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.