The Only Way

Every cycling site on the planet has postulated some theory about just which rider could conceivably beat Alberto Contador. Naturally, almost no one places much stock in their theories because all indications are that Contador will spend the next three weeks riding at an endurance pace and then making the odd acceleration to dust off his legs … and the competition. As foregone conclusions go, this harkens back to the time of Miguel Indurain when it felt like the other guys rolled up for the prologue hoping, at best, for second. Despite his ongoing dominance, it felt like there was more fight in the air as Lance Armstrong was winning.

Currently, Radio Shack is the only team showing up with anything like a strategy. Their stated game plan of four general classification riders is the right idea. Rather than sending them all up the road in a single shotgun blast, repeated attacks by each of their protected riders has the potential to put a strong rider on the defensive. It’s not possible for one guy to respond to each attack by a group of peers. Eventually you either crack or have to let someone go. Unless you’re Contador. The trouble I see here is that Radio Shack simply isn’t strong enough to deliver enough knockout blows to dislodge Contador from the lead group. Certainly, Contador will get smart to the sequence of attacks and his propensity to launch his own, withering, attack that has the ability to make previous attacks look like accidental surges could easily negate the whole of the Radio Shack team.

To make the us against him strategy work, a combine of teams will be necessary. That’s because even though Leopard-Trek will have two of the strongest riders in the race, the Schleck’s brotherly love will see them try to leave the field together, rather than truly alternate attacks. Their inability to take Philippe Gilbert at Liege-Bastogne-Liege showed their lack of tactical genius necessary to use their numbers to optimal advantage.

To beat Contador, Leopard will have to join with Liquigas and BMC and Euskaltel. This is a climbing Tour and Andy Schleck will have to choose whether he wants to ride for second or see Contador beaten. That’s the choice; for any of the GC favorites, the options are to work with other teams to collectively defeat Contador or resign yourself to racing for, at best, second. Even if the teams come together, the odds that a protected GC rider will win the overall don’t improve any. That’s why such a strategy is unlikely to succeed or even last the whole of the race.

It’s possible, though unlikely, that Contador has overplayed his fitness and won’t be as sharp in the third week as he needs to be. These days, very few riders can be fit enough to win the Giro and then go on to win the Tour. But Contador is at the height of his powers. Still, holding peak form for two months is like creating a balanced government budget—easier said than done. Adding yet another unusual wrinkle to all this is the embattled Spaniard’s decision to go vegetarian for the Tour. We must suppose that his chef has the ability to deliver the balanced diet necessary for Contador to ride well. Still, that does not ensure that his body will necessarily agree with said diet. It’s a big change to make so close to the race. The new diet is conceivably the greatest obstacle he faces.

As a total aside, Contador’s new diet is absolutely his best argument for his innocence I’ve heard. It should have no bearing on the case before CAS, but from the standpoint of a gut-check reaction to the individual, I’m chastened by his declaration.

What I see before us is a mouse smarter than the mouse trap. No one can attack with the paint-peeling acceleration he has and only Andy Schleck has the ability to accelerate as many times in 10k as Contador can. In my mind’s eye I see a flurry of attacks with accelerations that impress us, but followed by a counter-attack by Contador that casts his competitors as Mustangs compared to his Ferrari. “You thought that was fast? Check this out.” We’re all going to need neck braces to deal with his head-tossing speed.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. randomactsofcycling

    There’s just no denying that he is a class above everyone in terms of ability in all terrains. It truly will be a Tour that is decided almost as much in the car and in the head as on the legs. I don’t know who, but if one of the less than highly fancied GC riders manages to quietly slip into a break (a la Oscar Pereiro), that’s the only way I see an upset occuring.

  2. Doug P

    I agree that changing diets, and doing two Grand Tours in rapid succession could seriously hamper Contador’s performance this year. IMHO he remains the best bicycle rider in the world. He wins without resorting to reprehensible mind games, like those of Bruyneel and Armstrong during the 2009 Tour, and by Andy Schleck the following year. He lets his legs do the talking, and I find that the best part of the sport today.

  3. Robot

    I am not a fan of the sort of generational dominance the Tour seems to submit itself to, BUT it is completely thrilling to watch Contador put the hammer down on a steep climb. His ability to counterattack with the sort of force that leaves his opponents gasping is undeniable.

    As a climber’s Tour, I have to believe that the select group on the big hills will have some surprise faces in it, not just Schlecks, Contador, Evans, etc. Someone who is not hotly favored is going to attack going up, and it may be that sort of thing that unbalances the race enough to make it interesting. Contador, will have to decide whether to let someone like John Gadret go, or not.

    As soon as a rider of that type gaps on a climb or even wins an uphill stage, the calculus changes in a way that will be entertaining for we of the couch-borne variety.

    1. Author

      The thing I have to observe about the less-ballyhooed riders is that even if this year’s Oscar Pereiro goes up the road, it won’t have any long-term impact. Contador’s dominance is such that he can easily take that time back the next day. Each of the GC favorites will have to wear him down and then a launch by a feared rider—Basso, for instance—will need to go up the road. The question is can Chuckles or Basso recover as quickly day-to-day as Contador can? I doubt it.

  4. Souleur

    i agree Padraig, it will take a concerted effort by essentially all other teams to dislodge Contador. He is in magnificent form….simply too magnificent in my eyes, but more on that later I am sure.

    If the other teams collaborate, it could be done, but it will take big huge digs in on him and bury him by stage 12, or else, he’ll glide over the mtns like the Pheonix rising.

    A part of me just prays that someone will come in riding in a new era

  5. jza

    “lack of tactical genius”? How about “lack of basic competence”? The Schlecks couldn’t race themselves out of Cat 3 if it weren’t for their doctors.

    And please explain one possible scenario where BMC or Euskatel could affect the overall of the race?

    The race is Shack, Liqui, Leopard (and mayyyybbee Gesink) vs. Contador. Garmin a wildcard.

    It will be interesting to see if Gilbert ends up in green, or planning his appeal.

  6. BETH

    Your discussion of possible strategies was really interesting; would you say that the just-concluded Giro is an illustration of what happens when everyone just races for second? If so, isn’t that a pretty good indication that a new approach is needed? I kind of quit watching the Giro after Wouter was killed, but I read all the summaries after the fact. It sounded like a real yawn-fest.

  7. jza

    Important to remember that Puerto cut off the big teams’ heads the day before the race. It was gonna be Ullrich vs. Basso and it was gonna be AMAZING. Kind of gets overshadowed by the Floyd story(ies).

    Floyd was a big ? coming into the race. Lack of team leaders led to a real clusterf!ck tactically, which contributed Pereiro’s big day.

    This year’s got plenty of strong leaders with dedicated teams. No chance for a lucky rouleur.

  8. Big Mikey

    I just don’t see it working; there are very few climbers who can do what AC can do in one day, and no climbers that can do it day after day [as an aside, the last climber we saw do this was Basso a few Giro’s ago; seems suspicious now, doesn’t it?]

    I just don’t see anything concerted coming from Levi, Kloden, Horner, Basso, Evans, etc. None of these guys will risk blowing up to seriously attack AC. And if they try team alliances, it becomes a bit of a Prisoner’s Dilemna, in which someone has to trust that if he attacks first, the rest will take their turns.

    At the end of each mountain day, the team doesn’t matter, it’s just the GC leaders in a group. And AC can proactively respond to attacks by attacking himself, which only AS (err, I guess Rasmussen went toe to toe with AC one year) has ever followed.

    As an added bonus, I think I just contributed to Soleur’s contention about AC’s performance.

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