2009 Astana: Magic or Mutiny?

Lance Armstrong has come out of retirement and rejoined his old team director for another assault on Grand Tours. Is it any wonder Alberto Contador is nervous?

By Padraig


Lance Armstrong recently announced at the age of 37 he is returning to the pro peloton, will ride for his former team director Johan Bruyneel, will lead the Astana team at the Giro d’Italia and even plans to race the Tour de France. It’s a heck of a piece of news, taken as a whole, huh?

On a Johann Bruyneel team Lance should instantly be THE MAN. However Astana has a team leader. Alberto Contador has won the last three Grand Tours he has entered. He has earned the right to expect the full support of his team. That said, anyone who thinks Astana team leadership is stone-set hasn’t seen a Hollywood thriller since … they started making them.

Contador wouldn’t be the first legitimate team leader to find himself fighting for his throne. It happened to Greg LeMond in 1986 with his French La Vie Claire team. After supporting a less-than-steller Bernard Hinault in 1985, the five-time Tour de France winner promised to support LeMond in 1986.


Who’s Boss?

When the man who has so directly said, “I hate losing,” lines up for the 2009 Giro d’Italia, we know he’ll be there to win. But what about the Tour de France? Will the leader be seven-time victor Armstrong or 2007 winner and Astana teammate Alberto Contador?

Armstrong said on Cyclingnews, “I have a lot of respect for this man. I can’t say it any simpler. This guy is the best cyclist in the world. There are certain unwritten laws in cycling; the others ride to support the strongest rider. Whether it means supporting Alberto [Contador] or Levi [Leipheimer] or Andreas [Klöden], I’ll do that.”

But when was the last time that Lance Armstrong wasn’t the strongest guy on his team? March 1998? Armstrong’s assertion that there is an unwritten law that you ride for the strongest guy allows him the most graceful and diplomatic relations with his teammates. The logic goes: If Alberto is the strongest rider in the world, who wouldn’t want to ride in support of that guy.

But Armstrong is no ordinary athlete. He’s never been a domestique; on those occasions he rode for a teammate, be it Jonathan Vaughters or Tyler Hamilton at the Dauphine Libere or Floyd Landis at the Tour de Georgia, he was still the boss. Not since Bernard Hinault has a cyclist wielded such influence in a team.

Armstrong is also known for the best game of poker in cycling. In each year he competed against Jan Ullrich at the Tour de France, Armstrong called Ullrich the favorite. He cast doubt on his participation in the 2005 Tour, telling people he might skip a year, yet he was on the start line that July. But those examples pale in comparison to the hand he played on July 17, 2001.

Armstrong feigned weakness over the Col du Glandon, sitting at the back of the race with teammates Roberto Heras and Jose Luis Rubiera. At the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez Armstrong took off, pausing only to look back once, the occasion that resulted in what is famously remembered as “The Look.”

At the time Armstrong told the BBC, “Today in cycling, everyone can watch TV at the finish line, in the press centre, in the team hotels and in the cars. Above all the team sporting directors can watch.

“Sometimes you have to play that game a little bit.”

No sooner had he admitted his game when he went back to it. “I might pay for this effort,” Armstrong warned. “I might lose two minutes tomorrow. I hope not.”

History shows Armstrong won the next day’s 32km time trial, beating Ullrich by a minute. There’s little chance that Armstrong thought it possible that Ullrich would put one minute per kilometer into him. Poker.

To understand who will lead Astana, we must look back in time. Not since the 1986 La Vie Claire team has a team’s leadership been so in dispute.


Setting the stage

In the 1985 Tour de France, when Stephen Roche took a flyer on stage 17 to Luz Ardiden in the Pyrenees, LeMond jumped in the Irishman’s wheel to mark him.

By most accounts LeMond had a good three minutes on Hinault and was the yellow jersey on the road when he was told director sportif Paul Köchli wanted him to wait for Hinault. Long story short: Köchli lied to LeMond to save the Tour for Hinault. LeMond went on to win the final time trial for the full insult to injury experience. The only way to placate LeMond was to tell him that Hinault would ride for him in 1986. Hinault told the French media, “I’ll stir things up to help Greg win, and I’ll have fun doing it.”

LeMond went into the 1986 Tour de France as the strongest rider on LVC and assurances from Bernard Hinault, Bernard Tapie (the team owner) and Köchli that he was, in fact, the team’s leader. The problem began with, ahem, the media. The French media simply couldn’t comprehend the great French champion Bernard Hinault would deign to ride for some pipsqueak American. Incroyable!

The idea that Hinault could make history and win a sixth Tour de France was too juicy a fantasy for the French media to leave untouched. Reporters seized on the idea and it shaped virtually every interview with him up to the start of the ‘86 Tour. In the face of such suggestions any lesser man could be forgiven for thinking he could win the Tour. But Hinault? This Breton alpha male is nothing if not proud.

So in the first time trial, Hinault killed it, taking the 61km race by 44 seconds ahead of LeMond. As the fastest rider on LVC, was he not the strongest, the leader?

It should have been no surprise that on the first mountain stage of the Tour, Hinault attacked with Pedro Delgado, towing Delgado to a stage win and riding himself into the yellow jersey, some five minutes ahead of LeMond, who lamented, “I’ve lost the Tour.”

The next day Hinault, clad in yellow, a hero to all of France, took a page from Eddy Merckx’s playbook and made a daring attack on the descent of the Col du Tourmalet. Hinault was holding a full house, but it was threes high. By working so hard to win two stages already, he had overplayed his hand and was riding on fumes.

On the long road to Superbagneres, Hinault rode alone, and wore himself out; he was pulled back. In Luchon, at the foot of the climb, the race’s nine leaders—including Hinault, LeMond and Andy Hampsten—were all together. Attacks began at the foot of the climb and Hinault was dropped almost instantly. The gap from LeMond to Hinault grew and with 7km to go, Hampsten put in the final attack that helped pull LeMond back into contention and allowed him to take the stage win. But Hinault was still in yellow. What to do?

Köchli kept his thumb on LeMond. Teammate Nikki Ruttimann, a Swiss rider was allowed to play his hand the next day to infiltrate a breakaway and take a stage win. The team got another stage win when Jean-François Bernard took the mountain stage to Gap. But more importantly an earlier attack by Hinault showed he hadn’t given up yet.

It was on the second of the Alpine stages, from Gap to Serre Chevalier in which GC second-place Urs Zimmerman attempted wrest control of the race. Hinault was dropped and LeMond rode easily on Zimmerman’s wheel, pulling on his first yellow jersey at the end of the stage.

Incredibly, the next day Hinault made yet another downhill attack, this time on the 20km descent of the Col du Galibier. But LeMond launched an attack in pursuit of his teammate and caught the Badger at the bottom of the Telegraphe, just before the second big climb of the day, the Col de la Croix de Fer.

The two rode the rest of the stage together, with Hinault asking LeMond to soft-pedal on the day’s final ascent up l’Alpe d’Huez. The duo destroyed the field; Urs Zimmerman finished 5:15 down on the pair. Robert Millar, briefly the polka dot jersery, retired from the race due to illness. That night Hinault announced he was still racing to win the Tour despite his statement to LeMond on l’Alpe d’Huez that he would not attack again. The media, as exemplified by l’Equipe, was still dreaming of a sixth Hinault Tour win.

LeMond managed to hold on to the yellow jersey until Paris. Even though the ‘86 Tour is remembered primarily for the conflict between Hinault and LeMond, it should more properly be remembered for what LVC achieved:

  • 6 stage wins
  • 4 different riders won stages: Hinault (3), LeMond, Ruttimann, Bernard
  • 5 of 6 classifications: overall (yellow jersey), mountains (polka dot), youth (white jersey), combination (yellow, green and polka dot jersey) and team (yellow caps)
  • 4 riders finished in the top-10 overall: LeMond (1st), Hinault (2nd), Hampsten (4th) and Ruttimann (7th)
  • All 10 riders (1986 saw 10-man teams) finished the race

The team’s achievement is all the more impressive when you consider the stats of that year’s event:

  • 210 men (21 10-man teams) started the race (the most in the last 45 years)
  • 78 abandoned—38% attrition
  • 23 stages
  • 4094km
  • 7 mountain stages
  • 182km of time trials


The next Greg LeMond

The media loved to call Lance Armstrong “the next Greg LeMond” when he burst onto the pro cycling stage in the early ‘90s. Armstrong was known to respond, “I’m not the next Greg LeMond, I’m the first Lance Armstrong.”

When the next round of history books are written, Armstrong will be more correctly thought of as the second coming of Bernard Hinault. Since Hinault, no one has exercised such control over a team or a race as Lance Armstrong. From his intimate involvement in the management of the U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel teams to his ability to play mind games with his competitors, even psyching many out (how often did we hear the world’s finest riders insist they were racing for second at the Grand Boucle?), no one else has been able to convincingly wear the mantle of patron—a rider so dominant, so respected, so completely in control that he could dictate the racing conditions.


July 4, 2009

Following the prologue in Monaco, a quick review of the top 10 riders will reveal a tantalizing but unsurprising detail. The top rider for Astana will be Lance Armstrong.

It will be the shot across the bow that won’t be a shot across the bow. Armstrong will downplay his fitness; he’ll say, “Alberto’s strength is in the mountains.” Such a position will allow him to shrug off suggestions that he should lead Astana, while Contador and his teammates begin to wonder just who is strongest and therefore, just who should lead the team.

Here’s where Armstrong will go Hinault one better: He’ll never attack Contador. He’ll ride as a lieutenant just as he did for previous teammates. The first real test of the race will come on Stage 7, the first mountain stage up to Arcalis in Andorra. It is unlikely either Armstrong or Contador will falter the first day in the mountains. Stages 8 and 9 will be even less surprising as they lack uphill finishes.

If Contador has half a brain he will take a page from Armstrong’s book and attack on the climb to Verbier on Stage 15 and solo to the finish for the stage win and yellow jersey. Armstrong frequently drilled it on a mountain top finish the day before a rest day. This will be Contador’s most decisive opportunity to put his stamp on the race and convince his director, his teammates and maybe Armstrong that he really is the worthy leader.

It won’t take much for Contador to falter, though. If he is unable to follow an attack on the climb to Verbier, Armstrong will be free to sit on it. After all, Astana’s mandate is win the Tour de France. If Contador should lose time on Armstrong, it will show what we’ve suspected all along.

However, if by Stage 18 Astana is not in possession of the yellow jersey, one can expect Armstrong to attack the 40km time trial will full afterburners. The course is long enough for Armstrong to put a minute into Contador, though more may be unlikely. Could Armstrong win the stage to really send a message? It seems unlikely that Armstrong will defeat Fabian Cancellara in an individual time trial. While much of the race may seem like the Astana show, the ITTs will be Cancellara’s to lose.

Johan Bruyneel will sing from the same songbook as Armstrong to keep tensions at bay. It will be his job to dispel notions of conflict and to soothe the assorted egos on the team. There will be plenty of those, although it seems unlikely that Astana would show up to the Tour de France with Contador, Armstrong, Kloden and Leipheimer. Why? After sending crews to the Giro and Tour, they will need a few rounds in the magazine to win the Vuelta a España.

And while we can expect Armstrong won’t blatantly attack Contador, can the same be said of the Spaniard? Not so much.

Contador is insecure about his position as team leader and can’t hide it, which is why jaws dropped when he told the Spanish paper AS, “I will only say that it’s not normal that someone [Leipheimer] that is supposed to be working for you finishes less than one minute back in the GC. If Navacerrada had been 20km more, I don’t know what would have happened.”

We do. He would have lost the Vuelta. To his teammate. Contador has demonstrated a weakness in flat and mountainous time trials alike. He gave up 31 seconds to Leipheimer in 17km.

It is quite conceivable that an upset Contador would attack a Mellow Johnny-wearing Armstrong on the Stage 20 climb up Mont Ventoux. Would Bruyneel shut him down? Should Contador lose the Tour, it will be open season on him at the Vuelta because his leadership is undermined.


Best case scenario

The 2009 racing season will decide at least one and maybe two legacies. If Lance can win the Giro, athletes will rethink what can be achieved as one ages. If he wins both the Tour and the Giro his stature as an athlete will grow exponentially. It will, unfortunately, also open him up to a new round of doping accusations.

The real trick in this equation is Bruyneel’s diplomacy. Just how skilled is he in managing his riders? If Armstrong wins the Giro, can Bruyneel convince him to work for a Contador win at the Tour? If he can manage this, then he could conceivably ask Contador to support Leipheimer to give the world’s most talented domestique a Grand Tour win at last. Sweeping the three Grand Tours would seal Bruyneel’s reputation as the finest team director ever, a king maker.

The fate of the team hinges on Armstrong’s performance at the Giro. If he wins, he will carefully watch for the opportunity to assume leadership at the Tour. And if he wins the Tour, the only real question left will be how Bruyneel can keep the peace between Contador and Leipheimer. No matter who wins the Vuelta, Contador won’t leave the team; to do so would mean surrendering the opportunity to win a Grand Tour. The only chance to prevent infighting is an Armstrong/Contador/Leipheimer sweep of the three Grand Tours. So when we ask, “Can he do it?” we are inquiring not of Armstrong, but of Bruyneel.

Looking Back: A Chat with Andy Hampsten

Of all the riders at the ‘86 Tour, none had a seat closer to the action and intrigue than Andy Hampsten. We asked him to shed a bit of light on the conflict.

RBA: It is said that only you and Steve Bauer supported LeMond. The French riders all rode for Hinault, while the Swiss riders Ruttimann and Winterberg attempted to remain neutral. Is that your memory of the team’s split?

Andy:  Very true. The Swiss riders loved everyone and were neutral; Ruttimann was a great and loyal teammate who made a career out of being indispensable to Hinault on his traditional bad day in the mountains.

Jean François Bernard was Hinault’s lapdog. The younger French rider [Philippe Leleu] was up to his neck just trying to make it through his first Tour. The veterans Alain Vigneron and Charles Berard were lobbied by Hinault to help against Greg, but I can’t think of a thing they could have done to damage Greg. JF would do hard tempo to set Hinault up to attack, like on the day into St. Etienne when Hinault went away with Stephen Roche, and Bauer and I had to chase him down. That hurt; it was the first and last time I had to chase a teammate.

RBA: How tense were meal times?

Andy: Tense—we were working hard and having a blast in the first half of the race; the supper table was where we would share tales and young riders like me could learn a lot.

It was acute on the evening after Superbagneres. Greg had just pulled back his deficit on Bernard that day, and Messr. Tapie had helicoptered in to “take command of the situation.” He met with Greg, then Bernard that night and all of the team was looking forward to the tension being resolved. That didn’t happen.

RBA: Who was the diplomat who worked to keep things as calm as possible? Köchli?

Andy: Köchli did a great job with a tough situation. Hinault’s aggressive racing destroyed Zimmerman and anyone else who thought they might take a shot at the lead. So the team was free to fight over which rider would win.

RBA: When you attacked on the climb up Superbagneres, how confident were you that the outcome would be a stage win by LeMond with him taking the yellow jersey? Did you fear any reprisal within the team?

Andy: I was sure LeMond would win the stage, and we knew that Hinault had cracked, which happened often to Hinault and was a day his rivals always hoped for.

He was dropped with the initial attacks on the easy slopes below Superbagneres. I followed Robert Millar up to the five leaders, and could see LeMond was twitching with energy but everyone else was keying off of him. I was near empty but understood Greg needed things stirred up so he could launch a real attack. Robert and I caught them just as the road turned right onto a steeper pitch. I attacked off his wheel and past the leaders before they really knew we had come back to them. I gave Greg a look—without the capital L—as we went past so he knew I was going up the road for him.

Breukink and Zimmerman had to chase me, and Greg launched off that to join me. I pulled him as much as I could for a couple of k’s then blew.

Interestingly, the team car with director sportif Köchli came up to me before Greg bridged up. I thought I was going to get an earful and have to explain I was just up the road to help Greg, and started doing so when the car was next to me.  I was shocked when Paul told me to stop worrying and ride! “Andy there is no reason this team doesn’t want YOU to win the Tour! Greg and Bernard are fighting over who gets to win, and having you take the jersey will stop them arguing.”

That was the greatest compliment of my career, and I wasn’t even thinking of winning the stage because I knew I had already been dropped and I was racing with empty legs.

For the full interview, visit Belgium Knee Warmers.