Friday, June 26, 2009
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.