Retirement Party

The 2010 Tour de France came down to just two riders and one mountain.

So Alberto Contador won the Tour de France by a margin slimmer than many said was possible, a margin equal to what he clawed out with the aid of Dennis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez on stage 15. We can argue about all the places each rider gained or lost time, but really, the race comes down to two fateful events: Schleck’s mis-shift on 15 and his later 39-second gap in the final time trial. The symmetry of the two events is more difficult to ignore than the economy.

And just to be ultra-clear about this, yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.

I should also point out that even though he twice went for stage wins for himself, Alexander Vinokourov proved to be both valuable and loyal to Contador in the mountain stages. Vinokourov sat on Schleck on stage 15 and never rode for himself by taking a pull at the front of the group. He’ll always be an unpredictable element in my mind, but he demonstrated his value to the Astana team repeatedly. He deserves to be recognized.

But individual performances aside, if we back up and look at the 2010 Tour de France as an elaborate chess game involving 22 players, some interesting questions emerge.

First, what the hell has Johan Bruyneel been thinking? He fielded the most experienced team in the Tour de France, sure, but it was also the oldest team by an Egyptian pharaoh. The most youthful element of the team was the management company’s formation documents. Even if we accept the possibility that the fight went out of Armstrong following his daily crashes so that by the time the time trial came around, he really wasn’t trying—which is why we didn’t see the form necessary to win the race overall anywhere in the same time zone as him—we should still ask the question: Why did no one else other than Chris Horner ride like his career was at stake?

Speaking of recognition, let’s hope that Horner feels some satisfaction and vindication at his stellar ride. It’s one of the best performances by a rider over the age of 35 ever at the Tour, and is his single best performance there. It was his misfortune to sign for a French team when he first went to Europe and his worse fortune to have his career coincide with Armstrong’s. Had he hit Europe five years earlier than he did, he could have led Motorola in its quest to do something significant in a Grand Tour. Or not. There have long been reports that Jim Ochowicz (director of Motorola and now one of the powers that be at BMC) had issues with the formerly feisty San Diegan.

Back to Bruyneel. His reputation as a kingmaker able to deliver a worthy rider to a Grand Tour victory has suffered its first setback. Even with the triple-barrel shotgun of Armstrong, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer he was unable to deliver any one of them to the top 10. Horner’s performance was the sort of showing that the French teams generally hope to luck into but can plan no better than a chimp considering retirement.

With that much talent and so little to show for it, the brass at The Shack might be understandably perturbed.

This time last year many of us were beginning to rethink what might be possible age-wise in a Grand Tour. Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.

And cast in the light of failure, Armstrong seems less ambitious, less hungry, less focused on highlighting the cause of cancer than just gluttonous, a corpulent ego.

But that’s how we play it isn’t it? When our heroes fall, we pounce.

But even if the Radio Shack board is less than thrilled, imagine what’s going on in the boardroom at Sky. Isn’t the question there whose head rolls first?

Seemingly a world away, Bjarne Riis has proven that he knows how to bring the race to anyone he wants. He’s delivered Tyler Hamilton, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck all to podium finishes at Grand Tours, though his record of wins (just two) is rather slim despite the obvious strength of his team.

Yvon Sanquer, a name you may not be very familiar with even after his team’s success, is the director of Team Astana and has kept a profile nearly as high as that of newly mown grass. His previous best result as a team director was after being brought in to rescue Team Festina (not unlike what he was asked to do with Astana) and his riders (mostly Marcel Wüst) were able to take a stage of the Tour de France along with four stages of the Vuelta plus some stages at lesser stage races. Before 2010, his riders’ closest association to the winner of a Grand Tour was if they had chatted with him.

And yet, somehow Sanquer brought together what seemed to be an underpowered team and saw to it that Contador was rarely without help in the mountains.

Despite the Astana team performing as if it were still run by Johan Bruyneel—admit it, it was an impressive performance that very few thought could truly deliver the goods as a cohesive unit this past January—I am surprised by the number of people I hear from who just plain don’t like Alberto Contador. To the degree that maybe many cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about him, it seems that even if his counter attack on stage 15 didn’t rile people, the fact that he lied about not knowing what was going on with Andy Schleck seems to have sent some fans around the bend. I’ve not been a fan of some of his tactics, and have thought some of his interviews with the Spanish media were whiny and meant to play the pity card, which strikes me as unseemly—like the Super Bowl winning team sniffling about playing hurt, but it struck me as insulting to fans everywhere for him to claim he couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with Schleck.

Which brings me to Jonathan Vaughters. Of the teams bidding for Contador’s services last year, Vaughters’ Garmin-Transitions formation was one of the teams in the running to sign the diminutive Spaniard. There are reports that after all of his efforts to leave Astana he is now considering a new contract and staying.

Contador would do well to leave, so long as he left for Vaughters. Of the many team directors at the Tour de France, Vaughters is the one that seems to have an uncanny ability to help riders achieve greatness in the GC that he never could reach on his own. In three years of competing in the Tour de France Vaughters has delivered three different riders to top-10 finishes, first with Christian Vande Velde’s fourth place, then Bradley Wiggins fourth and now Ryder Hesjedal’s seventh place. In each case the riders were uniformly believed to be talented, but no one—other than Vaughters—considered them real GC vehicles on which to pin a team’s hopes.

Sanquer’s success with Contador suggests competence, nothing more. After all, if you can’t guide a previous Tour de France winning to yet another victory, what kind of team director are you?

Bjarne Riis has consistently put together one of the strongest, most cohesive teams on the planet. That he hasn’t won more may be a question of formula more than anything else. The question seems to be, ‘Why didn’t he win?’ rather than, ‘What’s it going to take to secure another win?’

Bruyneel is the great curiosity this year. He’s ripe for criticism. How should he deflect the charge that he went with Armstrong less for career than paycheck? If he didn’t go to Radio Shack for the paycheck, then why? It’s hard for Bruyneel to charge that Vinokourov is a more tarnished rider than some he has worked with. Contador clearly has a greater future than Armstrong does. Maybe the question is just how loyal a guy is Bruyneel. Some folks are loyal to a fault. Could it be so with him?

Even if he didn’t go to Radio Shack just for a bigger paycheck that is virtually guaranteed not to dry up mid-way through the season, where does he rank his ambitions as a director? Twelve of the team’s 26 riders have had their 30th birthday. Six of them are older than 32. The only rider on the team who is showing talent and is early in his career is Janez Brajkovič. Taylor Phinney doesn’t count because he’s only a staigiaire.

How else do you wind up with that many riders in need of a retirement party than by selecting a crew that can be depended on being utterly devoted to Armstrong? Now, there’s nothing wrong with being committed to supporting your team leader, but it is fair to ask how smart it is to construct a team for a single year’s performance. Even if Leipheimer, Klöden, Horner and Rubiera plan to ride Grand Tours next year, how capable will any of them be? Horner is the only guy I’d bet on as a good support rider for the simple reason that he is obviously still proving his value and talent long after most guys have quit.

You want to make the 2011 Tour de France really interesting? Get Vaughters to sign Horner.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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11 comments

  1. Souleur

    great thoughts Padraig, as usual.

    Your pretty hard on Bruyneel, and after this years team he deserves an honest critique. I perhaps would look at it this way as well. He is unabashingly true to Lance, and it is utterly clear to all now as the sun has set on Lances career, that in his last Tour, Johaan was a faithful friend and leader to him. Like them or not, it is an account of a friendship that was/is strong, trust and reliance on one another. And in the end, if I were in Bruyneel’s shoes, I would have done the same…heck, they only solidified one of the longest runs in Tour history and they did re-write the history books on it after all.

    A big question in my mind is ‘where will Johaan land now?’ He undoubtedly does have stock in the team in Kloden, Levi, Horner, Brajkovic et al…but what does he really think? Can he develop them?

    Then there is Bjarne. Wow, this is rather tense. I would have thought is selection for a new team would be a ‘gimme’, but its not. There seems to be a dark room w/the sound of a lonely cricket chirping in the future.

    And in terms of Vaughters, he is class. Enough said. Look at what he did to Wiggo…and I always said Wiggo should have sat down, shut up, and followed JV. JV discussed in an article once how he saw the raw talent in Wiggo on the track, and how he calculatedly took his power and developed it into long Tour like cardio efforts..and it worked. Wiggo should have stayed longer, but..oh well. Maybe he will make it next go around.

    In terms of riders, I hope this is the great beginning for Sammy Sanchez. The guy is a stud.

    Tour let down has settled in, and its a another year away from the prom.

  2. Touriste-Routier

    Despite the identical numbers, you can’t pin Schleck’s loss on the time he lost on the TT and with his dropped chain. Remember, he lost time during the prologue, he gained time on the cobbles, he lost time on Mendee. If he hadn’t lost time with the dropped chain, the remaining mountain stages would have unfolded differently; Contador would not have been able to ride conservatively on the Tourmalet.

    We have to remember that Astana (the team ownership) wasn’t working last year. Riders weren’t getting paid, UCI deadlines were missed, etc. Vino was brought back even though Bruyneel’s agreement said they wouldn’t bring him back. Bruyneel would probably have left even if Radio Shack hadn’t happened.

    Vaughters is great at polishing stones and turning them into gems but thus far at the tour, it has been 1 hit wonders for the minor placings. In the end, unless you reside in the nation of these riders, it is really a matter of who cares.

    Contador is in a very strong position to get a bigger contract, and the support he needs regardless of where he goes. His personal signing with Specialized may be what saves Riis. My gut tells me to look for a Sungard Specialized announcement in the near future, with AC at the helm, particularly if the Schlecks leave.

  3. Pete Ehlke

    As always, insightful and fairly deep thinking here, Padraig. But I think you do a disservice with this:

    “Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.”

    In and of itself, that’s possibly correct, but in a piece where you don’t mention the phenomenal job of work- and the legend-sealing chase on what amounted to a kid’s bike- that came out of Jens this year, I think you missed a great opportunity.

    Jens is living proof of the old saw that age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Touriste-Routier: I think it’s easy to underestimate the turning of tables that occurred when Schleck dropped his chain. The time gains and losses by both riders prior to Schleck taking the yellow jersey were not that significant on a psychological basis. Once Schleck lost those 39 seconds AND the yellow jersey, it was suddenly advantage Contador. Sure, if he hadn’t dropped his chain the racing would have been different, but that’s the point: He DID drop his chain and as unfortunate as it was, the tables turned that day, but the gap Contador got came with the assistance of Menchov and Sanchez.

      As for Bruyneel leaving Astana, even if Vino hadn’t been that big a deal for him (and his protestations could have been a smokescreen), there’s a lot to suggest that even if Armstrong had gone back into retirement, his relationship with Contador had already soured too much to be rescued.

      You’re right that Contador’s contract with Specialized makes a move to Sungard a very real possibility and Specialized is not without the will to try to give him a push in the right direction; it’s what they were trying to do with him and Quick Step.

      I could be wrong with Vaughters, but I think he could direct the right rider to much more than a top-10. He just needs the gem.

      Peter Ehlke: Jens’ desperate ride was remarkable, but it is no way proof that a 38-year-old can win a Grand Tour. Let’s try to be honest in our appraisal. We shouldn’t let our love for this guy blind us to the obvious.

  4. Paul

    “…yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.”

    Really? Don’t you think that Contador could have taken time out of Schleck on Tourmalet, if he had really wanted/needed to?

  5. Sophrosune

    I have just read a report over at Cycling News that uses the Italian publication Gazzetta dello Sport as its source that contends that Contador will be moving to Riis’ team, which will be backed by Specialized. Contador will be joined by Spanish riders Benjamin Noval, Daniel Navarro, David De La Fuente and Jesus Hernandez from Astana. Makes sense.

    I am curious what will happen with all those brilliant Caisse d’Epargne riders after the team dissolves. Also, there are a couple of good Milram riders as well.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Paul: Yes, I’m saying that Contador couldn’t have put 39 seconds into Schleck without the help of Menchov and Sanchez. Seconds, yes, but 39 of them on that climb? No. Not this year.

      Am I alone in thinking the match sprints of Contador and Schleck on an H.C. climb were one of the most exhilarating things we’ve seen in bike racing? I was breathless as I watched that and I don’t recall ever seeing video of two more evenly matched climbers.

      Sophrosune: Specialized made it clear this winter they were willing to do whatever was necessary to steer Contador to a team to make sure he rode Specialized. It seems a good fit, provided the contract gets signed. Let’s wait and see. Team implosions this fall will be interesting, if unfortunate.

  6. inseguitore

    when lance crumbled on stage 8 he kept horner and brajkovic back with him to nurse him to the finish while levi was up the road. then horner took off to take some time back. why, oh why, didn’t he keep horner back and send brajkovic up the road to make up time? it seems to me that brajkovic is the one rs should have had gunning for gc and not leipheimer. hopefully brajkovic will be the designated leader next tdef (if he hasn’t bolted, which i doubt – he is scary loyal to bruyneel).

  7. BBB

    I think you need to view the race in context. Schleck gained time on the cobbles when Contador was held up when Frank Schleck (and others) crashed. No one waited. And the advantage was over a minute at the line. Yes the race was close and yes Contador and Schleck were evenly matched, but there is more to it than a dropped chain and a time trial.

    Setting aside whatever problems Bruyneel had with Astana, I reckon he blew it back in September 2008 when he allowed Armstrong to resume his career at Astana and with, at that point in time, a rider who had won all three grand tours. By doing so, he chose the past over the present and the future and problems were all but guaranteed, particularly given Armstrong’s notoriously competitive personality. The die was cast at that point in time and the eventual move to Radioshack with a crew of over 35 stars was always going to pose a problem.

    Riis is the logical choice for Contador.

    Vaughters could probably do the same job with Contador’s crew of support riders, but would a handfull of Spainards upset the team balance?

    Bruyneel needs to take the broom to Radioshack and use either Horner or LL to groom the younger talent in a captain on the road type role. Of course Bruyneel may have problems of his own if this investigation gains any traction.

    A good post all in all.

  8. Touriste-Routier

    Padraig, I am not claiming ifs and buts, nor was I relying on psychological advantage. Stage races unfold how they unfold. No question, the tipping point was the dropped chain, which changed the GC leadership.

    All I was alluding (perhaps poorly) is that any one incident changes all that comes next, hence you can’t pin a loss on any one 30 – 40 second time gain/loss. If Schleck didn’t lose 42 seconds in the prologue and the rest of the race to the Bales remained the same, the dropped chain would have not cost him the jersey. But then Contador & Astana would have needed to attack on the remaining climbs, rather than ride defensively and we don’t know if Schleck and Saxo would have been able to respond. And if Contador didn’t lose time on the cobbles… It is all speculation.

    AS & AC by all appearances were fairly evenly matched. This is a clear indicator of how great this tour was! Unfortunately I think the days of the Maillot Jaune going on the attack are long gone. I would have loved to see Contador pull an Hinault and for Schleck to respond ala Lemond in 1986…

  9. dacrizzow

    1st-Vino. you say ‘an unpredictable element’ as if it’s a bad thing. a true racer. that seems to love to race. he attacked, caused distractions, led AC through the cobbles, and even carried water. amazing.
    2nd-radio shack. a team that seems to only race NOT to win. ‘just training for the tour’. and most everyone on this site should know that when you train to be a domestique you also train away your own wins. so all these guys are sacrificing their own careers for lances. not a bad gig, just when the leader goes down who’s left? levi? give me a break.
    and yes, that last climbing showdown was amazing.

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