So Alberto Contador won the Tour de France by a margin slimmer than many said was possible, a margin equal to what he clawed out with the aid of Dennis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez on stage 15. We can argue about all the places each rider gained or lost time, but really, the race comes down to two fateful events: Schleck’s mis-shift on 15 and his later 39-second gap in the final time trial. The symmetry of the two events is more difficult to ignore than the economy.
And just to be ultra-clear about this, yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.
I should also point out that even though he twice went for stage wins for himself, Alexander Vinokourov proved to be both valuable and loyal to Contador in the mountain stages. Vinokourov sat on Schleck on stage 15 and never rode for himself by taking a pull at the front of the group. He’ll always be an unpredictable element in my mind, but he demonstrated his value to the Astana team repeatedly. He deserves to be recognized.
But individual performances aside, if we back up and look at the 2010 Tour de France as an elaborate chess game involving 22 players, some interesting questions emerge.
First, what the hell has Johan Bruyneel been thinking? He fielded the most experienced team in the Tour de France, sure, but it was also the oldest team by an Egyptian pharaoh. The most youthful element of the team was the management company’s formation documents. Even if we accept the possibility that the fight went out of Armstrong following his daily crashes so that by the time the time trial came around, he really wasn’t trying—which is why we didn’t see the form necessary to win the race overall anywhere in the same time zone as him—we should still ask the question: Why did no one else other than Chris Horner ride like his career was at stake?
Speaking of recognition, let’s hope that Horner feels some satisfaction and vindication at his stellar ride. It’s one of the best performances by a rider over the age of 35 ever at the Tour, and is his single best performance there. It was his misfortune to sign for a French team when he first went to Europe and his worse fortune to have his career coincide with Armstrong’s. Had he hit Europe five years earlier than he did, he could have led Motorola in its quest to do something significant in a Grand Tour. Or not. There have long been reports that Jim Ochowicz (director of Motorola and now one of the powers that be at BMC) had issues with the formerly feisty San Diegan.
Back to Bruyneel. His reputation as a kingmaker able to deliver a worthy rider to a Grand Tour victory has suffered its first setback. Even with the triple-barrel shotgun of Armstrong, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer he was unable to deliver any one of them to the top 10. Horner’s performance was the sort of showing that the French teams generally hope to luck into but can plan no better than a chimp considering retirement.
With that much talent and so little to show for it, the brass at The Shack might be understandably perturbed.
This time last year many of us were beginning to rethink what might be possible age-wise in a Grand Tour. Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.
And cast in the light of failure, Armstrong seems less ambitious, less hungry, less focused on highlighting the cause of cancer than just gluttonous, a corpulent ego.
But that’s how we play it isn’t it? When our heroes fall, we pounce.
But even if the Radio Shack board is less than thrilled, imagine what’s going on in the boardroom at Sky. Isn’t the question there whose head rolls first?
Seemingly a world away, Bjarne Riis has proven that he knows how to bring the race to anyone he wants. He’s delivered Tyler Hamilton, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck all to podium finishes at Grand Tours, though his record of wins (just two) is rather slim despite the obvious strength of his team.
Yvon Sanquer, a name you may not be very familiar with even after his team’s success, is the director of Team Astana and has kept a profile nearly as high as that of newly mown grass. His previous best result as a team director was after being brought in to rescue Team Festina (not unlike what he was asked to do with Astana) and his riders (mostly Marcel Wüst) were able to take a stage of the Tour de France along with four stages of the Vuelta plus some stages at lesser stage races. Before 2010, his riders’ closest association to the winner of a Grand Tour was if they had chatted with him.
And yet, somehow Sanquer brought together what seemed to be an underpowered team and saw to it that Contador was rarely without help in the mountains.
Despite the Astana team performing as if it were still run by Johan Bruyneel—admit it, it was an impressive performance that very few thought could truly deliver the goods as a cohesive unit this past January—I am surprised by the number of people I hear from who just plain don’t like Alberto Contador. To the degree that maybe many cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about him, it seems that even if his counter attack on stage 15 didn’t rile people, the fact that he lied about not knowing what was going on with Andy Schleck seems to have sent some fans around the bend. I’ve not been a fan of some of his tactics, and have thought some of his interviews with the Spanish media were whiny and meant to play the pity card, which strikes me as unseemly—like the Super Bowl winning team sniffling about playing hurt, but it struck me as insulting to fans everywhere for him to claim he couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with Schleck.
Which brings me to Jonathan Vaughters. Of the teams bidding for Contador’s services last year, Vaughters’ Garmin-Transitions formation was one of the teams in the running to sign the diminutive Spaniard. There are reports that after all of his efforts to leave Astana he is now considering a new contract and staying.
Contador would do well to leave, so long as he left for Vaughters. Of the many team directors at the Tour de France, Vaughters is the one that seems to have an uncanny ability to help riders achieve greatness in the GC that he never could reach on his own. In three years of competing in the Tour de France Vaughters has delivered three different riders to top-10 finishes, first with Christian Vande Velde’s fourth place, then Bradley Wiggins fourth and now Ryder Hesjedal’s seventh place. In each case the riders were uniformly believed to be talented, but no one—other than Vaughters—considered them real GC vehicles on which to pin a team’s hopes.
Sanquer’s success with Contador suggests competence, nothing more. After all, if you can’t guide a previous Tour de France winning to yet another victory, what kind of team director are you?
Bjarne Riis has consistently put together one of the strongest, most cohesive teams on the planet. That he hasn’t won more may be a question of formula more than anything else. The question seems to be, ‘Why didn’t he win?’ rather than, ‘What’s it going to take to secure another win?’
Bruyneel is the great curiosity this year. He’s ripe for criticism. How should he deflect the charge that he went with Armstrong less for career than paycheck? If he didn’t go to Radio Shack for the paycheck, then why? It’s hard for Bruyneel to charge that Vinokourov is a more tarnished rider than some he has worked with. Contador clearly has a greater future than Armstrong does. Maybe the question is just how loyal a guy is Bruyneel. Some folks are loyal to a fault. Could it be so with him?
Even if he didn’t go to Radio Shack just for a bigger paycheck that is virtually guaranteed not to dry up mid-way through the season, where does he rank his ambitions as a director? Twelve of the team’s 26 riders have had their 30th birthday. Six of them are older than 32. The only rider on the team who is showing talent and is early in his career is Janez Brajkovič. Taylor Phinney doesn’t count because he’s only a staigiaire.
How else do you wind up with that many riders in need of a retirement party than by selecting a crew that can be depended on being utterly devoted to Armstrong? Now, there’s nothing wrong with being committed to supporting your team leader, but it is fair to ask how smart it is to construct a team for a single year’s performance. Even if Leipheimer, Klöden, Horner and Rubiera plan to ride Grand Tours next year, how capable will any of them be? Horner is the only guy I’d bet on as a good support rider for the simple reason that he is obviously still proving his value and talent long after most guys have quit.
You want to make the 2011 Tour de France really interesting? Get Vaughters to sign Horner.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Well this is one time the FGR won’t be settled immediately. We’ve got nearly two weeks to see how this will shake out, but they are, after all, two weeks we’ve been waiting for since last August.
Interestingly, in your comments, There’s really only consensus on two classifications. With two exceptions each, everyone thinks that Thor Hushovd will take the green jersey, just as he did last year, and Andy Schleck will double up on the white jersey as well.
Alberto Contador was the only rider to come up with more than one vote for the yellow jersey, so it seems we must acknowledge that he remains the favorite. Interestingly, Andy Schleck was the only rider to get votes in three classifications: overall, mountains and best young rider. An inobservant reader might believe that to be an indication of his completeness as a rider, but it really doesn’t back us into a larger belief that he has the potential to wear yellow in Paris.
Eight stages in, a new question is worth asking: With Lance Armstrong’s GC hopes dashed, Christian Vande Velde out of the race, Bradley Wiggins unable to deliver as he did last year in the blue, white and orange of Garmin, if we assume that Contador, Evans and Schleck are the likely podium, who do you think will round out the top five or six?
Armstrong’s demise also spells out a very surprising development: Levi Leipheimer is finally the GC leader for a Johan Bruyneel-led team at the Tour de France. I don’t think anyone ever thought those three details would line up. It’s as if a one-armed bandit came up Bar-Bar-Bar for Santa Rosa’s favorite athlete. Go figure.
And as a corollary to my previous question, do you think Ryder Hesjedal can pull off what Wiggins did last year? Sky doesn’t seem to have figured out Wiggo the way Vaughters and White did. Rather an interesting development, given the way he badmouthed Garmin on his way out.
As some of you know, I spent most of last week flat on my back contemplating my robotic mortality and cursing whatever pig-robot (pigbot?) had found a way to infect me with its H1N1 virus. For the most part, during this time, I cut myself off from media. No TV. No interweb.
And yet, some time, mid-week, an email from my friend Gustavo at Embrocation Journal snuck through. What did I think, he wanted to know, of the Tour de France invites from ASO this year. More specifically, he wanted to confirm that I was as angry as he was that Vacansoleil and some of the other small teams (Skil-Shimano, Saur Sojasun) that have so animated the first months of the season failed to make ASO’s grade while underperforming pro teams coasted in on their good looks and the pre-existing agreement the UCI and ASO have to admit 16 of the ProTour teams to the Grand Boucle automatically.
Even in my weakened state, I was able to give Gustavo what he wanted, a frank and terse evaluation of some of the ProTour’s lesser lights, a caustic dismissal of ASO’s motives and a side swipe at some of the peloton’s new entrants.
And as I’m just getting back on my feet this week (or back on my pedals as the case may be), I thought I’d trot out some of my ideas and see if we can’t get some discussion going.
First, let me say I can’t contrive a reasonable argument for excluding Vacansoleil from the Tour. The small, Dutch Pro-Continental team, in just its second year on the road, has won the overall of the Tour of Qatar with Wouter Mol, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Bobbie Traksel and two stages of the Étoile de Bességes with Borut Bozic. Those are their wins, which tell only half the story. Vacansoleil’s riders have placed highly throughout the early season and pushed the big teams at every opportunity. They have done everything you would want a wild card Tour invitee to do and then a bit more.
Instead, ASO picked Garmin-Transitions, Team RadioShack, BMC Racing Team, Team Sky, Katusha and Cervelo TestTeam as their wild cards. If you run through this list, write down their major results for 2010 and then compare them to Vacansoleil, you’ll get very little in the way of difference. Some have won a little more. Some have won less. What you won’t see, but probably know, is that each of these teams has a great deal more money than the Dutch outfit. They’ve signed stars, so ASO imagines they’ll bring more attention to the Tour, as if the Tour suffers for a lack of attention.
Of the wild cards here, the one that actually rankles me most is RadioShack. The Shack have done a lot of not much this year. Every time their leader finds his way onto a television camera he is telling you why the race he’s about to ride is really just a tune up for the Tour and how he’s not going to push himself very hard or be very bothered by not getting a result. Meanwhile, his teammates wrack up no wins. Team RadioShack reminds me a bit of the Jackson’s Victory Tour, a money-spinning gallop across the globe by a former champion and his over-the-hill friends.
Ooooh, that’s harsh.
Still, the Shack’s value to ASO lies completely in the false rivalry between Armstrong and Contador. It’s a story that sells sponsorships, I suppose. And magazines. And yet, does anyone think Armstrong will get near el Pistolero in France this summer? The former champ has had a pretty poor buildup this season. He’s been sick. He’s been tired. And he’s been old. There are half-a-dozen riders or more that will finish above the marketing juggernaut come the final day in Paris.
On top of their lack of results, the Shack have gone about their business in that age-old Armstrong-Bruyneel way, i.e. with very little regard for any race that isn’t called the Tour de France. They’re not even racing the Giro! They’ve chosen the Tour of California “instead.” The ToC is a great race, an up-and-comer, a suitable rival for Paris-Nice and the other one week stage races, but one thing it is NOT is a good reason to skip the Giro d’Italia. A team with a budget like the Shack’s really ought to be able to contest both races anyway.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I don’t think the Shack deserves its Tour invite simply based on Armstrong’s legacy with the race and the money he’ll bring to its organizers. In the real world, those are entirely valid reasons for their inclusion. But from my perspective, they stink.
That brings us, rather unceremoniously, to the rest of the truth of this situation, which is that there a number of ProTour teams that just can’t pull their own weight. I’d name Team Milram, Footon-Servetto, Euskaltel-Euskadi among those. Because the UCI paved the way for guaranteed invitations to a group of ProTour squads in a 2008 accord that helped avoid a complete debacle in which ASO took its races and went home, they’re all in, but, if the ProTour had a minimum win number (say 10 races of a certain ranking per year), you’d see more licenses available for teams that win, but I am far from the first to suggest the UCI need a better system for promotion and relegation of pro teams.
Starting in 2011, only the first 17 teams in the UCI rankings at the end of 2010 will get guaranteed Tour invites, with the rest filled at ASO’s discretion. This may be a more equitable way of slicing the Tour pie, but, by and large, what you will end up with is still a race full of the wealthiest rather than the fastest teams. The rest can, perhaps, call Vacansoleil and book one of those summer holidays they sell when they’re not riding bicycles.
It’s tough to boil down allegiances to teams, to isolate love for a formation independent of its riders and it showed in your answers. No matter how much we might want to identify a team’s personality with precepts of management, director style or strength in a set of races, we still track back to the names flying the colors.
To this end: Were Quick Step not the dominant team in the Northern Classics, they wouldn’t have made this list. At all. Their lack of native English-speaking riders loses them the jingo vote and without an ongoing streak of wins on cobbles, there wouldn’t be much to love. Let’s not be too surprised. We love them precisely because they kick ass.
The revelation was your love for Team BMC. By signing Big George (media outlets are contractually bound to use the adjective “big” before any mention of Lance Armstrong’s former lieutenant), Alessandro Ballan and—more important—Cadel Evans, BMC led the voting nearly three to one. What?
Reader Blue summed it up best when he called BMC an “underdog supergroup.” I’m still trying to get my head around that image. It’s like pairing John Paul Jones (everyone’s favorite invisible bassist) with David Gilmour (the world’s most impressive withdrawn guitarist), Anthony Kiedis (a truly underrated singer and songwriter) and Pete Thomas (who modestly backed up Elvis Costello on album after great album). An underrated supergroup. God, I’d buy that album without ever hearing a single song. Asia wouldn’t stand a chance.
Cervelo Test team got the next most votes and that illustrated a curious point: This underdog love thing isn’t just talk. The two teams that got the greatest number of points are both Pro Continental teams, not ProTour teams. How weird is that?
The strange corollary to this point is that only two teams, Radio Shack and HTC-Columbia got some negative votes. Consider these the hanging chads of the cycling world. HTC-Columbia is so dominant in field sprints that a win by them has the ability to downright disappoint some of you. Worse yet, there’s some noticeable backlash against Team Radio Shack before the first European race has ever been run. (Especially strange was how one reader disliked a team composed of old guys, but still digs Jens Voigt. Perhaps it’s a good thing the German powerhouse didn’t join an American team for his final season).
Garmin-Slipstream would almost certainly have faired better had they not joined the ProTour, but they scored as well as Quick Step, The Shack, Sky and HTC-Columbia, unless you figure in The Shack’s negative votes, and then they don’t fare so well.
If RKP had the ability to control race outcomes just to keep you folks happy, we would do well to make sure that Saxo Bank wins every tenth race that BMC or Cervelo doesn’t win. Settling the Grand Tours could be hard, but in this scenario, neither Astana nor Radio Shack would have a chance.
Sky may have bought themselves a world class team, but they have yet to buy your love.
Image courtesy BMC Cycling Team
As October begins to blow leaves from the trees and the European season winds down, there are two big races left in 2009. The first is Paris-Tours. The second is the race to pry Alberto Contador out of his Astana contract. This is a race with a number of riders, all hoping to cross the line with 2010’s presumptive Tour de France favorite on their roster.
First, Contador has a year left on his Astana contract, so Astana have to be favorites to keep the mercurial Spaniard. This is technically true. But if the Kazahks lose their ProTour license, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has indicated that the governing body is evaluating Astana’s licensure, they might be inclined to cash out their assets (i.e. Contador) and pull out altogether.
Whatever posturing Alexander Vinokourov has done in his comeback from a two-year doping ban is just that, posturing. No one is going to run a pro team on the back of a 36-year-old unrepentant doper. If they’re daft enough to soldier on, and remember they’ll need to sign a full roster of riders after the Lance walked off all the strongest riders for his new RadioShack team, they’ll do so knowing they’re not likely to get invited to the Tour de France, both because of Vinokourov’s past and they’re own dearth of quality riders.
Next in line is Caisse d’Epargne, and they don’t need Contador unless they believe Alejandro Valverde’s troubles with the doping authorities aren’t going away. They’ll want a horse in the Grand Tour GC race in that case. I suppose they might think of sweeping the Tours with Valverde and Contador doing the podium tap dance. That would be a good trick, but does anyone think they have the support team to do that? No. I don’t either.
Garmin-Slipstream, who won’t talk about signing Contador except to say how awesome that would be, don’t need Contador either, unless they think Bradley Wiggins is going to force his way out of the team and into a Team Sky uniform. Sky is a British team. Wiggins is British. They can offer him a uniform that doesn’t look like a preppy car accident. You can see why Wiggins would want that. In the event of Wiggo’s defection, then Jonathan Vaughters might do worse than picking up Contador as a replacement.
Then there’s Quick Step. Now this one really makes sense to me. Packed full of talent for one-day Classics, the Belgian squad only needs to add a real GC man to strike bowel-clenching fear into the rest of the peloton. Signing Contador will cost money Quick Step doesn’t have, but the Spaniard is a bankable asset. Perhaps the Belgian floor maker can secure an additional loan to do a deal. Patrick Lefevre, the team’s manager, has even promised to hold five roster spots open to hire support riders just for Contador. Really, it’s shameless.
Finally, there has been talk of Contador forming his own team, but with the Shack and Team Sky entering the fray, the ProTour simply won’t support a third brand new team, even if Contador and his handlers could pull together a passable roster in time, which they can’t. So forget about it.
These are the moving pieces: Astana’s license, Alejandro Valverde’s DNA, Bradley Wiggins’ sense of national pride, Jonathan Vaughter’s argyle sweater vest, Quick Step’s line of credit.
Everything depends on Astana. Allegedly they’ve made all the financial guarantees necessary through the end of 2010, so there oughtn’t be a repeat of 2009’s bounced paychecks. But between 2009’s foibles, the return of the pariah, Vinokourov, and the loss of so many top-riders, it might be too big an ask for the Kazakh’s to go on. Once the door is open for Contador to leave, and believe me it will be, then it’s race on.
If the Kazakh consortium behind Astana is smart, they’ll let Contador’s price rise over the next month before doing a deal. As the holiday lights go up, what Astana can hope to get in return for their prize pony will dwindle. Teams will have to finalize rosters, make out budgets and firm up plans. Astana will be seen as desperate if they hold on too long.
It may well be that Garmin and Caisse d’Epargne are just waiting to see what happens with Wiggins and Valverde before tabling their best offers. Quick Step’s best bet is to make a deal before one of those other dominoes falls, because they likely don’t have the cash to compete otherwise.