Thursday, June 11, 2009
Bruyneel the Magician
The ongoing turmoil at Astana has, surprisingly, overshadowed the Tour de France dress rehearsal race Dauphiné Libéré. The battle for supremacy in Provence is a repeat of the ’07 Tour showdown between three-time Grand Tour champion Alberto Contador and no-time Grand Tour champion Cadel Evans.
Even if Evans wins the Dauphiné Libéré it won’t spell any great portent for the Tour. To stand on the podium again Evans will have to face Contador, Armstrong, two Schlecks and a Sastre with more confidence than he had this time last year. Cough.
While Evans is busy sizing up his competition, Johan Bruyneel is sizing up his team and the course, the same as he does every year. Bruyneel has never raced the competition. He races the course with the whole of his team, the way a chess Grand Master uses every piece on the board to apply pressure on his competition; the guy who plays only his queen never gets far.
Bruyneel’s challenge is to reach July 4 with a serene and happy team. Does he need to choose a leader? Not by a longshot. He just needs Contador and Armstrong content in the belief that if they have the form, the troops will rally behind them. Bruyneel can’t buy Contador off to serve Armstrong the way he bought Roberto Heras. Heras was hired to work for Armstrong expressly because they didn’t want to have to race him at the Tour.
Of course, Bruyneel is having to fight another battle within his team and this one won’t be won through pure diplomacy. He needs a sponsor. Astana is paid up enough on its guarantees to race the Tour. It isn’t paid through the end of the year. What’s more, the fact that it is no longer in arrears can be credited to a defacto new co-sponsor. While speculation is running high, all that has been announced so far is that the payment was made by an American company doing business in Kazakhstan; such a revelation was meant to do nothing so much as titillate.
Here’s what’s important about that payment: It is very likely that it was simply a down-payment on a cycling team. Why bail out a cycling team sponsored by a nearly insolvent Asian country? What could there be to gain?
Now, what if “an American Company Doing Business in Kazakhstan” simply threw down some cash to make sure the team doesn’t get suspended while it takes its time to negotiate a contract, get kits, vehicles, web site, etc. designed and put in place a team liaison. That way it doesn’t have to rush its preparation and sponsorship announcement. My money says that “an American Company Doing Business in Kazakhstan” will very likely be the team’s sponsor come July 4.
After a quick re-reading of Machiavelli, here’s the supposition I find most intriguing: What if Bruyneel and Armstrong’s plan following the 2005 Tour was always for Armstrong to take some time off, take a break from competition, let the doping scandals blow over, fold Tailwind Sports so that there would be no existing entity to investigate, while Bruyneel set up shop with a new team so that Armstrong could return from competition with a more conspicuously demonstrated commitment to racing clean? Bruyneel got a few different offers after Discovery closed up shop; is it possible he deliberately selected a team that he knew would be ripe for picking once Armstrong returned from competition?
Even if Armstrong hasn’t got the chops to win a Grand Tour again (and remember Hinault proved in ’85 you can win the Tour and not be the strongest rider there), he remains the most useful rider Bruneel has in his stable. Can Contador attract a multi-national as a sponsor? As if. Armstrong could be backed up by a team of Troll dolls and still pull sponsors at top dollar. And as evidenced by the way Danilo Di Luca chased Armstrong on a descent at the Giro d’Italia, Armstrong is respected and feared enough that the other riders aren’t willing to give him much room to wiggle.
To most of us, Astana looks like a pretty chaotic scene. Unknown leadership, unpaid riders, no clear plan (other than to win), questionable sponsor future, not to mention a good old-fashioned whiff of controversy give the appearance of an operation in disarray. Were I to bet, I’d say Bruyneel has a sponsor signed. Signed. Contador has been assured the team will ride for him. And Armstrong has a long leash. Prove he’s stronger and the team will back him to the finish.
Pulling a rabbit out of a hat used to wow audiences. If Bruyneel pulls a Tour de France win out of a team that ought to be imploding, it will be a far more impressive trick.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.