Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Astana Question


Not since the La Vie Claire team of 1986 has there been a more curious cycling team than the 2009 Astana team. Last winter I wrote a piece for Road Bike Action in which I compared the two teams and the problems that both teams had/have in leadership.

Naturally, the article’s greatest concern was how to keep piece between Contador and Armstrong and give each rider something to consider the season a success. The best best-case-scenario I could come up with was the Giro for Armstrong, the Tour for Contador and the Vuelta for Leipheimer. In January it was conceivable that Bruyneel could lead Astana to a sweep of the three Grand Tours. Maybe not likely, but definitely conceivable.

But the landscape has changed significantly since that article hit the newsstand.

Let’s refresh ourselves on the factors that will ultimately affect the team when it arrives in Monte Carlo at the beginning of July.

1. Levi Leipheimer won the Tour of California in February, the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in March and finished 6th at the Giro d’Italia in May.
2. Lance Armstrong broke his collarbone, throwing off his Giro preparation.
3. Astana is so far behind in its payment of riders that the team is riding in “scrubbed” jerseys with no mention of the sponsor.
4. Astana is paid up enough to race through the finish of the Dauphine Libere, but no further.
5. If a new sponsor wants to take over the team, each contract with each rider will have to be negotiated anew.

Frankly, I doubt even Bernard Tapie had the cojones to bluff his way through this one. Judging from le Blaireau’s latest pronouncements, he would have used such upset and unrest to demoralize any who doubted his leadership, but such bullying could have run down the entire team.

So what can we surmise from the current situation? First, Leipheimer shouldn’t be at the Tour. His legs are done for the time being. The Giro wasn’t originally on his calendar, so now the Tour should come off of it. While it might seem that this could take some pressure off the Armstrong/Contador leadership question, it would, instead, focus even more attention on it, by taking a pretender to the throne out of the equation. He is still named to Astana short team for the Tour, so maybe reason won’t win. If Leipheimer does wind up at the Tour, it will 86 any chance he might have had of going to the Vuelta properly prepared for his likely last shot at winning a Grand Tour as undisputed leader.

Next, we can be assured that right now, as you read this, Bruyneel and Armstrong are in discussions with a new sponsor. This team can’t not go to the Tour. All eyes will be on Bruyneel for yet another Tour win. To bet against him is to taunt the gods. Bruyneel is doing what he can to get Astana to deliver them to the Tour’s doorstep, but beyond that the team will need a sponsor to provide properly for the team on a go-forward basis. There’s not much time for the sales pitch as it takes time to design and make new kits, rewrap all the vehicles, oh, and negotiate those contracts.

So who could they sign? The LiveStrong Foundation has already been mentioned and they are sure to be a co-sponsor. Nike’s longtime support of Armstrong would be a likely bet as well. The other great candidate is Bristol-Meyers Squibb. Considering that Armstrong’s primary focus on racing is to bring attention to cancer—finding cures, the plight of sufferers and its toll on healthcare and families alike—a partnership with BMS seems almost inevitable.

Which brings us to Contador. As much as he can impress on the bike, he’s whiney off it. He’s grumbled about Leipheimer, and while he’s saying all the right things right now—“Armstrong is just another teammate”—he has grumbled about Armstrong’s presence on the team. There are several Spanish teams that would love to sign Contador should his contract be voided, but honestly, there are only two operations savvy enough to put the financing together to sign him for what he’s worth and support him properly when the race gets underway, and they are both based in America. If nothing else, Contador is at least smart enough to see that.

Then there’s Lance. Most watchers of this year’s Giro seem to be content to attribute his lack of victory to the collarbone break, rather than his age. Compared to the comebacks of riders (Landis, Hamilton, Sevilla, Botero) who were suspended for doping infractions, Armstrong’s return to competition has been impressive. Ivan Basso is the only rider among convicted dopers to have put up as impressive a performance since his return, and truly, from a results perspective, Basso’s return has been more impressive thus far.

So what’s the concern? The leader of the Astana team is unknown. Armstrong has been unwavering in his assertion that the strongest rider will lead Astana at the Tour. That’s fine so long as Armstrong believes Contador is the strongest. Certainly he has said that Contador is the strongest rider in the world; he also said Jan Ullrich was the favorite to win the Tour de France how many times?

Bruyneel must have a plan for the Tour, but what it is hasn’t been communicated adequately to the riders. Take for instance, Chris Horner’s recent quote about what he anticipates his roll will be at the Tour: “I expect to be at the Tour de France, to help Contador or Lance win the race.”

Absent in all the discussion about Armstrong has been any mention of his once legendary restraint. There was a time when Armstrong was known to only selective redline his engine prior to the start of the Tour de France. That’s not to say he wouldn’t make big efforts; he did. The difference is that he was reported not to go all out until the occasion matched his training’s needs.

Contador may be second overall at the Dauphiné Libéré, but I submit that with the possible exception of Stage 19 of the Giro, we likely have not seen an all-out effort from Armstrong … this year.

It’s unlikely that even Bruyneel knows who will be faster on July 4. If ever there was going to be a rematch of Hinault and LeMond, this will be it. The difference is that Armstrong may be Contador’s equal over the three weeks of the Tour de France but is definitely his superior when it comes to rallying the troops to ride for him.

However, if we want to see a real battle of athleticism and not an expression of Macchiavelli’s The Prince at 185 bpm, Bruyneel needs to land a new sponsor which will break Contador’s contract and give him the opportunity to sign elsewhere. The Tour de France, after all, should be a battle of riders and teams, not riders within teams.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

15 comments:

Oli Brooke-White said...

Despite the ringing tones of mockery loud in my ears from all my cycling friends I have my money on Armstrong to win the Tour.

Great post...

Jim said...

Just in case you've never seen opera, this resembles a good Italian opera plot where the two suitors, one young and handsome but flighty, the other older and cunning but somewhat dislikable, vie for the young lady's hand. All the while they sing funny things while they wander around the stage, like, "I'm not that interested in beating him" or "may the best man win," or, "fate has dealt me a funny hand," then they go to a corner of the stage and sing 'privately' to the audience in an aside, "I'll mop the floor with him!"

Cycling as opera is a metaphor that never wears out thanks to the multi-dimensional drama (and operatic nature) of the great stage races. Enjoy this - it's harmless fun and we'll be laughing about it years from now the way opera buffs chuckle about a memorable performance from 30 years ago.

Steve Dennis said...

Time for a conspiracy theory - I am beginning to think that the Discovery Team migration to Astana was all planned to alienate the team's sponsors (only one Kazakhstani rider remains?) and give Armstrong/Bruyneel a fully functioning pro-team ripe for the takeover.

frilly said...

Jim, I wouldn't say no to either one. However, I am a little (lot) partial to AC. Who I think is quite capable of a real beatdown. And one has to wonder how Astana's spanish armada could figure into the equation of loyalty.

I've often said the ProTour is better than a soap opera.

Ryan said...

Interesting analysis -- thanks. One point you brought up that interests me is what's been communicated to the team by Bruyneel. While you may be right that even fairly big players like Horner may be kept in the dark about who they're riding for in July, I'm pretty certain they've all been well-drilled on the party line when it comes to doing interviews: say it's Armstrong OR Contador, or else.

The riders may feel or even know it's BS while they're saying it, but to land a new sponsor, particularly from an American company, Bruyneel et. al. need Armstrong to still be viewed in some sort of on-the-road leadership capacity. There may be big internationals (e.g., B-M-S, Coca-Cola) that could benefit enough from a Spanish win to make it worthwhile, but they'll still want the Armstrong bump for their money.

Padraig said...

All: Thanks for the comments.

Jim, the comparison to opera couldn't be more apt. I'm sure Puccini could have turned the '09 Tour into into a grand and elaborate tragedy.

Ryan, the interesting thing about the party line is that what Horner said couldn't have been less party line. It's always been "I'm riding for the strongest guy. Contador is the strongest guy in the world." That's fine so long as Contador is the strongest guy on the team. If that status comes into question, so does his leadership. For Horner to say anything other than he's riding for Contador won't sit well with AC. Put another way, officially, there's not supposed to be any question and for Horner to call the leadership into question publicly is a big change.

Brent the Tank said...

First, love reading your posts. Second, this year's tour will be great to watch, and third. The 1986 La Vie Claire team is still the best tour team ever. That’s just my humble opinion.

Ryan said...

I think we may be coming similar things from different angles. I guess what I'm looking at as "party line" is the "evolving party line." As you point out, in the early days, it was Contador-as-leader, Armstrong-as-happy-domestique. But over the past month or so, there's been a lot more saber rattling from the Armstrong camp, and Bruyneel, Horner, et. al. seem to be moving more towards Armstrong OR Contador as the new talking point.

What I'm wondering is how much of the shift is connected to the reality of who IS the strongest on the team, and how much is related to the need to portray Armstrong as a contender for the sake of sponsorship. At the beginning of the comeback, Astana was one of the best funded teams in the business. Now the leadership talk seems to be shifting in close step with their need for money.

ricardo said...

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iNPwNVAGwJsTC9fnwCwmtFO91Bhw

Looks liek this answers some of the ?s.

3G said...

smashing!

bikesgonewild said...

...excellent...at least the sponsorship thingy has been settled for 'le tour'...

...act one in which the characters were introduced w/ much wringing of hands & the scene setting subterfuge of "woe be unto us, for united though we are, we are but paupers" was brought to the fore...

...jim has wonderfully set the stage (if you will) w/ the description for act two...

...act three commences in monte carlo (how appropriate for a modern opera)...the knives will be unsheathed albeit surreptitiously & a slow circling will begin...

...(king of the new world) --- "after you, good sir"...
...(dusky latin prince) --- "oh, no, no, no, i insist for surely you, sir are the better man !!!"...
..."please, please, you deserve this opportunity more than i...but wait, is that an inflamed looking knee your favoring, sir ???...my, i certainly hope that won't affect your efforts"...
..."ummm...i, ahhh, well no...i'm quite fine, honestly...maybe i did twinge it a little in my preparation"...
..."here, let me offer you my best most trusted man...why, of course he'll serve you loyally & it's obvious to me you'll most likely need help"...
..."well thank you, sir...most kind of you...hmmm, damn...now i have such concerns as never before"...

...& the finale will be played out deliciously over three long weeks w/ a strong cast of characters & perhaps a very surprise ending...

...just sayin'...

jimmythefly said...

Do you think part of the "Contador, no Armstrong, no wait.." talk is to confuse the other teams on who to mark? Or are they not so easily fooled?

Da Robot said...

I can't believe AC will leave Astana before the TdF. The money looks like it might come through, but I can' t believe he'd want to roll the dice this close to the event.

I also don't believe Lance has enough in the tank to win it. I really believe that he'd have taken a Giro stage if he could have, if only to demonstrate that he's worth riding for at the Tour.

Astana, as currently constituted, is built for grand tours. I wonder if they might not strategize around taking two spots on the podium. That would give Bruyneel a feather in his cap, he's not yet earned, and that guy has some ego to stroke, too.

If I'm honest, I have no clue.

frilly said...

DaRobot--2007 with Contador and Leipheimer. Maybe they could try to take all three spots! Don't think thats ever happened, has it?

Jim said...

Padraig - I don't see this as a Puccini tragedy. I see it as a Rossini comedy - Rossini's Barber of Seville. Or, depending on how ridiculous the pay/team politics situation on Astana gets, the Rabbit of Seville. Tragedy would be if the team doesn't get paid and breaks up, then neither A nor C rides the tour. This one has either a happy or at least not-unhappy ending.