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 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.
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