Friday, June 26, 2009

Loyal


Astana has released the final three names in its Tour de France roster. Sergio Paulinho, Gregory Rast and Dmitriy Muravyev have been selected to provide support on the flats for the team’s protected riders. Chris Horner was left off the roster, a detail that can be read at least two ways.

Objectively, the team has more lieutenants (or former GC contenders) than dyed-in-the-woolens domestiques. Supporting Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador are: Andreas Kloden, Levi Leiphemer, Haimar Zubledia and Yaroslav Popovych. Consider that those six riders have something in common: Every one of them has finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France. Popovych is the weakest of the bunch with only an 8th place finish to his credit.

The Astana Team is plainly the most talented team to ever line up for the Tour de France. Two former winners and two podium finishers joined by two top-10 finishers. Bruyneel is nothing so much as a diplomat.

As for Horner … Horner has never finished in the top 10 at the Tour.

Somehow, that detail seems beside the point. While Horner has won plenty of races and proven himself to be an excellent team leader, he has proven himself to be an especially adept lieutenant—a domestique extraordinaire—getting the job done no matter what task he is assigned. Tell me you would actually choose Paulinho, Rast or Muravyev over Horner on the flats. Okay, but make me believe you.

It would be easy to attribute Horner’s exclusion to his crash at the Giro if it weren’t also true that Christian Vande Velde went down at the Giro, too and will be on the line in Monaco. Horner said he was on the form of his life at the Giro, a full five pounds lighter than normal and he even asserted that he hadn’t lost power on the flats. That’s like losing two fingers and saying your handwriting is fine. Neat trick.

So what’s the trouble? Horner has been candid, seemingly too candid, about who he would be working for at the Tour and who will really be running the team. That combined with the revelation that Contador was in talks with Team Garmin-Slipstream about moving to Vaughters’ operation should Astana fold has put Bruyneel on notice. Bruyneel really can’t afford to have Contador be completely unhappy—as I and others have observed, an intra-team rivalry could rip the team apart far worse than La Vie Claire suffered in 1986.

We may think that Horner is as loyal a teammate as you could want, on the bike. But no one else from Astana has spoken as openly concerning Armstrong's ambitions. In Bruyneel's world, this may have been a disloyal act.

There is reason to suspect that Horner’s incredible effectiveness was sacrificed in favor of a rider who isn’t as fit if only to break up what he called “the three amigos” in an interview with Road Bike Action just two days prior to the announcement of the final squad. Horner was training with Armstrong and Leipheimer in Colorado and easily turning 300 watts at altitude. In the interview he said, “There is going to be some good form at the Tour.”

Emotionally, this has got to be a sucker punch for Horner; it is for any rider expecting to get the nod who at the last minute is left home. But this must be especially tough. The dude has been a pro since 1996; he is a little long-in-the-tooth and while he might be able to find phenomenal form next year, with each passing year it will be harder and harder for him to convince a team he has the same ability to fire the rockets on demand as he did the previous season.

Finally, this is a shot across Armstrong’s bow. This is a choice that clearly favors Contador, who is the future. Even if Armstrong were to out-ride Contador this year, age is definitely on Contador’s side.

It’ll be interesting to see if Horner winds up at the Cascade Classic at the end of July. He deserves a chance to do something with his form.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

20 comments:

Vincent said...

Personally, I really like Horner. But I can already predict there is going to be some separation between the group. Lance rode well for Levi at the Giro, however, that was only once his days were done.

bikesgonewild said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bikesgonewild said...

...i was w/ friends at the top of the hill in nevada city on sunday...

...we cheered for every bike racer we saw on the course that day, yet we howled for horner on every lap...

...i think his exclusion is sad because he deserves to race 'le tour'...horner brings joy to the job of being a super domestique...the man is a champion, no matter what his role...

Eddy said...

People often observe that Horner is one of the shrewdest tacticians on the bike. I'd say that's true, and also add that he's a shrewd negotiator off the bike too. He left Saunier for Davitamon-Lotto for more money and better prospects of racing what he wanted to race. After that he left them and Cadel unsentimentally pursuing bids from the highest offer - Seriously he was going to race for Rock Racing if they paid his sum. Ultimately RR didn’t meet his terms, so he signed for a team where he must of known he wasn’t a Tour shoe in (he’s not a pure climber, not is he a power house like Rast).

In light of his constantly jumping teams it’s hard not to view him as a mercenary. Sure, he'll ride his heart out for his captain, but it doesn't matter if that is Cadel or Lance, or if the racing is US domestic of TdF.

Padraig said...

Eddy: Horner's issue with Davitamon/Lotto was not one of pursuing the highest bidder, but rather being low-balled by team management. Once his contract is up he told team management he was happy, but wanted to be paid in line with what guys who finished between 10th and 20th in the GC at the Tour. Just pay him on par, not even at the high end. Evans asked only one thing from the team: Keep Horner. Management offered Horner half what those other guys were making. Instead of knuckling under, he stood by his principles and left the team. Evans was not happy. Calling him a mercenary would be to miss his own understanding of his relative worth. What's more, he knew that in leaving Davitamon/Lotto he may not get another shot at racing in Europe. All he asked was to be paid relative to his results. He's probably been one of the most consistently underpaid pros in the World.

velomonkey said...

Never mind the other three - tell you what, I would take Horner by my side over Levi every day and twice on Sunday. I'm not so sure that this was Jonah making sure the scales were even weighted for Lance and Conti. Conti has never called out Horner, but he has Levi. Either way, it's too bad the guy isn't going to be in the tour.

One thing though, I dig the guy and I always loved that he spoke his mind. Read the older cycling news interviews - great stuff even for insiders like us. Now though, the guy is just impotent and has totally gone to being Lance's you-know-what.

Da Robot said...

When I heard Horner was staying home, I was shocked. I can't really speak to Rast or the others, because I don't have a sense of their form at the moment, but it seemed to me that, at this point in the season, given how things have gone with Astana, I'd take Horner over Leipheimer.

Leipheimer is cooked, isn't he? He's said as much. And I think putting out the energy he did at the Giro, after putting in so many other GC efforts early in the season, suggests that, even though Horner had the Giro crash, he's STILL probably fresher than Levi.

I was sad for Horner. He's my kind of pro, and he's my age, so rooting for him always feels like rooting for myself not to get any slower than I already am.

Padraig said...

Velomonkey: I'm with you--every day and twice on Sunday. I love that guy.

Da Robot: I would have thought Leipheimer was cooked as well, but he joined Lance in the breakaway at Nevada City. He's clearly not too tired to ride. We gotta give him his due.

Another note on the "three amigos." Contador has his own riders lined up to join him at Garmin-Herbalife had Astana sunk. Sergio Paulinho and Benjamin Noval would have joined him. Paulinho made the Tour team, Horner notsomuch, and Noval is first reserve. Bruyneel could work for the UN.

jza said...

1st thought: Lance has usually surrounded himself with big bodied roleurs that magically turn into climbers come July. Horner is not a Hincapie or Eki or even a Popo/Landis on the flats. Mid-mountain specialist?

2nd thought: Horner lost his spot to the token Kazakh that the boys paying the bills insist on being there.

3rd thought: Zubeldia? A left-over from when it was all for Contador. But you can't not start a 2-time top-5.

4th thought: Does Kloeden really have loyalty to anything but a paycheck? Riding scared so he doesn't become the next ex-postal/disco/astana doping positive?

5th thought: 5 possible top-10 riders and then.....nothing. This will get very interesting.

jza said...

http://blog.oregonlive.com/horner/2009/06/astanas_chris_horner_explains.html

Bradley said...

My take yesterday, and today still, is thus: Contador demanded he not be added to the team for fear Levi and Horner would ally with Lance. Horner is a unique rider in that he can (at times) climb with the world's best in the high mountains and slog it out on the front for 100k (day after day) like a classic rouleur. I can't seem to justify his exclusion any other way. For these reasons he would be my choice over nearly every other Tour rider, including Kloden.

One curious question does arise: How does Chris's exclusion factor into Lance's relationship with Bruyneel?

Cheers, Bradley

jza said...

A "classic roleur"? There is a difference between guys that are 6' 170+lbs and guys that are 5'7" 135. They are going to be different types of riders. Horner can have all the 'refills' that Johann can bring and he's never going to be the type of rider that "slog[s] it out on the front for 100k (day after day)".

He's a great rider, a smart rider, a likeable guy, fun to watch. But he is and will always be an opportunistic climber/super-domestique in the mountains. Unless Johan has actually found a way to suspend the laws of physics, effecting only Astana riders. (Which really is in the realm of possibilities, given that he got a guy with a VO2 max in the low 80's to win 7 straight tours.)

Oh yeah, Lance and Johan will be fine. The millions and millions of $$$$ smooth over most of the problems.

jza said...

Eddy, spot on!

Upon hearing he was not on the tour roster, he IMMEDIATELY ASKED FOR HIS RELEASE!

Horner knows the score.

Ok, I'm done now.

jza said...

Ooh, one more!

Biggest bummer? Svein Tuft.

SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft SveinTuft

Really done now, I promise.

Da Robot said...

Just read Horner's blog in the Oregonian, and I have to say that I really, really respect the calm, mature way he's analyzed and then accepted the situation.

It surprised me in reading the comments on the Oregonian site, that so many blame Contador for Horner's exclusion, because Contador insisted on taking ONE of his guys, Paulinho.

This seems ridiculous to me. Before LA decided to come back Contador was the unquestioned captain of that team. It's only subsequent to LA's comeback that Contador lost so much juice in the squad, and it's sort of an insult, for the top stage racer in the world, to be relegated to only brining ONE of his preferred domestiques.

If you want to blame someone for Horner's exclusion, I'd look first to his friend Lance, then to Levi, and then to Kloeden.

To my mind, as much as Leipheimer's form might be in question after a gruelling Giro, Kloeden's exclusion makes the most sense to me given the doping cloud hanging over his head. Two years removed from Astana's removal from the TdF after Vinokourov's disgrace, I would have expected team management to be a little more sensitive to sending guys with any dubious doping problems to the sport's signature event.

And let me just say I have no idea what Kloeden did or didn't do. I've always liked him as a rider. I'm just saying, if I'm putting together a tour roster from the Astana payroll I send Horner before I send Kloeden.

bikesgonewild said...

...any conceivable way you slice it, it'a a lousy, bloody shame that christopher horner ain't riding the 2009 tour de france...

frilly said...

I like Chris Horner a lot, and maybe its cuz he's pissed about being left off the tour roster, but that Oregon Live blog post was terrible. He should be blaming Lance not Alberto. Lance's return f'ed up the carefully orchestrated dynamics.

I felt bad for Alberto and Levi when LA announced his comeback. Its just too bad that Horner ended up being the sacrificial lamb.

WheelDancer said...

All in all, it is going to be an interesting tour this year!

Hank said...

Sucks that Horner isn't riding the Tour, but if I was Contador I would have done the same.

I wish Lance, Levi and Horner where on a team built around Armstrong and Contador was undisputed leader on a competing team, then we'd get more racing and less politics.

bikesgonewild said...

...i'm bettin' lance's prologue will "inspire" ol' contador to ride like the very devil for the next three weeks, spanish time trial champion or not...

..personally, i'm cheerin' for the "old fart"...he may not win but i got a feeling he'll make the ones that count, ie: every bike racer in "le tour", seriously think about how their own performance stacks up against an older guy who was out of the sport for 4 years...