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.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Some years ago, when I was making rent with a wrench, a woman came into the shop with a Holdsworth made from Reynolds 531. She had decided it was time for a tune-up. The bike needed a tune-up the way the starving need a cup of water. While the frame seemed to be in solid shape, the wheels were toast and the front derailleur, well, the bike had been ridden cross-geared for so long the chain had worn through all but a small span of the Nuovo Record front derailleur cage which was by this time cellophane-thin.
I was amazed and felt badly for her. Didn’t she ever hear that nasty sound of the chain grinding material off the cage?
“What sound?” she responded.
I am bewildered when I meet someone who really doesn’t seem to notice the sound an untrimmed derailleur makes. While I don’t think everyone needs to be able to maitain a bicycle, it makes sense to me that a basic awareness of the bicycle’s operation can make someone a better rider and more proactive bike shop customer, therefore helping ensure the bike lasts longer.
She didn’t seem to mind the wear to the derailleur and considered it all just the cost of having a bike. She was so relaxed about the worn-out parts and the cost of the overhaul I found myself admiring her attitude.
Years of working on bikes have made me aware of every sound my bikes make. From the tk-tk-tk of an untrimmed derailleur to the ting-ting-ting of a derailleur cage on spokes, I usually know the cause of a sound the moment I hear it.
Usually. The dreaded creak can elude even veteran wrenches from time to time. And for those of us who do our own maintenance, a creak is an embarrassment. It is the bicycle talking back, the baby crying for food, the public spat you wish could have unfolded at home.
I love the sounds a bicycle makes. The seamless sound of a chain running over a chainring and cog along a perfect chainline brings me peace. Conversely, the sound of a too-tight chain on a fixed-gear bicycle is the rising screech of a catfight. And the sound of a disc wheel on asphalt is the sound of speed itself, of inevitability. The click of a quick downshift and flawless chain movement is order itself, the way the world should always work.
But that creak. When I hear a creak I pray for the noise of the pack, for the whitewash sound of 70 other bicycles to drown out my problem child. That sound tells me I’ve been inattentive, lazy. And now my bicycle is punishing me for my neglect.
If only it were always that simple. I’ve disassembled by bicycle’s entire drivetrain and reassembled it with fresh grease and Teflon tape only to have the creak return upon exiting the driveway.
Today’s bike require greater care to assemble and maintain than those we rode 20 years ago. That’s no newsflash, but the upshot is. Maintain a bike is like training now. It requires regular attention, care, the vigilance we show our bodies.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Chad Gerlach rolled boxcars at the Tour de Nez on stage 2, getting a win and following it up with a top-10 finish in the final stage to give him a win in the omnium as well.
So why is BKW bothering to report on a reformed drug addict who won an omnium in the U.S? The Tour de Nez deserves special consideration for its in-town courses and actual spectators and Gerlach deserves a nod for getting the win at a race that many riders target as the high point of the season.
One of the unfortunate realities of bicycle racing is that while we can purchase the same bikes the PROs ride and train over the same roads they ride, we can’t, generally speaking, race the same courses. Gran Fondos give us a chance to ride some of them—the Tour of Flanders event is a noticeable exception—but amateur (and Continental) racing is often characterized by lackluster race courses.
No matter how you slice it, Gerlach getting a win and the added attention it brought Tahoe’s biggest annual road event is a good thing for attracting positive attention to cycling from the public and second- and third-tier sponsors.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Drug use in cycling is a frequent, if unpleasant, topic here at BKW. It is a cancer that has the potential to destroy the top echelon of cycling and take with it hallowed events that we await each year with the anticipation of a child looking forward to Christmas.
In the fifth season of the A&E series “Intervention” the producers profiled a former cyclist addicted to crack. Some of you may have seen episode 64 on Chad Gerlach, the one-time U.S. Postal Service rider who was booted from the team after clashing with team management.
Gerlach was crushed by his turn in fortune. Though he signed with other teams, he turned to crack and eventually stopped racing fell into a life on the street.
The once promising pro’s problem wasn’t one of performance enhancing drugs, and so it may seem his story isn’t relevant to our typical coverage of drugs in cycling. However, his story is significant in that it shines a bright light on how so many people see all drug use through the same lens; it’s all illicit to a large swath of America.
Gerlach’s family persevered in their love for him and belief in his abilities, which led to the intervention and resulted in his rehabilitation at a facility in Florida.
To the casual viewer, the dream of returning to the pro peloton could easily have seemed unrealistic, a goal so unattainable as to be a setup for relapse. Yet that promise drove Gerlach. After his release he began training again and—incredibly—returned to the pro peloton this season, riding for Lifetime Fitness.
Gerlach just gold-plated his comeback by winning the opening stage of the Tour de Nez. Four laps into the criterium Gerlach broke away with Jonathan Baker and lapped the field. At the finish, Gerlach easily outsprinted Baker to take his first pro win in more than ten years.
The philosopher in me sees simple confirmation in the power of the love of friends and family and what we can achieve when we believe in ourselves. The pragmatist in me sees a story as removed from reality as a romance novel, the very exception that proves the rule.
I know many cyclists who view the entire peloton, to a man, as almost certain dopers. They eye testing programs such as Rasmus Damsgaard’s with the wary distance reserved for used-car salesmen. They are non-plussed by David Millar’s fervor for racing clean and reason if he was lying then, then he is probably lying now.
Gerlach deserves his consideration in our thoughts for how someone can truly turn his life around. An about-face doesn’t have to mean a retreat. We shouldn’t need a lesson so stark in its drama to teach us, but we’ve been trained into suspicion by a mountain of lies. It doesn’t mean we should never believe.
In defying the odds not once, but twice, first by getting clean and then by sprinting for the V., Gerlach ditched the naysayers. We can be suspicious all we want, but what he has in his heart today even the best of us can envy.
Episode 64 of Intervention is available on iTunes.
Image courtesy Lifetime Fitness.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
There was a time when an advertisement told a story in words. You’d see a picture of the product and below some copy would talk about the product, the company, the views of its founder and a request to consider their products for your next purchase.
It was all very above board. Any emotional pull on your heartstrings was there, in black and white. There were no efforts to short-circuit your decision making with sexy models or fantasies of Darwinian superiority.
Richard Sachs has produced a limited edition run of posters written in his inimitable style. It has the look and feel of a 1960s ad and contains little Sachs pearls that folks will be quoting for years to come.
It is fitting that he should match his old-world craft with old-world advertising. Everything old is new again, right? Even if you don’t need this poster hanging in your bike room/garage/closet, it is a fun read.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
USADA has handed down an eight-year suspension for Tyler Hamilton. The Rock Racing rider tested positive in February tested positive for testosterone or its precursors in February. When the announcement for the non-negative result was announced, Hamilton declined the B sample test and immediately admitted he had taken the steroid DHEA as an alternative to prescription antidepressants in an effort to combat depression.
Hamilton retired immediately. As noted by USADA’s CEO Travis Tygart, Hamilton’s eight-year penalty is effectively a lifetime ban for the 38-year old cyclist.
For his part, Hamilton said he was disappointed by the ban, “The eight-year suspension is unfortunate and disheartening. At this time, however, my focus remains on my mother, my family, battling my depression and getting better. This has been an extremely difficult and trying period, but I am determined to get through it.”
The length of the ban is irrelevant to all but those closest to him. Even if the planets had aligned to dismiss consideration for the principle of strict liability, he would likely still have received a ban of two years. Did Hamilton really think he would have had the legs of Joop Zoetemelk or even Kent Bostick at 40?
"Although we believe the sanction is exceptionally harsh and completely disproportional to the transgression, Tyler has chosen to focus on getting better instead of fighting a pointless battle against the anti-doping regime," said Chris Manderson, Hamilton’s counsel.
Hindsight is blah, blah, blah. If we set aside the anger we felt when we heard he tested positive—the first time—and apply honesty to our recollections of Hamilton’s career, most of us will recall the jubilation and shock we felt when we heard that an American had won the Gold Medal in the ITT at the 2004 Summer Olympics. When we learned it was Hamilton, surprise was added to our jubilation.
Hamilton gave the United States its first victory in a Monument—Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Who can forget his performance in the 2003 Tour de France following his broken collarbone, not to mention his epic breakaway through the Pyrenees on his way to winning stage 16 in Bayonne? And what of his second place and stage win at the 2002 Giro d’Italia, despite a broken shoulder?
Should we excuse his doping? No. The wheels of justice have turned and by at least one objective measure things are as they should be. Should we turn our backs on his earlier results? Depends on your point of view. Most cycling fans will admit that at his best, Hamilton was surrounded by other riders who were engaged in similar levels of doping and so he was most probably playing on a relatively level field. And if that sounds like a tacit acceptance of his doping on some level, then consider this: Even after throwing out his results you are left with a guy who rode through broken bones and molars ground to expose nerves. In the annals of hard men, those stories earned him a permanent seat at the bar.
Hamilton’s end as a rider is sad and ignominious. But given what we know of the time in which he competed on the international stage, he did achieve memorable results. The inspiration we felt to see his courage is worth remembering.
Image courtesy of John Pierce, Photosport International.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
La Gazzetta dello Sport has gotten the admission of the year. Alberto Contador has declared that in addition to the Schleck brothers, Carlos Sastre, Denis Menchov and, of course, Cadel Evans, he will have to face down his own teammates, Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong.
"I will have to deal with [Denis] Menchov, [Cadel] Evans, the Schleck brothers, [Carlos] Sastre and my teammates Armstrong and Leipheimer," he told the legendary pink rag.
It’s a stunning setback for Bruyneel and for Contador, too. One of the most important keys to Bruyneel’s success in Grand Tours has been his ability to unite nine riders with a single mission: first place in general classification. He never brought sprinters or time trialists with individual goals for stage wins.
With the admission that not only is Armstrong a rival, but Leipheimer as well, Contador has shown his hand before betting has started. He has revealed exactly how threatened he was by Leipheimer at last year’s Vuelta and he has also shown the rest of the peloton that Astana won’t be nine musketeers, but instead six trying to work out for whom they will work.
How many riders will work for Armstrong rather than Contador? What of Leipheimer? Can he expect any riders to side with him? At least when La Vie Claire faced the Hinault/LeMond rivalry they were a team of 10.
Hinault understood an important lesson about rivals that Armstrong learned well and Contador doesn’t remotely understand. Make your rivals doubt. Make them doubt themselves. Make them doubt each other. Make them doubt your words.
Hinault never said he considered LeMond his rival, but he raced the ’86 Tour as if no other guy could beat him. And while Armstrong would acknowledge each of the favorites for overall victory at the Tour, he always pointed to one primary rival—usually Jan Ullrich—as the rider to beat. What it told the other riders was that they must not only beat him, they must beat Ullrich as well. He sowed doubt to cause most riders to believe they could finish no better than third.
So now Sastre, Evans, Menchov and the Schlecks all know an important truth: Astana is divided. Armstrong can tell the world that he will ride for the strongest rider all day long, but Contador doesn’t believe he can count on him or Leipheimer for support.
Where does that leave Andreas Kloden? As a former second-place finisher, Kloden deserves as much respect as the Schlecks or Menchov. Can he be counted on to serve as a loyal lieutenant or could he go rogue as well?
Horner is Astana's smartest rider, tactically speaking. He knows where his bread is buttered and can be counted on to do whatever Bruyneel tells him, but if he can credibly ride in support of Contador and Armstrong, such as by making pace on a climb, he’ll do whatever he can to serve the team’s best interest.
What’s the worst thing you could tell your opponent on the start line? I’m scared. Contador has done just this. If he had kept up the charade, at least the other teams would have been left guessing. Now, each rider and director knows if Armstrong goes up the road Contador is as likely to chase as anyone else.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.
Friday, June 12, 2009
I can’t let this one go. The UCI has declared that they can’t complete disciplinary proceedings against Tom Boonen in relation to his second cocaine positive in time for the Tour de France. As a result, they have declared that Boonen is permitted to race the Tour de France.
They can’t complete it in time? What? This isn’t the restoration of a 1968 Camaro or the design of a web site. It’s a disciplinary proceeding. And the relevant facts are known. Hasn’t anyone heard of midnight oil?
No matter what your personal feelings on Boonen’s positive are, this is the wrong message to send. When I was in third grade, we would have called this wishy-washy. Is the UCI uniformly hard on drug use or not? If they don’t really see a problem with recreational drugs out of competition, that’s their choice, but they shouldn’t have made a fuss last time.
Given that most of the world can’t differentiate between performance-enhancing and recreational—which is like not being able to tell the difference between the Space Shuttle and Disneyland—a firm stance against recreational drugs would be understandable for the UCI and WADA. To most folks, drugs are either medicine or illicit. And anything that isn’t medicine isn’t tolerated in lots of places, The Netherlands notwithstanding.
What is so surprising in this is that the UCI didn’t like the Amaury Sport Organization deciding independently which teams and riders could and could not compete in the Tour. And yet, by delaying any action on Boonen, they are in effect forcing ASO’s hand, asking Prudhomme et al, to decide what the race is willing to accept.
Meanwhile, Bernard Kohl is passing the buck as well; he is concocting fictions that would make for a promising Hollywood script. He says he was cooperative from the outset, but CyclingNews reported October 15, 2008 Kohl wanted his B sample tested.
Worse yet, he asserted that the entire Top-10 of the Tour de France general classification must have doped, only to retract the statement and say l’Equipe invented the entire interview. Right. Shaun Palmer did the same thing years ago when Specialized wasn’t thrilled after he told a journalist he did recreational drugs and watched porn. The French rider’s union, CPA, has decided to sue Kohl. As Cedric Vasseur said, "He might think everybody else was doped as well but he has to prove it."
Kohl’s idea of cooperation is suspect. The one thing he has said—retracted or not—that is truly helpful is his insight into how sophisticated dopers would use the information found in positive tests to guide their manipulation of blood and the biological passport.
If Kohl were truly a man of substance, he’d admit his part and wouldn’t try to accuse everyone else of doping as a means of excusing his poor decision.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
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.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
By now you’ve heard that Team Katusha’s Antonio Colom is the second rider from the Russian team to test positive for EPO. Christian Pfannberger tested positive earlier this year. The situation reminds me of the fine backwoods-residing gentlemen from southeastern United States who try to outrun the cops in their pickup trucks after running across a spike strip. Escape is really only an option when you are smarter than those in pursuit of you.
For as long as I’ve covered pro cycling the Union Cycliste Internationale has found ever-evolving ways to come up with decisions and procedures that seem arbitrary, illogical and just wrong-headed. And I’ve been critical of those decisions whenever I’ve had the chance to speak up.
For instance, it doesn’t sound like the UCI informed Colom’s team through the proper channels or in a timely manner. We must take it on faith that the lab that did the testing performed to standard as Colom is unlikely to have the Euro to mount a real challenge of the result. He will probably ask that his B result be tested, but confirmation is no assurance that the first result is correct. Ultimately, it is unfortunate that not everyone has unwavering faith in the UCI’s ability to act in a logical and unbiased manner.
At its heart, the UCI is a bureaucracy and for all that Europe does well, their bureaucracies suck harder than a Hoover powered by a V8 on aircraft fuel. While I detest rule-following for rule-following’s sake, that organization needs a measure of discipline to bolster our faith in its best initiatives. That said, I need to offer the same measure of praise for this catch.
Colom didn’t just happen to test positive. He was caught precisely because his biological passport showed some irregularities. The UCI calculated when he would be likely to dose with EPO by examining his racing schedule. Working back from his next appointment, the UCI elected to target the Paris-Nice stage winner on April 2, 2009.
I decided to check in with Jonathan Vaughters to see what he would have to say about the UCI’s methods. Here’s his response:
“There are 2 ways the passport can work:
1. The blood values are irregular enough to cause a positive on their own right. This hasn't happened yet, but will, soon.
2. Even when the values don't bounce around enough to cause a proprietary positive, they can bounce enough to cause suspicion and LOTS of extra out-of-comp and surpise urine analysis. This is how Colom got caught.
Either one is a magnificent use of the passport system. We're just now seeing the fruits of this massive effort, as it takes awhile to have enough data points to be able to see 'irregular'...
I'm happy to be in a sport willing to take it on the chin for true and fair competition. Glad to see the progress and I'm sure there is more to come.”
The biological passport has been criticized by many, among the critics have been scientists who say it is only as good as the first test; if the baseline is doped, more dope just looks normal. The challenge is that because it is imperfect, the longitudinal testing is pointless. It’s the same sort of criticism that has been leveled at the Toyota Prius. The argument goes that because it is not perfectly green it is a failure. The batteries contain nasty chemicals, it still uses gas, most of its materials can’t be recycled, blah, blah, blah. But the real world isn’t binary like football where you either win or lose. High school exit exams aren’t given to third-graders for a reason: a 10-year-old is a work in progress. And so is the biological passport. The UCI could do nothing worse in the name of clean sport than to throw up its collective hands and cry out, “We can’t catch them all so we give up! Uncle!”
I don’t like the idea of the UCI finding suspicious any rider who wins. Such a cynicism poisons the person who holds the view, not those viewed. I’ve seen it in plenty of fans who have turned away from the sport because they suspect all the riders are doped up. However, using objective methods to target riders for further attention is exactly the step the sport has needed.
Highly is the likelihood that some riders are doping and still evading detection. If we are to enjoy professional cycling as spectators, then we need the assurance that someone competent is on the case. If the record books get corrected six months, a year down the line with an asterisk, so be it. What the sport doesn’t need is to see a guy raise his arms at the line and have the TV audience suspect immediately he will test positive.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.
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.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Viewers of the 2009 Giro d’Italia who followed the race in its entirety can be forgiven for thinking the final outcome was a foregone conclusion following the Cinque Terre time trial.
Let me rephrase: I’m giving myself permission to say that I believed the race would end with an unsurprising Menchov Grand Tour win. He’d stand on the dais, get his trophy, smile, wave, yadda, yadda, yadda.
His forceful show of emotion at the finish—triumph after snatching possible defeat from the slick road left me slackjawed. In earlier stages, his ability to sit impassively on Di Luca’s wheel despite the firebrand’s attacks conjured Miguel Indurain’s uninspiring performances at the Giro and Tour more than 15 years ago.
It reminded me of the race it most logically evokes: the 1989 Tour de France, which, as you well know, ended with a Greg LeMond victory on the final time trial. Menchov’s 21-second gap over Di Luca gave him a 41-second margin of victory, and though that may be larger than LeMond’s was, the Russian’s jubilation was no less dramatic.
It’s hard, if not impossible to be excited for Menchov in the face of such jubilation. My previous assertion that Di Luca was the race’s moral victor was based in part on the utter granite-faced presence that Menchov cast. To see him yell and throw his arms was a fitting substitute for the traditional winner’s victory salute thrown at the line of a Classic.
I’ll spare you the anthropologic deconstruction that accompanied Michael Phelps’ whoop following his team’s victory in the relay at the Beijing Olympics. We get it: that dude is a badass.
I’d ask the question, ‘How can you not like a guy who shows such emotion in the face of victory?’ but it’s a big, weird world and someone will dislike him precisely because of his show of emotion. Instead, I’ll offer this: The surge of emotion that accompanies an uncertain victory can surprise even the victor and in surprise the revelation is what winning is all about.