Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The River

Ever since Lance Armstrong announced his return to the pro peloton, he has made known his intention to race the Giro d’Italia. And in a way that few others have managed, he has conveyed his interest in winning the event without saying point blank that he’s going to kick large-scale ass.

And that’s always been one of Armstrong’s greatest strengths. He is the Zen master of smack talk, inflicting doubt in other competitors and all the while claiming that anyone else is the favorite. No rider since Eddy Merckx has inflicted such doubt in his competition and certainly no greater champion has ever done more to deflect his favorite status.

It’s a trick that a Wallenda would pay money to watch.

But then Armstrong broke his collarbone. And now many people think he won’t have the fitness necessary to truly contest the GC at the Giro. That broken collarbone has been called—by most media outlets to cover the event—Armstrong’s first significant injury. That’s both right and wrong. It’s his first significant injury to come during a race. However, it’s not his first significant injury.

In 2000, while preparing for the Tour de France in the Pyrenees, Armstrong crashed hard enough to wind up in the hospital overnight. He went on to win his second Tour weeks later.

At the start of the Giro, Armstrong, wearing the team leader’s number (21), said that the team leader is Levi Leipheimer. Pointing to Leipheimer’s dominance at the Tour of California … and every other stage race he has entered this year, he said Leipheimer is the man to beat. It’s true enough; Leipheimer is on screaming form. Between his climbing at the Gila and his time trialing all year long, he is complete enough to reasonably expect to command a team at a Grand Tour. Just one hitch: He’s Lance Armstrong’s teammate.

Let’s ask a simple question: When was the last time Lance Armstrong rode in support of another rider at a Grand Tour? Here’s a hint: Bill Clinton was in office.

There’s only one reason to ask who’s in charge; Armstrong is a world-class poker player. He proved it on Stage 10 of the 2001 Tour de France in which he faked the Telekom Team to drill the pace at the front in the false belief he was on the ropes before dropping Ullrich for a nearly 2:00 gap. While everyone remembers “the look,” the stage should be more properly remembered for the hours of bluffing that preceded his explosive attack.

Despite the fact that Danilo Di Luca, Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego are on great form, Astana has three riders in the top 10. When push comes to shove, Astana’s best-placed rider, Yaroslav Popovych works for Armstrong, not Leipheimer. Armstrong has lost 15 seconds to Leipheimer but remains within two seconds of him overall. And given his history of uncorking his biggest rides the day before a rest day, it doesn’t seem a big deal that he has given up a few seconds early in the first week.

For all the interest that the race itself holds, the biggest question about the Giro’s GC is who, really, is in charge on the Astana team. And while Armstrong may be able to hold his cards to his chest, his coach, not-so-much. Chris Carmichael recently divulged that based on his training data, Lance would, “surprise some.”

The strategy of Grand Tours is endlessly fascinating; one day’s ride influences the next so that no one day can be ridden like a Spring Classic. However, Astana has added a layer of complexity to the equation by calling into question who really leads the team in Italy.

Word on the street was the deal Armstrong struck with Contador and Leipheimer was California for Leipheimer, Italy for Armstrong and France for Contador. Sounds like a game of "Risk." Could Leipheimer truly be gifted with both California and Italy? If so, what does Armstrong get? He’s not so magnanimous that there won’t be some quid pro quo.

A final thought: Every time Armstrong said Ullrich was the most talented cyclist in the world and the favorite to win the Tour, Armstrong ultimately stood atop the podium. Either Armstrong is a poor judge of his ability or he can’t be trusted to tell the truth. Exciting, huh?

Image by Doc Roman.


Wade Wallace said...

I think Armstrong is using Levi as a decoy. Armstrong is the Alpha male here. He won't we shooting for the tour. He has nothing to gain. May as well go for the Giro and downplay his chances.

Anonymous said...

Prediction at 9:05 EDT (1:05 UTC):

Lance Armstrong will get a "hiding" from the Italian climbers today.

Forrest said...

Levi should have ridden for another team, He will never ever get a grand tour win riding for Armstrong or Contador, kinda sucks he will never get his just deserts.

Jim said...

I think your analysis really nailed it. Whatever happens will be interesting, but this really poses the question, who's on first?

me said...

LANCE is done for. Dropped liked the old man he is today! I was smiling as he was suffering.

Anonymous said...

After today's stage this needs a new edit. Lance three minutes behind, Levi with the leaders. Levi only has Horner, but Lance has three guys. WTF? I have no respect for Levi, he is playing little guy to Lance. to trade in Tour of California for a stab at any grand tour is prima facia stupid. You may have hit on the head with the quid pro quo, one thing is for sure, the LA of past is long, long gone. I wish him and Astana would just leave.

jza said...

This is going to be a crazy Giro. Anyone still within 5 minutes has a chance to pull something off.

Gaps will be HUGE in the crazy TT.

The two huge favorites have got to be Basso and Leipheimer. With either Rogers or Lokvist next.

DiLuca can't keep going like this and pass controls? Can he?

Menchov probably has a bunch of really bad days and a bunch of really good ones ahead of him.

Lance will be flying by the end of the race. He'll be Leipheimer's super domestique and maybe end up on the podium.

jza said...

As for the help Lance had, the other 3 guys probably couldn't keep pace with the front group, anyways. Wouldn't have been any use to Levi.

Once they dropped, I'm sure orders were to wait and help Armstrong.

Johan wouldn't be stacking the deck against Levi. Just using the scrubs to take care of option #2.

Anonymous said...

Astana is Team Lance. Still, Lance and Johan are not stupid. They will get Levi home so he can return the favor in the TdF.

Buddy (Lee) Poole said...

It looked CRAZY today when Lance had all those blue jereseys around him while Levi just had Horner. Popo should have been up with Levi. If he couldn't hang, then that's one thing, but it looked like he was holding back to stay with Lance. I kept thinking of Lemond - Hinault that year when the team split and all the french riders were riding for Hinault. I thought today was very bad Astana PR.

Ken@IFPeloton said...

I'm thinking Lance and Levi are in cahoots. Lance gets the Giro (because he has nothing to prove as far as Le Tour is concerned) and Levi finally gets his Tour and Contador gets screwed.

jza said...

You guys are goofy.

Astana rode a 100% totally tactically sound race today. They were the strongest team at the front of the race. By far. Didn't go for the stage win by design. Don't want to dig that deep this early.

Astana has 2 horses in this race:
1. Levi
2. Lance.

You can't expect to have 5 guys in the final 8 man group. The game just doesn't work like that. Astana had 2 and played it perfectly. They're going for the overall, not first week stage wins.

Could Popo have outclimbed Lance today? Probably. Could he hang in the front group? Probably not. Will he be able to hang in a 66k rolling time trial? No. Is he consistent throughout a 3 week stage race? No. That is why he is a domestique. Albeit a very highly qualified one.

A domestique who can't help option #1 then helps option #2. He doesn't get free reign to race for himself just to see what happens. If he wanted that he would be riding for a Spanish team and hunting stage wins.

I don't like Astana one bit and I think Lance is boring. But they ride a solid race.

Da Robot said...

What confuses me is that everyone seems to be talking about LA riding the Giro to get fit for a shot at the Tour, but he rides on the same team as Contador.

I just don't believe that Contador is going to ride for anyone but Contador, and I also don't believe that Astana would put all their eggs in the LA basket when they've got the top pro in the world already in their stable.

If you ask me, Lance is shadow boxing with the podium to keep people talking about him, which in turn gets him an audience with guys like Berlusconi, to talk about cancer.

I'm also not really buying Leipheimer as a contender. Dude is 35. How is he going to start winning grand tours now? I know he's got good form, and he's a monster time trialist, but I don't see him putting the whole deal together.

Padraig said...

Today's was a surprising stage. Menchov taking the stage win was a real surprise. Astana being the only team with two guys in the lead group makes them the team with the most depth and faulting them for not having even more guys up there is just silly.

Leipheimer is the most talented rider in the peloton never to have won a Grand Tour. Being 35 doesn't change that. I'd say he's one of the favorites now. He's with Astana because he simply couldn't put together the form riding for Gerolsteiner and Rabobank; parse that how you want.

Horner has proven, once again, his incredible class. If I were in a bar fight, I'd want him by my side; is there a more loyal and capable lieutenant out there?

As for Lance, anyone who thinks seven Tours is enough doesn't understand the mind of a champion. There is no such thing as enough. Should he gain the form at the Giro to vie for the podium at the Tour, he'll go for it. And the team will show greater loyalty to him than to Contador. For better or worse, Armstrong is an alpha male, and Contador not so much.

But this Giro is far from over. Di Luca, Lovkvist, Rogers, Basso, Menchov and Leipheimer seem like the front runners, but we're not through the first week yet.

superfred said...

Oh my goodness. The speculation, the darts thrown in the dark... velomonkey's WTF... Please remember that there are other teams trying to win these races too, before Astana can start trading them amongst themselves. Seems to me Lance is riding like a guy who had surgery four weeks ago, Levi is in a good position against the strongest Giro field in years, and Astana has the riders to adjust its strategy on the fly. JZA is right... you guys are GOOFY. The TT will tell us all about this Giro, and its been a great race so far. BTW, Chris Horner's blog for The Oregonian is detailing every stage.

Levi has been getting stronger every year in recent history, almost won the Vuelta last year, finished on the podium in the Tour, has won every stage race he's been in this year, can climb and TT and rides great just out of the glare of the limelight. This team is perfect for him and I believe him when he says he's having a blast. As far as respect goes: if Levi doesn't get yours, then you had better learn about bike racing.

byron said...

that's better commentary than most real bike mags right there.

jza said...

Thank You superfred.

Horner's Blog:

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight. Can anyone tell me a concrete example of where Johan has held the team back on a mountain stage. Go ahead, look it over - you have lots of tours and lots of years to look over. Don't worry, I'll wait.

The Answer - it has never happened. Both Disco and Postal had numerous people left in mountain stages. Hincapie all of sudden a climber and there are five postal guys in group of 20. Yea, it happened. Johan doesn't practice holding back, no pro does. This isn't the same as waiting a day to get the jersey.

The logic of Lance wants more than 7 tours doesn't reconcile with hold your guys back on the second mountain stage.

The team was riding for Lance and Levi is second fiddle.

Da Robot said...

Let me just say that I have a lot of respect for Leipheimer. I just can't wrap my head around a guy winning his first grand tour at 35.

The problem is me, not him.

I'm 37 and I know how much slower I feel now than I felt 5 years ago.

I'm projecting.

Didn't Poulidor finish on the podium at the Tour when he was 40?

Anonymous said...

Thomas L. is a very young man for the future.

Levi's career has almost passed him by, but this is probably his last, best shot for a Grand Tour. And, as I posted before, he is now co-favorite among the wise guys.

Unfortunately, as Dennis Menchov has had the honesty to express note, not much is likely to happen regard GC until the ITT, which will probably be decive for very close to it. In the meantime, the beautiful Italian country side, and the daily drama between escapees and the Petacchi and Cav shall more than suffice.

Ditto the Chris Horner kudos. I'd fell safe in any bar with Horner and Tex Cob as wingmen. I suppose Horner is as close as the old US of A has tp a Jens Voight -- and that's a helluva compliment.

Giro ho!

LugHugger said...

It looks to me as though Lance gets nothing. At his age, he's simply too old to compete over a 3 week grand tour. And that's without factoring the broken collar bone and the extra effort taken building back to base. The only thing between Contador and Le Tour this year is Johann Bruyneel.

Anonymous said...

As an old fart cyclist, I just want to say a good natured way that Levi (35) and Lance (37) are not too old to win Grand Tours. That's a year or two away for each.

Now, I think Lance's lay-off and recent injuries make winning the TdF fairly improbable, but not his age itself. In contrast, I think Levi has a real shot to beat Basso in the Giro because of Ivan's lay-off. But age is not the issue, yet.

* * * * *

"Aged guile and a gold card trumps inexperienced and naive talent every time!"

Jason said...

Hindsight is a fine thing and with that I can safely say Armstrong now has no chance of winning the Giro, not that he had a chance before this article was written.

Levi is Astana's best hope.

Padraig said...

Everyone: thanks for your comments and for making this a lively forum; I've enjoyed your comments immensely.

Whether or not Lance can win a Grand Tour again (and I think it may well be possible) really wasn't the point of the post. It's about him being the best poker player in the peloton (and that's where the title came from). Him speaking to the media, more than anything else, is what I missed in his absence. His ability to manipulate the media to his advantage, just as the Badger did before him, make him my favorite voice from the peloton.

As for old farts, Graeme Obree took the British National TT Championship north of 40--spanking every pro present. I think we underestimate what a motivated rider can achieve.

LugHugger said...

Padraig, there's a world of physiological difference between training for and winning a single event TT and a 3 week GT at the ages we are discussing. At modern GT speeds, it is extremely unlikely that anybody, including LA, can win a GT clean at the age of 37 and with a 3 year hiatus.

On the other hand, I couldn't agree more that LA is master media manipulator.

RMM said...

Anyone read Machiavelli? Or Sun Zsu?
I'm sure that Lance has read both extensively.
Call him a d-bag, but he knows his strategy.

Matt said...

I'm just really enjoying the American Trio of Horner-Levi-Lance. Seems like a match that should have come together YEARS ago.

But watching all of them as sage veterans, all with their "own" version of a successful resume as American cyclists, seems so ironic for a team that was named after the capital city of a former Soviet territory. Well perhaps WAS named after the capital city....

Here's to watching how this develops into the "new" team Lance is trying to morph into.

This is a fun trio to watch...

LugHugger said...

Matt, I'm enjoying watching Levi and Chris. As far as I can tell, Lance has done sweet-f-a on a bike since his resurrection.

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izoard said...

this giro is made for cheaters...
old, present, and (maube not) future.
too bad for cunego, for instance...