The Astana team was the single most interesting story at this year’s Tour de France because it was really the only story of the 2009 Tour de France. Without Astana, Saxo Bank would have all but raced away from the rest of the field. During the Tour the conflict emanated from Lance Armstrong’s and Alberto Contador’s dual desires to win the Tour de France. That conflict produced a lot of collateral damage; top was Contador’s relationship with team director Johan Bruyneel. Additionally, rider relationships suffered and even tension emerged between some of the riders and support staff.
Things got weirder even before the Tour ended. Bruyneel had made it known that Alexander Vinokourov wasn’t exactly welcome at Astana. Bruyneel’s lack of interest in working with Astana’s raison d’etre is understandable; he has enough trouble projecting the image that Astana is a team of clean riders without accepting into the fold a rider coming back from a two-year suspension. As a result, Vinokourov issued the classic ultimatum: him or me. So Bruyneel announced his departure and told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, “The reason for my leaving is that Vinokourov is back riding with Astana.”
Indications are that Bruyneel and Vinokourov have reached an uneasy truce by keeping their distance; Bruyneel hasn’t been seen at races Vinokourov in which has competed. It seemed a reasonable solution—avoid each other until Bruyneel’s exit to The Shack.
Which brings up the exodus. Armstrong’s exit was quick and easy; because he was unpaid he never had a contract—boom, he’s gone. Contador wants out but as been reported ad infinitum, he’s got another year on his contract and Astana hasn’t wanted to allow him to buy out his contract. Team Radio Shack has signed Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaroslav Popovych, Haimar Zubeldia, Gregory Rast, Thomas Vaitkus and Sergio Paulinho. Swiss riders Steve Morabito and Michael Schar are leaving for BMC. That’s 11 of 28 riders leaving only four riders (Contador, Vinokourov, Dmitriy Muravyev and José Luis Rubiera) who have competed in the Tour de France.
Not so fast. Astana management have noticed the shrinking team and have put the kibosh on the departures of Kloden, Popovych, Zubeldia and Rast. Normally, a support rider buying out his contract is as eventful as purchasing batteries at Radio Shack, but while Astana’s management may have trouble making payroll (the final $2 million installment for the 2009 season has not yet been paid), they can do the math: If the Kazakhstan government loses the sport’s most successful director and every rider who wants to leave, the only veteran left from this year’s Tour de France team will be the beneficiary of Kazakhstan’s version of Affirmative Action: Dmitriy Muravyev. Were all these departures to take place, there’s no way the team would keep its ProTour license which would make it largely irrelevant as an international statement of cycling prowess.
The surprise here is that Astana’s management hasn’t done more to bolster the team by replacing those who have left or want to leave. If you consider just those riders who have definitely left—Armstrong, Leipheimer, Horner, Paulinho, Vaitkus, Morabito and Schar—the team is decimated and needs some serious recruiting. So why isn’t this happening?
The answer may lie in Contador’s woes. He has reported that each time he has a meeting with Astana management that meeting is followed by another meeting in which the new team representative discredits the previous team representative. Contador’s brother and agent, Fran, has refused to negotiate further until team leadership is clarified. If there’s no clear management structure in place (and that seems a reasonable conclusion) then it isn’t terribly surprising what little management there is agrees every rider who can be retained should be.
As a management strategy, it’s very short sighted. Riders can be expected to assist each other at key race times because they will want to have something for their palmarés when it’s time to negotiate with another team. However, morale will suffer and performances will suffer and that will hurt their value, which is why its imperative for Kloden and the rest to get out now. Bruyneel could sit on his hands for the year and The Shack would still want him for 2011; he’d be wanted anywhere.
There’s still time for a happy ending, though not much and perhaps not quite everyone.
Without any new signings, Astana will fall below the 25-rider minimum that the ProTour requires. Without 25 riders the team loses its ProTour status (one can imagine a last-ditch effort by the Kazakhstan government to give a license to any citizen who has won a bike race). With the team’s loss of its ProTour license, Contador could invoke a clause in his contract that grants his release should the team lose its ProTour status. This is one problem a new sponsor’s money can’t solve.
How many teams would have the funds to pay Contador at such a late date? It could be a stretch for Caisse d’Epargne and Contador isn’t likely to accept a cut in pay. However, word is Jonathan Vaughters has a sponsor waiting in the wings; should he land Contador, Garmin-Slipstream becomes Garmin-Somethingelse and Contador gets paid what he’s worth. That might finally give Vaughters reason enough to let Wiggins out of his contract so he can ride for Team Sky, which has more than enough budget to pay him what he’s worth as well as give him unquestioned leadership. A confidential source familiar with the team tells me Wiggins hates the management at Garmin-Slipstream and is desperate to leave.
Were Contador to finally escape Astana a new question would arise. What then of Bruyneel, Kloden, Zubeldia, Popovych and Rast? There’s no word on whether the five have similar ProTour requirement clauses in their contracts. Even if Astana management held them hostage for a year, it is unlikely the team could accomplish much. But after all the turmoil the great irony would be to see Bruyneel manage a decimated Astana led by Vinokourov—the only two people who stated publicly they would never work together, bound to the same team.
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
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
Perhaps the luckiest rider on the entire U.S. Postal Service Team was Kenny Labbe. Having given up full-time racing 12 years ago after a promising junior career, Labbe took a job with the Postal Service as a letter carrier. Each day after doing his route in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, Kenny trained for the local racing scene. When The Postal Service began to sponsor a team in 1995, Labbe thought it a great coincidence that his employer was involved with pro cycling, and felt this would be his only shot at his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.
“He e-mailed me every day for about two years,” team director Bruyneel explained. “Kenny kept me up to date on all the races he rode in the American mid-west. He told me how he trained and what an honor it would be to just be at a training camp with the team.” Bruyneel shook his head in disbelief. “ He was willing to take vacation time and even pay his own way to the camp in Santa Barbara last year.”
When the First Union Grand Prix series rolled around last spring, Labbe was called on by the team to help out with some of the chores of professional racing. “I’m a big boy,” Labbe crows, “If I can do one thing to help the team, it’s to offer a big draft for some of the guys. I’ll give up a wheel, or shag bottles all day if I have too. This is just a dream come true for me.”
There is a fine line between dreams and nightmares. On the hilliest day of camp, the team crisscrossed some of the highest mountains in southern Spain. Being built like a linebacker can help the team out in an American criterium, but on a day such as this, it was all about suffering for Labbe. All of the other riders’ remarks at the dinner table about his size and how much he eats must have been ringing in his ears as he labored over category one climbs used in past years of the Vuelta a Espana. At times taking turns with Bill hanging onto the team car, Labbe decided over one summit it was time to lead the team down the mountain.
Unfortunately, just as he sprinted past the group, fresh from hanging onto the car, the road pointed back up towards the winter sky. Hincapie jumped as Kenny went by and got the good draft. As gravity took its toll, Kenny slowed while the team raced past him. All the riders swept around him at a speed so fast, he was unable to get back into the draft of the pace line. When he looked over his shoulder for the team car, he found Dirk DeMol had swung the car into the opposite lane, forcing Labbe to dig within and fight to get back up to the group. He chased for quite sometime down the treacherous descent and along the valley floor.
After that same descent, Bill admitted that he was done. “We were going about 60 mph for the longest time,” he said wide-eyed. “Then we’d hit the brakes HARD going into the turns. I kept looking over the edge of the cliff and thought, ‘this isn’t even racing; this is just fun for these guys!’” He shook his head in disbelief of how casually the team put their lives on the line every day. “They all rode the same line down the mountains, all 21 of them in a single line. At the back there’s a lot less thinking of how to take the turns, but geez, I thought about my wife … and my baby … and my job; it was crazy. I ache from going down just as much as going up the mountains!”
As I suspected, the week went by faster than I thought. Bill and I were packing for our early morning departure home when Dylan walked into our room. He was dressed in his team-issue athletic pants, sandals and a soccer-style jersey with the Postal Service logo. His floppy Air Jordan hat covered his entire head, and he could barely see in front of him as he talked on his cell phone to his girlfriend back home.
For a second I flashed back to the days Dylan and I drove across the country as amateurs, sleeping in dive motels when we could afford to and in the back of his car most of the time. He smiled at me then nodded in amazement, “ Who would have thought we’d be here in Spain riding our bikes?”
“Who would have thought,” I answered back, equally amazed.
Heading towards the first small hill of our first day, I was talking with new team member Tony Cruz. As we caught up on each other’s lives since racing against each other as juniors, I had to excuse myself for not answering his questions. I apologized, in a ragged voice, that after reaching the top of the hill I would resume our conversation. He played down the fact that while I was suffering, the team was climbing at a casual 20 mph! A hole in the pace line opened and he excused himself as he closed the gap. This left Bill and me to wallow in lactic acid as we shook our heads at how calmly these guys flew over the undulating Spanish countryside.
The big news for the Postal Service this year is the signing of Roberto Heras to the team. He was 2001’s mountain revelation in the Tour de France and winner of the Vuelta a Espana, Heras brought much needed strength to help Lance in the mountains of the Tour that year.
The magnitude of Heras’ signing did not hit me until we were rolling through a town early on during a training ride. The whole team went under a pedestrian overpass just as about 100 children crossed the bridge. Dressed in school uniforms and matching backpacks, the children went wild as they stopped in their tracks to watch us pass beneath them. Screaming and yelling out, “Andale-Roberto Heras, Lance Armstrong, Arriba, Arriba!” Bill and I looked at each other dumbfounded by the children’s enthusiasm as the team didn’t miss a beat tearing through traffic and into a large roundabout in downtown Carpe at a mellow 25 mph.
Bill and I were absolutely wasted after only three days of riding with the team. We awoke to aching, dead-tired muscles on the fourth day of camp. Lying motionless, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the other to attempt getting out of bed, Bill broke the silence, “Isn’t it amazing how much more fit these guys are? They are on a whole ‘nother planet. Did you see how Cedric and Benoit just coasted through those little towns, looking sideways at each other and chatting as if we were standing still? If people tried that on the club rides or even in the Cat. II races, bodies would be everywhere!” I nodded my head then winced; even my neck was sore from being in the drops for so long the previous day.
“And going up the hills,” Bill went on, “Heras and Rubiera just kept talking and cruising along like it was no big deal. Did you see that? I think that was right before you got dropped.”
I remembered the moment vividly. I cracked and slowed down before grabbing onto the team car. Dirk DeMol was driving and leaned over the passenger seat, to say to me, “We were wondering who would come off first? Your friend, he looks like a sprinter, but you … you surprised us. We thought you would be the climber!” As my lungs failed to adequately get oxygen to my muscles, or brain for that matter, I had no response. My 5’-8” frame and 150 lb. body seemed fit for a part time racer, but riding alongside the best pro cyclists in the world, I looked and felt like a chunk.
Over the top of one particular mountain, Bill had been gripping the car’s door and chatting with Alan the head mechanic when George Hincapie slipped back to grab some food and full bottles. Wanting to stay out of the way and feeling revived from the respite of the car, Bill let go and rode in the car’s draft.
As Hincapie came alongside the car, we were heading into the descent and the team was riding at around 30mph through some tight turns. He, in a word, was smooth. Every move I saw this guy make over the course of a week was like water. He flowed. From waiting for the elevator after dinner, to hopping off his bike at the end of a seven-hour ride, Hincapie was as graceful as Gene Kelly.
So the car heads into the first turn, a pretty tight one, and Hincapie has his left arm in the window and his right hand on the brake hood. He’s not gripping the hood, just resting his hand on it. He grabs some bottles but is not yet finished when he’s interrupted by the winding road. Staying glued to the car—and without a single unnecessary movement—he slides right through the tight right bend at about a sixty-degree angle, all the while his elbow still rests in the doorframe. Then he puts some food wrapped in foil into his jersey pocket, stands up out of the saddle, and bridges the gap from the car, not just to the back of the group, but all the way to the front, so as to lead the charge down the mountain.
“It’s hard enough just hanging onto the car going straight, much less a stunt like that,” Steve Swartzendruber, the Trek representative to the team, pointed out at dinner after Bill told us the story.
The waiting is over. No Starbucks, no Nike, no Oracle. Officially, what we know of Lance Armstrong’s new team is that it will be sponsored by Radio Shack and that the seven-time winner of the Tour de France will compete at the Tour of California and the Tour de France as a cyclist, but that he will also compete through the season as a runner and triathlete.
Yes, sports fans, Lance Armstrong will make a return to triathlon.
No other sponsors, riders or team personnel were named except that the team will be managed by Capital Sports and Entertainment (CSE), the same team that managed the US Postal and Discovery Channel cycling teams. Radio Shack said the team would compete at the ProTour level.
Those are the facts. What can we infer from the announcement?
First, the ProTour license will likely come from Astana. Second, the team will be directed by Johan Bruneel. Third, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaroslav Popovych and Jose Luis Rubiera will ride for the team; many others from the former Discovery Channel formation are likely to follow. Fourth, the LiveStrong Foundation is likely to have a sponsorship role in the team. Fifth, the team will ride Trek bikes with SRAM components.
Will Alberto Contador be a part of this formation? It’s too soon to tell. Bruyneel and Armstrong may not want a rider, even one as talented as Contador, who can’t stick to the game plan and rides only for himself. Contador may not want to be on a team where he feels even the faintest whiff of a challenge to his leadership.
When Alberto Contador attacked on le Grand Bornand and dropped teammate Andreas Kloden, he did more than just dash Kloden’s hopes for the podium. He torpedoed Astana’s historic bid to sweep the podium of the 2009 Tour de France, a feat not achieved in the modern era of the event. Maybe that didn’t matter to Contador, but this should have: He damaged his team’s ability to defend him on the slopes of Mt. Ventoux.
Had Contador not attacked, it is likely Armstrong would have come back to the leaders, if not on the climb, then on the descent. Given the way Kloden had to raise his pace to try to regain the leaders, Armstrong wouldn’t have had to work as long to pull back the gap. In a lead group of Contador, Kloden, Armstrong, Schleck, Schleck and Nibali, there would have been no reason to gift the stage to Frank Schleck, and Astana, with three cards to play, would have had a good chance of taking the stage.
Coming out of the stage 18 time trial, the GC would have still been Contador in the lead, but Wiggins would have been second at 2:28—enough to dismiss him as a threat to Contador on Mont Ventoux, but Armstrong would have been third at 3:06, with Kloden at 3:10, both close enough to have a real shot at taking second and third overall could they drop Wiggins on Ventoux, an act they both have previously managed. Schleck would be an also-ran to this quartet with obstacles on all sides to GC advancement.
With two teammates so close in time to Contador, their defense of yellow would have been easier by neutralizing virtually any attack before it started. Instead, Contador’s attack lifted the two Schleck’s from 5th and 8th on GC to 2nd and 6th.
As it stands now, there are four riders within 34 seconds of each other, each within striking distance of a podium spot. If Contador hadn’t attacked, he could well have had a tranquil ride up Mont Ventoux, but now the Tour organizer’s very wish—fireworks—is guaranteed on the slopes of the Geante de Provence.
Based on his unwillingness to listen to his team director before attacking on le Grand Bornand, and his previously stated distaste for Levi Leipheimer’s podium finish at the 2008 Vuelta, it is fair to surmise that Contador isn’t comfortable having other capable GC riders on his team. In his particular instance, as both the best time trialist and best climber present at the 2009 Tour de France, we must grant that Contador doesn’t need a team to win the Tour. But what of those riders who toiled for him no matter how superfluous their efforts might seem?
Even Eddy Merckx knew when to throw a domestique a bone. Why deliberately torpedo the aspirations of your teammates? Armstrong had already conceded the win to Contador. Contador said he attacked to neutralize Wiggins. What? Wiggins was already dropped. No one attacks a dropped rider. When you attack, you are attempting to drop someone on your wheel, which makes Contador either a liar or not very bright.
If it seems that I have a personal stake in this, a desired outcome, that’s not the case. I find the possibility of an Astana podium sweep to be an interesting and historic outcome, but I also find historic the possibility of Great Britain’s first podium finish. Wiggins’ transformation from Olympic Gold Medalist on the track to Tour de France contender to be fascinating. And should the two Schlecks take the lower two podium spots that will mean Contador will face a very formidable threat in 2010. Maybe Contador didn’t need a strong team this year, but the confidence that would come with finishing second and third could make the Schlecks a force majeure in 2010.
Carlos Sastre won the 2008 Tour de France not because he was the strongest rider, but because he was on the strongest team and the strongest rider in the race—Cadel Evans—stayed with Andy Schleck when Sastre attacked. Evans knew he couldn’t follow every attack and so he chose to stay with the stronger of the two teammates, hoping they would bring Sastre back. He rolled snake eyes on that one.
The 2010 Tour could play out similarly: Contador on a weak team isolated and Frank Schleck attacks and Contador stays with brother Andy. And who would Contador have to thank for boosting the Schleck’s confidence? Himself.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Among the names that have been mentioned as potential sponsors of the new Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel team have been Nike, LiveStrong and, more recently, Starbucks.
An anonymous source with knowledge of Starbucks’ branding initiatives has informed RKP that there are Starbucks/LiveStrong co-branded designs have been prepared for in-store displays. The natural question of why Starbucks would consider affiliating itself with a ProTour cycling team might have something to Starbucks impending launch of an instant coffee called VIA, not to mention its presence in more than 50 countries worldwide.
Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz is known to be a big cycling fan and lunched with Armstrong prior to his departure for the Tour de France.
Armstrong’s team announcement will be interesting.
The withdrawal of Levi Leipheimer from the 2009 Tour de France due to a broken wrist is a sad twist for the race. It’s a loss on a number of levels, though it doesn’t change the race in the way some may think.
The first, biggest loss is that to Leipheimer himself. He was on stellar form and would possibly have had his second podium finish at the Tour. But this is yet another year where Leipheimer’s potential remains a question mark. Just what can he do as a leader?
The second is obviously to Astana. Only one other team in history has been able to use a guy sitting in the top five on GC to help control the race. When you think of legendary watchdogs, it is hard to find one more capable than Leipheimer.
Psychologically, Lance Armstrong has experienced a setback. Armstrong places a premium on riders’ whose loyalty is beyond question. That said, still has plenty of support in the form of Andreas Kloden and Yaroslav Popovych for when the race hits the high Alps and Mont Ventoux.
Unless Armstrong completely detonates on Mont Ventoux, the 2009 Tour de France will recalibrate our ideas about what a cyclist can achieve as he ages. Even if Contador wins the race, fewer people will think a guy who has had his 35th birthday is incapable of winning a Grand Tour. The question in Leipheimer’s case is will he ever be presented with an opportunity to arrive at the start of a Grand Tour properly trained and supported for unquestioned leadership.
The best thing that could happen for Leipheimer is to take his time healing up and then build back up for a run at the Vuelta a Espana. Of course, should Contador not win the Tour de France—and Armstrong doesn’t have to win, Contador just has to lose—he will likely want his own shot at the Vuelta which would resign Leipheimer yet again to the roll of World’s Finest Domestique.
But what does Leipheimer’s absence really do to the Tour? It means very little to the competition between Armstrong and Contador on a direct basis. Though it is true that Andy Hampsten was forced to chase Bernard Hinault on one occasion in the Alps at the ’86 Tour, it is almost impossible to conceive of a situation in which Leipheimer would have been asked (and Bruyneel would have allowed) to chase down his own teammate. In short, Leipheimer’s greatest threat to Contador was psychological; knowing Leipheimer was loyal to Amstrong may have made him something of a deterrent to Contador.
Leipheimer’s greatest use was always in controlling the attacks of other teams. As a result, his absence will make it harder for Astana to neutralize other teams late in a stage. While that fact may strike many of you as obvious to the point of stupidity, the upshot is truly interesting.
Late-stage attacks from the likes of Carlos Sastre, Andy Schleck or Christian Vande Velde (it seems a little unlikely that Bradley Wiggins or Tony Martin will mount a stunning attack) will give both Armstrong and Contador an opportunity to follow and counterattack. A less neutralized competition should actually increase the fireworks between Astana’s two leaders.
And what of Leipheimer’s post-recovery future? It simply can’t be guessed. Had anyone suggested Leipheimer would return to Bruyneel’s fold to both achieve his best-ever form and be reduced to a support role at Grand Tours, most observant cycling fans would have scoffed. It’s a new take on irony, huh?
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.