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.


kreger said...

thanks for the insight, good to see a seasoned perspective

great write up.

superfred said...

Great post. Personally I would love to see El Poco Gunfighter take Valve.Piti's soon to be unused salary and form the new three amigos. Bert, Oscar, and Luis vs. Whomeverstrong would be compelling. How about this for conspiracy theory fantasy: Raboweak and Marc Sergent's cast of "who can't hang with Cadel this year", collaborate to fight Darth Bruyneel's clone army and the still unspoken and all powerful Columbia trifecta of Kirchen, TLo, and Edvald Boasson Hizzle. The more I think of it, Stapleton must be rubbing his hands ala Mr. Burns. Throw in Tmart and Mick (yet another Aussie who can rip your legs off) Rogers, and his team is stacked higher than a plate of all you can eat flapjacks at Ihop after a cyclocross race. Saxo-bank must be pretty chuffed too as their formidable Tour squad is squarely for a Schleck (but which one?). Andy? Frank? Bjarne Riis' clone who's been secretly raised as a Schleck by Johnny and hidden in a commando survival training camp for the past 22 years? Throw in Sastre's will with Cervelo's hutzpah and add a little Garmin eccentricity with some BBox confusion and this Grand Boucle is one to stay up for.

simon lamb said...

Good post I love a conspiracy theory. I personal thig that LA is going through a mid-life crisis and astana are just up the shit but its going to make interesting watching. I just hope it doesn't mess up Contador's chances of winning the tour.


Jim said...

Apply a little of Occam's Razor, along with Occam's Patented Shaving Cream and Occam's Aftershave for Sensitive Skin Here. (In English: the simplest explanation is often the correct one).

Kazakhstan is experiencing real problems with declining oil revenue. They don't have the money for larks like a pro cycling team aimed at erasing notional international slights, like Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat routine. When they had money, Bruyneel was happy to be there. Now that they don't, he's not. Economically, times are tough for a lot of people so Bruyneel is looking for a sponsor. Armstrong's return wasn't planned long ago, otherwise Astana wouldn't have so many divas. Armstrong's presence is just a happy (from a marketing perspective) coincidence.

db said...

Great post and comments about the games inside the game.

Jim, any chance Occam's products are available online? I tried the simplest place to look, Amazon...

feedmedia said...

Ok, I've written and rewritten my comment about four times. One version was about six paragraphs long. Too long for a comment.

Summary of my thoughts: I find it curious, still, that JB found himself with Astana to begin with. I find it curious that he's openly supporting a two captain team (that's not how he rolls, everyone knows it). In his hear-of-hearts JB's money's on AC, but he also knows no one has made any money betting against LA.

Net, net: JB's screwed.

Astana is nothing short of a soap opera. There are so many losing scenarios that it's mind boggling. But the one true winer, whether he wins the TdF or not, is LA. No surprise there.

Padraig said...

Thanks all for the great comments. We do follow a very lively sport, eh?

Jim et al: I'm a big believer in Occam's Razor and I'd assert that 90% of my post falls within what I think it would guide a reasonable person to believe. My supposition on Lance's return and a possible motivation for Bruyneel to choose were based on just a dollop of cynicism. I haven't forgotten that above all else, Kazakhstan threw a boatload of money at Bruyneel to solve yet another national embarrassment.

Again, thanks for the comments; you're a great readership and you keep me on my toes.

jza said...

This conspiracy theory is more than a little goofy.

Try this:
-Lance retires.
-His team flounders for a year but ultimately folds because nobody can drive a marketing engine like Lance.
-Bruyneel, the ultmate cycling insider, has some time off. During which he is offered tons of $$$ by some oil-rich oligarchs to take their shamed cycling team back to the top.
-Lance unwinds, experiences the bad side of celebrity, sees races slow, peloton clean up and says, "Hey, I could go for 1 or 2 more".
-Lance can only race for Bruyneel, as he holds the keys to the kingdom. Makes comeback.
-Price of oil decreases 70% over 6 months.Oil-rich sponsors now not so much.
-Lance's sponsors think 'fuck these 3rd world not rich anymore guys, we've got Lance back to make us boatloads of money.'
-Struggle for sponsorship ensues, 3rd world not rich guys desperately try to keep team running to see their jersey on top step of podium.
-Looks like the not-rich-anymore guys will hold on through the Tour before the Lance machine takes over.
-Tour will be no problem for Bruyneel, he just needs to have the bloodbags ready. Probable 1-2 finish.
--End of Story--

Some lucky coincedences and a whole bunch of $$$ pretty much explain the whole thing.

jza said...

Oh yeah, and from the outside Astana might look like a clusterfuck, but I imagine inside the team it is business as usual. Nobody is living paycheck to paycheck in that operation.

Unknown said...

Any speculation on who the “American Company Doing Business in Kazakhstan” is?
The largest American companies there are energy and banking companies.
god please don't let it be Haliburton or Citi.

Unknown said...

This comment is spot on. LA and Bruyneel are control freaks, they only do what they like, they are having a ton of fun with all this. Just before the tour there will be a massive splash with a new sponsor (that's good for cycling). They will suck the oxygen out of the tour from everyone else; they will fill the podium (2 out of 3 min.), the camera will be on Lance all the time, the press will only talk about Lance and his foundation and his twitter thing and his videos on the back of the bus and his foundation and God knows what else.

It will be quite a show, the French will be pissed off big time.

mogley said...

Nice. Very good insight.

Da Robot said...

Damn. The head spins. The conspiracies multiply. It's all just so damn plausible.

I think I'm with Jim.

Astana chucked money at JB, and he signed up Contador and a bunch of other guys aimed at winning grand tours, since that's what he does.

Captain Lancey Pants decided to come back and wouldn't ride for anyone other than JB (why, I it loyalty...or does JB know too much to risk racing against him?) At the time, Armstrong seemed a happy luxury, and they figured they'd play it by ear as both Contador and Armstrong rounded into form. If Lance hadn't busted his collar bone and had made a real run at the Giro, there wouldn't really be an issue, would there?

So now, with money an issue and Lance the best avenue to get more of it, and with the captaincy a real issue headed into the big dance, things have become chaotic.

As long as Lance is there, sponsorship shouldn't really be an issue. But they've got to dance down that fine line between alienating Contador (who is, after all, the future of stage racing) and giving Lance enough reason to stay around. They have to manufacture a situation where BOTH riders remain at highest possible profile.

One bad dope test spoils the pudding. One good sponsors makes them a dynasty. Bruyneel either has balls of steel or he's the most nervous director in the history of pro cycling.

Oh, it's so exciting.

swissarmy said...

Whenever you want to find out what's really going on in the world it's always good to follow the money. One of LA's biggest financial backers when he was winning all those Tours was an investment banker named Thomas Weisel. In fact, his patronage of Armstrong goes back a long way, to the days when Lance was a U.S domestic amateur racing for a team sponsored by Montgomery Securities, a firm Weisel founded and eventually sold to Nations Bank, which took over and became Bank of America. Weisel is a multiple amateur U.S. masters national champion on the road and track. Few people are aware of this, since it appears he prefers to operate in the background, although his involvement with LA is no secret.

The financing for Postal and Discovery was handled through Tailwind Sports, the Weisel-backed ownership entity.

I agree that they folded during the period when closer scrutiny would have been placed on the team (and by direct association, Tailwind Sports) for doping allegations. The last big star they signed was Ivan Basso, soon to be suspended for two years before he could be their next TDF winner.

I've had the opportunity to race against Thomas Weisel and also observe his business practices for over twenty years. My educated guess is that funding for a new team (or bailout financing for Astana) is being handled either directly or indirectly by him. Who else would better know how to find and put together a financing package with "an American company doing business in Kazakhstan"?

Padraig said...

Swissarmy: Well done; I agree. I crossed paths with Weisel once years ago and was impressed that he understood more about putting sponsorship together for cycling than seemingly the rest of the industry put together. In an interview with him in Winning, circa 1990, he talked about the needs for American cycling in sponsorship and I remember thinking, "If we lose this guy, we're screwed."

Unknown said...

Or -

'American company doing business in Kazakhstan' is having trouble nailing down some contract. Some Kazakh official is well aware of the embarrassment of leaving the 'national team' without cash (or his nephew is on the team... it's still primarily a Kazakh team once you get beyond the big names). Said official notes that while company's post-Iraq-scandal corporate responsibility statement prohibits open bribery, there is a nice cycling team with a nice Texan they could sponsor.

Voila. Contract negotiation issues suddenly seem to clear up.

And 'An American company in Kazakhstan' of any import would most likely be a Halliburton subsidiary involved in energy activities. And they're mostly headquartered, formerly headquartered, or heavily present in Texas, making the Lance connection that much more palatable.

(for the really cynical...)

Normanzo said...

thanks for acknowledging how time-consuming web site design can be!

As for Astana (hmm, there's a double-entendre in that phrase)... really, I think we'll a very well. The sponsor and pay issues will be resolved and I think the riders are focusing on being ready to work well together. What you, and many others, may be over-stating is Lance Armstrong's desire to win again. Of course, he's got top-of-podium DNA and that cannot be changed, but he's shown that he's a realistic guy. I think he's going to be in great form, but the younger guns are going to dominate. And, importantly, I think Lance is going to enjoy riding hard in support of Contador, hopefully pulling-off a stage win, and --for the 1st time-- seeing the race from a different point-of-view. He cannot loose. He's cycling's Obi-wan-kenobi... he might bring out the light saber to tangle with the Schlecks brothers, Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre and others, but he'll be there to help the young jedi Contador continue his ascent.

Look how much fun Lance is having with the world through twitter, his video blogs, etc. He's determined to bring the fight against cancer to a new level. And he's just welcomed a new daughter into the world. He loves winning, but I think he's also learned to love a lot more in recent years. He's #1 in the grand tour of social media.

The TdF will be great, Astana and Contador have a good shot at winning and will certainly show some serious Brunyeel polish.... yep, he'll likely be using this negative press to his advantage.

Thanks for the great blog! Love reading your commentary...