The Tour de France first controlled for drugs in its 1966 edition. It has taken the better part of 40 years for the UCI to convince both the riders and the public that they mean business about making the sport clean.
Truly, that rather inauspicious day back in 1966 was a turning point. Without the Tour de France being controlled, the sport was essentially uncontrolled because by the 1960s, it was the one event other than the World Championships that was virtually guaranteed to feature a truly international field.
Interestingly, the first test—Raymond Poulidor’s famously lax urine sample that resulted in a protest the next day—didn’t occur during the prologue or even stage 1, it was taken following stage 8. That Poulidor was the first controlled rider demonstrates that officials had some sense impartiality. Through those first eight stages German rider Rudi Altig wore the yellow jersey following his victory in the prologue and not a single French rider had won a stage. Or were they afraid to catch a real doper?
Until fairly recently, doping control has been a fairly hit or miss affair. Due to the rate at which riders who have been known to dope have evaded detection, even targeting a particular rider for additional tests often didn’t result in a positive test. But there has been enough of a correlation between positive tests following great performances that we now associate success with the specter of doping. It’s unfortunate, but that is the promise of doping: You go faster and win races.
But with that understanding comes a dangerous corollary: We have begun to suspect that any rider who wins is probably—if not certainly—doped. Bicycling Magazine’s Joe Lindsey put forth an idea a few years ago that uses a sort of Keatsian negative capability to make sense of the pro peloton and help put a lid on overactive suspicion. In effect, Lindsey said, we must accept the peloton is doped to the gills. However, each of the riders deserves the presumption of innocence.
This is where the principles of American jurisprudence can inform the rest of the world. Without actual proof of an infraction, we should presume each individual to be innocent.
The average cycling fan can say what he or she wants about any pro and the slight is, well, slight. But once members of the media, even ones as fringe as bloggers, start couching their concerns as actual allegations, at that point a racer’s reputation can be harmed.
There’s been a perception by some readers that I have it in for Greg LeMond and that the only altar I kneel at has a picture of Lance Armstrong hanging above it. My personal feelings for both riders aren’t really important. I have a duty, however, to be very careful what I publish about Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping—or any other rider’s alleged doping. Yes, there is some very incriminating evidence that would suggest he engaged in tactics common to riders of his generation. But he has the presumption of innocence on the side of his reputation as he hasn’t been convicted of an infraction. Open, shut.
As a writer and cycling fan, my opposition to LeMond pursuing Armstrong as a doper is simple. It’s simply not his job. He’s overstepping bounds in a big way and unfortunately, to many people who follow cycling, his single-mindedness about Armstrong eliminates the even-handed justice that would be on his side if he offered to work with the UCI to use his incredible knowledge to help them refine the profile for suspicious riders. In short, LeMond is not an enforcement apparatus and needs to understand that.
That said, if it is true that Armstrong said to LeMond, ‘I could find 10 people that will say you took EPO,’ it is one of the uglier statements he is reported to have made. I’ve got no place in any mudslinging that takes place between these two, but because Armstrong’s statement seems to have raised questions about LeMond using EPO, I’m going on the record to say that I don’t believe we have any reason to suspect LeMond took EPO.
There is much to suggest that the spread of EPO at the Tour in 1991 was LeMond’s downfall. LeMond has said of ’91 that the racing was faster and attacks more frequent than in previous years. We know Claudio Chiappucci, who finished third that year, was on EPO. It’s easy to be suspicious and just say that from 1991 on, everyone was on EPO, but the situation isn’t that simple.
Conspiracy theorists like to point to how LeMond managed to get in shape just in time for the Tour as evidence that he must have been on EPO. While LeMond and Ullrich might have had getting fat over the winter in common, the only other thing they had in common was phenomenal talent. The real mark of EPO is better evidenced by the example of Bjarne Riis who raced both with and without EPO.
Bjarne Riis finished the 1991 Tour in 107th place, more than two hours down on the yellow jersey; he had yet to discover the miracle elixir. Back then, he was riding for Castorama in support of Laurent Fignon. Only two years later he finished in fifth place while riding for Gewiss-Ballan, a team that was later revealed to have had an organized program. In his press release in which he admitted his “mistakes,” Riis pointed to the years ’93-’98 as the years in which used EPO, human growth hormone and corticosteroids. His results seem to bear this out.
LeMond and Fignon (who finished sixth in ’91) were Grand Tour riders who won the Tour prior to the advent of EPO. Had LeMond been on EPO in 1991, he would likely have won the Tour that year. However, he was riding for the French team Z and the spread of EPO as administered by teams started with Italian and Dutch formations; the French teams didn’t catch on to “the program” for a few years.
As a writer, I’m unwilling to point a finger at a rider who hasn’t been convicted of doping and call him out; there are basic ethical rules against this. The flipside is different. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that LeMond was an unusually clean racer for his time.
Image by John Pierce, Photosport International
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:
David De la Fuente
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Some things in this world are unlikely. Finding Bigfoot is pretty unlikely. So is peace in the Middle East. Other things are just impossible. Finding Bigfoot eating dinner at a diner with Elvis, safe to say, is impossible.
Somewhere in the middle of these two poles lies the possibility that the suit Greg LeMond has filed against Trek Bicycles and their countersuit against him will be settled out of court. LeMond, for better or worse, seems to want his day in court.
In broad strokes, the cases are pretty simple. LeMond is suing Trek for failing to “exert best efforts regarding the LeMond brand.” In realpeople speak that’s, ‘They didn’t sell enough of my bikes.’ Following LeMond’s suit, Trek countersued and terminated its licensing agreement in April of this year. Today, the Lemond Bicycles web site is a single page allowing purchasers to register their bikes for warranty.
The real issue here isn’t sales figures, it’s LeMond’s mouth. It’s roots are in a report that LeMond read in 2001 that revealed Lance Armstrong’s relationship with Michele Ferrari. To LeMond, who was very familiar with Ferrari’s past vis-à-vis doping, that relationship could only mean one thing: Lance was doping. There was a certain sort of logic to it. Say your best friend is John Gotti. And say you tell a newspaper that he has a great mind for business and he has helped you with some of your business dealings, a reasonable person could understandably come to the conclusion that you, my friend, are a mobster.
Does that give anyone the right to accuse you of being a mobster in public? Not unless he is a prosecutor preparing to bring charges under RICO against you. To be fair, LeMond hasn’t actually said, “Armstrong is on dope,” but if you take the body of statements LeMond has made, his belief is clear. Consider: “If Armstrong’s clean, it’s the greatest comeback. And if he’s not, then it’s the greatest fraud,” and “In the light of Lance’s relationship with Ferrari, I just don’t want to comment on this year’s Tour. This is not sour grapes. I’m disappointed in Lance, that’s all it is.”
Would you say that about an athlete you thought was clean?
So LeMond thinks Armstrong is a doper. Newsflash: he’s not alone. There are plenty of cycling fans, competitors and members of the media who think so as well. The difference is, with the exception of a guy named Walsh, they all have the good sense not to accuse someone of something if they lack proof.
This was LeMond’s downfall. Word on the street is that Armstrong placed Trek CEO John Burke in the unenviable position of needing to mediate between the only two American Tour de France winners. Burke asked LeMond to temper his statements and confine them to speaking generally about doping. LeMond was unable to.
The case before Judge Richard Kyle has gone far afield. LeMond is notoriously unpleasant to do business with (an inside source pegs him as the downfall of the Clark Kent brand and the near failure of the paint and restoration company CyclArt), in part because he is unafraid of litigation. One former business associate who asked to remain anonymous used a single word to describe him: “Nightmare.”
Were the case really about the bikes, Lance Armstrong’s ex-wife, Kristin Armstrong would not have been deposed, nor would he have showed up at an Armstrong press conference to question him about his planned anti-doping program. In short, LeMond is attempting to make the case about Armstrong rather than his dissatisfaction with Trek’s efforts to sell his brand.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, LeMond attempted to cast his concern about doping in general and EPO in specific as a concern for athletes. He cited the deaths of more than 100 cyclists who are believed to have been taking EPO. However, LeMond never brought up his concern before the controversy with Armstrong. Put another way, have you ever heard LeMond mention the name of Johannes Draaijer, a Dutch cyclist on EPO, who had a heart attack and died in his sleep?
Trek claims it has done right by LeMond and that the relationship was lucrative for both. Since 1995, Trek reports it has earned more than $100 million, delivering some $5 million to LeMond’s coffers. LeMond points to a meager $10,393 in sales (possibly fewer than five bikes) in France between 2001 and 2007. Given the success of Bernard Hinault’s line of bikes in the United States, one can ask if LeMond could reasonably expect to do more in France.
What’s that you say? Hinault isn’t a household name in America? True, but nearly anyone willing to spend more than $2000 on a bicycle (only one bike in the LeMond line retailed for less than $2000) knows the Hinault name. And while LeMond may have had a large fan base in France, it can’t compare to the legions that adore Hinault in his home country. Fair comparison.
The point? LeMond’s case seems rather weak. I’ve written on this once before, for Slowtwitch. And while I’d rather see LeMond leave Armstrong alone—and addressed an open letter to him on Road Bike Action’s site—that’s really what this case is about.
But, you ask, what does Armstrong’s alleged doping have to do with LeMond’s bike business? LeMond will tell you it has everything to do with it. If LeMond can demonstrate to the court that Armstrong has doped, then he can demonstrate that Armstrong had motivation to have LeMond silenced. But what could silence LeMond? How about the threat of the shelving of his brand?
In short, LeMond will turn this case into an accusation of extortion against John Burke and Lance Armstrong. His legal team has already deposed Armstrong’s ex-wife; don’t think for a second that he won’t at least try to depose Mr. Seven.
The real question isn’t what LeMond and his legal team will reveal about Armstrong and his alleged doping but rather what LeMond’s actual motivation is. While it is conceivable that LeMond and his team could find a person or persons to allege doping on Armstrong’s part, finding definitive proof that Armstrong doped is as likely as finding Buggs Bunny sharing a slice of pie with Elvis and Bigfoot at our aforementioned diner.
Given the difficulty of the challenge facing LeMond, one must wonder what his motivation truly is. It can’t be exposing the danger of EPO, otherwise he would have been speaking out against EPO use more forcefully earlier. LeMond didn’t have a lot to say during the Festina Affair in 1998, yet just three years later, he had a lot to say about the second American to win the Tour de France three times.
That’s the rub: LeMond’s legacy. While this is pure conjecture on my part, no other explanation makes sense of the energy and money LeMond has sunk into this case. While the psychic toll this case has taken on his family can’t be calculated—it was enough, though, that Kathy LeMond sat across from Kristin Armstrong during her deposition (one wonders who was more unnerved by Mrs. LeMond’s presence)—the cost in legal fees can, and is said to be at or above seven figures.
If LeMond can impeach Armstrong and demonstrate a strong likelihood that he doped during his seven Tour de France wins, LeMond could win two things. First, he could show that in silencing LeMond and dropping his line, John Burke wasn’t acting in the best interest of the LeMond line. Second, by tearing down America’s most successful cyclist, LeMond will regain his rank as the best American cyclist.
But what’s the chance he’ll succeed, and even if he does, in whose eyes will he have won?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I know what the French call “jacque merde” about racing in the pro peloton. My last race was a Sunday town line sprint that I lost by about five bike lengths, because I was busy trying to see if the ice cream truck was coming up behind us. Also, I’m an American, which means that, for me, cycling is a decidedly middle class affair, popular only among my Europhile and immigrant friends, a thing with its roots in working class factories and the hard man lifestyle we in this country associate most often with lumberjacks or commercial fishermen.
How I came to love European racing, a thing both distant and alien, is anyone’s guess, but fall in love I did. A ’70s childhood of BMX and then ten-speeding spilled out into a two-wheeled adulthood, spandex clad, tappy shoe shod and my eyes strained toward the East and the velocepedic cults of France, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Spain.
Having never properly raced, even domestically, I had yeoman’s job to understand what was happening up the Ventoux, down the Champs-Élyseés, over the cobbles and through the Ardennes. This was a process not only of internalizing the tactics of bicycle racing, but drinking deep from the sloppy and chaotic cup of this odd Euro sport.
No one, I mean no one, has done more to help me see into the world of pro bike racing than Samuel Abt, the legendary cycling correspondent for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. In books such as: Off to the Races – 25 Years of Cycling Journalism; Up the Road – Cycling’s Modern Era from LeMond to Armstrong; A Season in Turmoil and Tour de France – Three Weeks to Glory, Abt collects his daily newspaper missives into wild and nuanced pastiches of the Euro racing life.
He gives voice to directeurs sportif, soigneurs, race organizers, the mayors of towns dying to have the major races grace them with their spiritual and monetary beneficence, as well as the riders, both legendary and journeymen, who animate the races. He describes the weather, the food, the farms and mountains. He is a writer, like John McPhee or Studs Terkel, who tells a story through the accumulation of minutely observed detail.
From an article called “When Autumn Comes” in Up the Road, Abt writes:
“Out in the countryside of France, the fields are brown and barren, their corn long harvested and the stalks chopped down for fodder. Until the stubble is plowed under when winter wheat is planted, the landscape is bleak and the air full of despair.
“For professional bicycle riders, April is not the cruelest month. Far from it. In April, hopes for a successful season are as green as the shoots just then starting to push through the fields that the riders pass in their early races. The cruelest month is really October, when the nine-month racing season ends and the riders finally know what they have failed to accomplish.”
From the introduction to Off to the Races:
“Far up the road, spectators had already jammed the switchback curves of Alpe d’Huez. The police finally gave up trying to estimate the size of the crowd and could only say it was more than the usual 300,000 to 400,000 who waited each year for the bicycle riders in the Tour de France to climb the peak. This Sunday morning in July, while the sun burned off traces of fog in the valley and melted a bit of the glaciers permanently atop the French Alps, the crowd was waiting for one rider. “Allez, Simon,” the banners said. But by then it was over.”
I have read the biographies, Anquetil, Merckx, Pantani, et. al., and I have read the various histories, and almost without exception I have enjoyed them, but no books have brought me to Europe to smell the dust of the hot French summer or feel the ice cold Belgian rain quite like Abt’s have.
These collections of his writings also serve as charming reminders of how the superstars saw the world before they were superstars. Here we find one Lance Armstrong, in 1993, talking about Miguel Indurain, from Up the Road:
‘“He’s got a super attitude,” he said. “He’s not obnoxious, he’s quiet, he respects the other riders, he never fusses. He’s so mild-mannered. I really like him.”
“So much so that the 29-year-old Spaniard seems to have become a role model for the likeable and sensitive Armstrong, who has occasionally been considered brash. “I still have a temper and an attitude sometimes,” he confessed.
“I wouldn’t mind molding myself into his sort of character,” he said. “Really quiet, just goes about his business.”’
You may watch Versus on your American television. You may steal a Eurosport feed from some Internet backwater. You may stand by the early season roadside in California, waiting for the peloton to streak by, but short of spending a season in Europe (a luxury I’ve never been able to indulge) it’s very hard to get the flavor of the sport. In this sense, if Paris Roubaix is a dish, Sam Abt is an able chef, translating that uniquely Franco-Belgian treat for an American palette.
Thanks to Da Robot of the Bottom Bracket Blog for this appreciation.
The ongoing talk and writing on the subject of Lance Armstrong vs. Alberto Contador has pretty well played itself out. The world is full of two alphas fighting for dominance. Whatever. The most interesting observations and most challenging disagreements have been made concerning the tension between Contador and his director, Johan Bruyneel. (Oh, and I apologize to all of you who thought of the 1980s sitcom starring Tony Danza.)
When is it okay for a rider to disobey his team director?
The question may seem academic, but our perception of what’s acceptable can determine our attitudes toward riders, their directors and even whole teams. Opinions have been so sharply divided on Armstrong and Contador, they might as well be charted as red or blue states. But the issue of Contador and Bruyneel isn’t necessarily as clear cut. Sure, plenty of Contador fans see Bruyneel as having been in league with Armstrong, but the fact is, Contador disobeyed his DS. It’s one thing to consider your teammate another competitor, but it’s another to think your DS can’t or won’t guide you to victory even if they know you’re the strongest rider in the race.
Tour de France chronicler Bill McGann, occasionally of these parts and more often of Bike Race Info asked me what I thought of Stephen Roche’s attack of Carrera teammate Roberto Visentini at the Giro d’Italia. Visentini was in the maglia rosa when Roche attacked.
The English-speaking press has traditionally portrayed Roche’s actions as justified, the acts of a guy who never was fully supported by his team. The fact is Roche attacked his teammate who was already in the lead.
My initial reply to McGann was that Roche’s attack was almost certainly wrong at the time but that history had vindicated his attack. Wait a second, though. At the time of Roche’s attack no rider from the Ireland or the U.K. had ever won a Grand Tour; statistically, his eventual victory was unlikely. McGann believes Visentini would like have won the Giro had Roche not attacked.
Cyclists may like Roche’s self-confidence, but that doesn’t change the fact that he attacked the Giro’s previous winner and current leader. It’s easy to come up with objective arguments in either Armstrong or Contador’s favor for why they should have been unquestioned leader of Astana, but there was virtually no reason to consider Roche for leadership.
Again, this may seem an academic argument, but the potential for this sort of conflict comes up all the time. It is increasingly common (likely, even) that a team will have two riders capable of a strong GC ride in a stage race. Some times it is easily resolved; consider Garmin’s example with Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde. Other times there is some tension, but the upstart asks for permission to ride for himself. Consider Silence-Lotto’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck who asked permission to ride for himself following following Cadel Evans’ implosion.
The ’09 Tour has been often compared to the ’86 duel between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, but it is the psychic alter ego of the ’85 Tour when LeMond was the young upstart who by many—if not most—accounts was stronger than Hinault and could have beaten him. LeMond fans wring their hands about how he was screwed by his team, how Paul Koechli lied to him, how the promise of support in ’86 was penance for his incredible sacrifice in ’85.
But here’s the real question: If winning a race requires your utmost in fitness, strategy and even politics, when isn’t the winner deserving? Should winning come at any cost, even if it means virtual destruction of team cooperation?
Do, as Macchiavelli wrote, the ends really justify means and does that give a rider the right to overrule his director? In starker terms, does the fact that Roche won justify his attack.
Photo: John Pierce, Photosport International
Bill McGann is best known to the cycling world as the former proprietor of Torelli Imports. These days he spends his time writing about cycling and has two excellent volumes on the Tour de France to his credit.
Discussions of the strength of the 2009 Astana squad regularly bring up mention of the great teams of the past. The most commonly cited “greatest team ever” is the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. Padraig put forward a strong case for this argument.
But hold on. Let’s not forget the LeMonds and Hinaults of the more distant past. I would like to submit 2 Tour teams for consideration for the “Greatest Ever” trophy.
The sport was different then. The bikes were fixed-gear, lugged, mild-steel affairs with terrible brakes. The stages were staggeringly long, sometime approaching 400 kilometers. This put an emphasis on endurance rather than speed. Stages would start before sunrise because they could take 13 or more hours to complete. There was another joker in the deck. Early Tour riders had to perform their own repairs. Broke a spoke? Replace it yourself. Got a flat tire? Repair it yourself. Broke a fork? Go to a blacksmith’s shop and fix the fork yourself. And don’t you dare let anyone help you, even by working the bellows, or you’ll be penalized.
Yet, for all those differences, they were the same as us. Riders then were dedicated athletes who trained hard and rode at the very limits of their abilities. They were revered and idolized by sports fans. The crowds along the roads then, like now, were huge. In 1908 there was one team that stood above all others of the time, and perhaps above all others for all time, Peugeot.
On that team was the 1907 Tour winner, Lucien Petit-Breton. I believe he is the most complete rider of the pre-World War One era, often labeled by cycle historians as the “heroic” or “pioneer” era. He could sprint, climb, descend and roll along the flat for hours. He was the first racer to win the Tour de France twice.
Also on the 1908 Peugeot team:
François Faber (1909 Tour and 1913 Paris-Roubaix winner),
Georges Passerieu (2nd 1906 Tour, 1st 1907 Paris–Roubaix),
Emile Georget (won 6 stages in the 1907 Tour, but only came in third that year because he was penalized for an illegal bike change),
Henri Cornet (awarded victory in the 1904 Tour after a great cheating scandal resulted in the disqualification of the 4 riders ahead of him),
Hippolyte Aucouturier (winner of 1903 and 1904 Paris–Roubaix, 2nd in the 1905 Tour de France and owner of the finest handlebar mustache in cycling history),
Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq (3rd in the 1905 Tour and the first foreign winner of a stage in the Giro),
Gustave Garrigou (2nd in 1907 and 1908 Tours de France and Tour winner in 1911), and
Georges Paulmier (would go on to win 2 stages in the Tour).
Nearly all of the riders on the Peugeot team were outright champions, men who today would command their own teams.
What did this outstanding group of men accomplish in the 1908 Tour de France?
They won every single stage. All 14 of them.
Peugeot also took the first 4 places in the General Classification, plus 6th and 8th place.
They weren’t racing against a bunch of chumps. Among the other superb riders contesting the 1908 Tour, Italy’s finest were entered: Luigi Ganna, (1909 Giro winner), Giovanni Cuniolo, Luigi Chiodi, Giovanni Gerbi and Giovanni Rossignoli. Forgotten today, they were magnificent athletes. Peugeot’s beating them all was no small accomplishment.
No team has ever equaled that record. I daresay no team has ever come close.
Coming, the French National team of the early 1930s.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Johan Bruyneel’s personal website states he is the “most victorious sports director.” It doesn’t distinguish which sport.
As marketing claims go, this is one that is tough, if not outright impossible, to refute. The man has guided four different riders to an incredible 13 Grand Tour victories—each of the Grand Tours with two riders. Since he retired from racing and became a sports director he has only missed a Grand Tour victory in one year: 2006. You’d have to add the resumes of Jose Miguel Echavarri and Cyrile Guimard to even come close to his achievement. Bruyneel is nothing if not a king maker.
As to those other sports, Don Shula is considered the greatest NFL coach of all time and his Super Bowl record is 2-4. Chuck Noll is 4-0 and he’s only considered fifth best. Phil Jackson’s 10 NBA Championships is a record in that sport. It has taken the New York Yankees several owners and 77 years to amass its 26 World Series titles. And based on my limited research, no FIFA coach comes close to these records.
So one can reasonably make the argument that Bruyneel is the best coach in professional sports.
Does a sport director have an obligation to achieve more at a Grand Tour than win the overall classification? Of course, the answer is yes. There are stage wins, classification jerseys and, yes, overall classification places at stake.
What makes the ’86 La Vie Claire team memorable? First, second, fourth and seventh on GC. In addition to Greg LeMond’s yellow jersey, Bernard Hinault took the polka dot jersey, Andy Hampsten won the white jersey for the best young rider, the team took the team classification and Hinault took the combativity award. And then there were the six stage wins: one each for LeMond, Nikki Ruttimann and Jean-Francois Bernard and three for Hinault.
Astana may have gone into the 2009 Tour de France as the most talent-rich team ever assembled, but this was one supergroup that flamed out before the album was finished. Astana had five riders who had previously finished in the top five on GC; ultimately the team placed two riders in the top five. The team’s only two stage wins came at the legs of Alberto Contador.
So how is it that a team with so much promise couldn’t deliver more? There are several reasons. First, the course worked against them. Because Bruyneel places such emphasis on achieving the overall win, individual exploits that gain team members stage wins (such as George Hincapie’s stage win at Pla d’Adet in 2005) were reined in due to the lack of mountaintop finishes. Overall, the team conserved its efforts in order to be prepared to defend the yellow jersey.
Next, the competition was good, really good. Armstrong stated that he was better than 2003; we have no reason to disbelieve him. The Andy Schleck was a little better on the climbs, Wiggins was better on the TT and Contador was better, well, everywhere. It’s tough to win stages if the field isn’t constantly on the defensive. In ’86, LVC had the competition almost invariably on the defensive.
Finally, Armstrong played the role of teammate as it should be played. While some may see him making the stage 3 split as an offensive move, it was really a defensive move—he didn’t instigate the move but made sure not to lose time. Hinault showed what it looks like to have a teammate attack the yellow jersey on stage 19, the day after the finish atop l’Alpe d’Huez when the team’s leadership was supposed to have been decided. Andy Hampsten said it was one and only time he ever chased a teammate.
The difference between La Vie Claire and Astana is one of inversion. On La Vie Claire, the rider who freelanced was the lesser rider, Hinault. On Astana, it was Contador who went off the playbook. However, the lack of stage wins or other distinctions really can’t be blamed on that, it’s the fact that Armstrong simply didn’t attack Contador on the mountain stages.
The greatest failing of Astana in 2009 was Alberto Contador’s attack on stage 17 on le Grand Bornand. Without that attack the Schlecks would not have moved from fifth and eighth on GC to second and third; it is the single biggest reason Andy Schleck finished on the podium.
Attacking and undermining a teammate’s GC position—two teammates’ positions, in fact—isn’t an unwritten rule, it’s written. Don’t take my word for it. Andy Hampsten said, “A racer in 2nd can’t work with an opponent in 3rd to move them both ahead one place.” While the situations aren’t exactly the same, Hampsten was referring to the reason why LeMond wasn’t permitted to work with Stephen Roche in a breakaway in the ’85 Tour.
I know there are riders out there who think Contador’s attack was justified, but it hurt the team by moving Armstrong down a spot on the GC at the finish in Paris and ensured that Andreas Kloden had no shot at the podium. A sweep of the podium spots (even though it was unlikely Kloden would have overcome Bradley Wiggins) would have been an historic distinction in the modern era for Bruyneel. It would have been a fresh feather for the sport’s best director.
So what went wrong for Bruyneel? In short, Contador. Contador exposed his naiveté to team goals following the 2008 Vuelta by saying after the finish of the race, “I will only say that it’s not normal that someone that is supposed to be working for you finishes less than one minute back in the GC.”
Contador was insecure. Why? Team leadership is earned; it’s not an elected office, and had Leipheimer leapfrogged him in GC on the climb up Navacerrada, what would he have had to be upset about? Any team’s first goal should always be to win the race. For some reason, Bruyneel’s goals for the team weren’t Contador’s goals.
Bruyneel’s job was to reassure Contador that he was the strongest Grand Tour rider in the world. Despite more than adequate evidence to back this up, he didn’t succeed. When Armstrong came out of retirement, the problem only got worse. Put yourself in Bruyneel’s shoes. What would you have said to Contador?
I would have told him, “Relax, let Lance play his games and play his hand. It’ll be good for us. It will confuse the competition in the early days of the race. Rest assured, you’re the strongest rider on the team and you’ll have everyone’s full support. And once Lance knows you’re stronger, he’ll have your back.” Had Lance proven to be stronger, Contador’s freelancing couldn’t have done much to hurt the team. At that point Bruyneel would have been free to say, “I’m sorry Alberto, but my first duty is to win this race and you’re simply not strong enough.”
It’s hard to imagine Bruyneel would have said anything different. But whatever he said, it didn’t work. That’s the stunner. Many sports writers would spin this as Bruyneel’s great failure. I’ve met the man and couldn’t say that to his face, so I won’t say it here. Besides, I just don’t see it that way. It’s a miss, something that didn’t go to plan. I’m sure it is a frustration that has him stymied. Imagine playing a game of chess and not being certain where your queen would move next. It might check the king, but leave a rook open at the same time. Thanks bro.
Contador’s actions will give some of the smarter team directors pause. Even if Tralfamadoreans carried the Schlecks off to mate with Montana Wildhack, I don’t think Riis would hire Contador next year. Will Vaughters still want him if he believes he won’t take direction? Rest assured, he won’t have any trouble finding other employment. There are plenty of teams that want him and three or four that could potentially pay him what he’s worth.
The problem is that even if he didn’t need help this year, he’ll need help next year against Saxo Bank, Radio Shack and Garmin—if they don’t sign him. And thanks to that parting shot about not respecting Armstrong (You may not like him, but what sort of rider wouldn’t respect his accomplishments?), we can all rest assured that even if Radio Shack can’t beat him, they will send nine men to ride against him.
What might make the 2010 Tour de France most memorable is if the sport’s greatest director can defeat the sport’s greatest Grand Tour rider … with a lesser rider.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When the La Vie Claire team members each took the start house at the Boulogne prologue in the 1986 Tour de France, they were the finest team ever assembled. They were to cycling what the supergroup Asia was to rock music only a few years before: immensely talented, privileged, volatile … stars.
Over 23 days that July Greg LeMond and Berhard Hinault, as assisted by Andy Hampsten, Niki Rutimann, Jean-Francois Bernard, Steve Bauer, Charly Berard, Alaign Vigneron, Philippe Leleu and Guido Winterberg all but destroyed the field. King of the Mountains leader Robert Millar, favored by some to win the mountainous edition of the race quit after contracting bronchitis. Eventual third place, Urs Zimmerman finish nearly 11 minutes down on LeMond.
By the time the team members retired, they had amassed a record unequaled to this day. Though some of these results came with other teams, the results speak for themselves; no other team has amassed such talent. Hinault and LeMond split eight Tour de France wins between them. The various members scored 11 other top-10 finishes. They combined for a total of 41 stage wins and Hinault, LeMond, Bernard and Bauer spent a total 110 days in yellow. Banesto doesn’t even come close.
As it happens, the 2009 Astana team can’t match that record. Armstrong and Contador have eight combined victories and 79 total days in the yellow jersey. Armstrong, Contador and Leipheimer account for 24 stage wins. Team members Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer and Haimar Zubeldia have nine top-10 finishes between them. It’s an impressive record, but not the ’86 La Vie Claire team. Or is it?
If we compare apples to apples, then we must consider the record of the La Vie Claire on July 4, 1986 to the record of Astana on July 4, 2009. Once we turn the clock back to the start house in Boulogne, we have a significantly different record. When Bernard Hinault rolled out of the start house clad in yellow, the team had the following resume: five Tour de France victories, three other top-10 finishes (two from LeMond and one from Hinault), 26 stage wins and 69 total days in yellow.
While La Vie Claire leads in stage wins with 26 to 24, Astana takes game and set with eight overall victories and 79 days in yellow. When you factor in the successes of the team directors, the single victory Paul Koechli could claim withers when compared to Johan Bruyneels 11 victories. Let’s put this in perspective, the L.A. Lakers’ coach, Phil Jackson, has shaped the careers of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two of basketball’s greatest stars, and in so doing has earned 10 NBA victories. It’s a record for the sport.
After Bruyneel’s 11 wins, the next best record in cycling is that of Cyrille Guimard, who led Lucien van Impe, Hinault, Laurent Fignon and LeMond to seven victories. The difference alone—four—would make any other director’s career.
Okay, so the ’09 Astana team is the best team ever assembled, even with Dmitriy Muravyev. What does it mean for the race, though? It means that to win the Tour de France, a team will need more than one GC rider. The team will have to have a strong team to cover Astana’s moves.
It means that teams such as Marc Sergeant’s Silence-Lotto are more than unlikely to win the race. In 2008, despite crashing, Cadel Evans would likely have won the race if his team hadn’t been so thin. Sergeant’s unwillingness to re-sign the one rider Evans said he needed (the hapless Chris Horner) and his willingness to sign a rider released for irregular blood values, Thomas Dekker (the peloton’s most recent positive for EPO), show his judgment is lacking.
Jonathan Vaughters is smart enough to direct a team to victory and has done an excellent job of assembling talent. However, Christian Vande Velde will need something like a miracle to reach the podium, let alone the yellow jersey.
Carlos Sastre’s Cervelo Test Team isn’t even planning to try to win the Tour. Either they are taking the most comical reverse-psychology approach to victory yet devised or they understand reality and have adapted accordingly. I hope it’s the latter.
The best Ag2r-Mondiale, Agritubel, Bbox Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Francaise des Jeux, Lampre-N.G.C., Liquigas, Quickstep, Skil-Shimano, Team Katusha and Team Milram can hope for is a stage win or two and maybe a day or two in yellow, provided the stars align.
We might as well lump Caisse d’Epargne in there as well. Oscar Periero has as much chance of winning the Tour as he does winning the prologue.
Columbia-HTC and Rabobank are in the same boat as Silence-Lotto: Sure, a Corvette is fast, but it’s hardly capable of competing in F1.
Bjarne Riis is literally the only director with the intelligence and the necessary depth of talent to meet the Astana challenge. While Andy Schleck has been advanced as the team’s lead, the presence of brother Frank gives Riis the necessary firepower to wield a two-pronged attack.
If ever the was a year when teams should forge alliances the way individual riders used to, this is it. Saxo Bank working in tandem with Columbia, Silence-Lotto or Columbia-HTC is the best chance the peloton has of beating Astana.
Strap in sports fans, this will be one for the ages.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.