‘cross world over winter – without succesful Belgians, the fans stay away, there is less money, there are less cross races. Perhaps this “issue” is worthy of further investigation. I think that the sport has suffered through the doping scandals and in some countries through lack of top riders. Equally as the UCI takes the sport out of it’s traditional heartlands more countries become involved and the Big-4 then become less successful and so interest in the sport reduces.

  20. Jim

    Liggett and Sherwen have become increasingly irrelevant from a knowledge base and are no longer on the sharp end of the stick. All you have to know about AC is he came off the couch to win the Giro, and did basically the same in Paris-Nice. Since he won it obviously was the right move; as a sports fan attacking is so much better than managing time gaps. Who really cares if he wins or loses–I’ll watch a guy attack with panache anytime!

  21. Henry

    Lance is US cycling’s meal ticket so don’t expect commentary from Versus that strays from the Armstrong media narrative. It’s great to have a Tour champion who is not spending the year preparing for one race and then doing just enough to win it with minimal risk. That was an exciting battle at the end of Paris-Nice. Contador gauged his options and it seems events proved his choices correct.

    Looking at Astana in the Eroica, Tirenno and Paris-Nice they may be a bigger threat then anyone gives them credit for. On the other hand Radio Shack isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire.

  22. thelastbard

    I may be in the minority here, but after watching the last twenty minutes of the stage in question, I really didn’t see AC’s “attack” as a “blistering” attack. He looked like he was well within his limits, merely upping the pace to see who would respond. It wasn’t as fierce an attack as we’re used to seeing from him in July, but it squared with an AC coming into form gradually as is appropriate this time of year. Now, that still leaves the question open as to how much LLS and AV were working for the alliance of sorts, but I didn’t see anything spectacular (or, dare I say, epic) about AC’s move. I will agree with George and say it was a more savvy tactical move to play a little offense since the majority of the Astana folks were swept out of the front group on the initial climb.

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