Tuesday, June 16, 2009

House Divided

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.


sophrosune said...

As far as tipping your hand, you have managed to do a fairly good job of it yourself. It's clear that you would like to see the ego maniac Armstrong take an eighth tour.

But can you really blame Contador for having lost confidence in his team? This doubt has certainly been cultivated by Brunyeel from the get go.

Let's get down to brass tacks. Armstrong is a sponsorship (read, "money") magnet. Contador not so much.

While Contador is a brilliant rider, he doesn't speak English well enough to capture the narrow imagination of the US buying public. But a brash, know-it-all Texan (picture your typical TV news pundit) who survived cancer and could possibly win his eighth TdF (Americans do love their dynasties) translates into dollar signs.

So, sure Brunyeel will throw the best young stage race rider in the world under the bus because as we all know it's all about money.

Good to know that your vision of purity for the sport of cycling doesn't extend beyond the purse strings of the corporate sponsors.

Boz said...

I think Contador is just saying what everyone is thinking - Lance didn't come back to ride support. Armstrong and Brunyeel are THE team. All the sponsorship moneys are due to them and all others ride in support of the goal of increasing the coffers at this point. I;m not sure where Levi stands in this. He is, after all, the prince of California. That's his part of Johan's world to rule. Lance gets France and Contador gets the rest. A simple plan with lots of pawns.


Your post leading up to this years TdF have been particularly insightful, keep up the good work..

I don't think that this blog is necessarily favoring Armstrong, its giving credit where credit is due. Armstrong is wily, he knows exactly what to say, while Contador still has alot to learn.

That said, maybe Contador does deserve a little more credit after the Dauphine, where he potentially gained some strong allies in the Caisse De'pargne squadra by blatantly assisting Valverde.

Jim said...

Armstrong started the not so subtle digs aimed at undermining Contador as early as La Primavera. He may no longer have the strongest legs in the pack but he's still the guy you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. I'm not a fanboy who "would like to see the ego maniac Armstrong take an eighth tour" though the spectacle would be entertaining; but I do admire his ability to go on the psychological offensive weeks and months before a big race. He is a superb competitor.

Da Robot said...

First of all, great posts of late, Padraig. You've got me hooked.

As to Contador, I read this as a come and get me plea. After he helped Valverde last week at the Dauphiné, I'm guessing he most wants a move to a Spanish team. I saw what he did as tinged with nationalism, more than anything. I believe he's given up on being top fiddle at Astana, and he really believes he should be top fiddle. I think he should, too.

Those who think Contador isn't a draw for sponsors clearly don't live in Europe, where most of the sponsorship euros come from. Contador is electric. He's the fresh, young face of the sport. EVERY team wants a rider like that.

I also think Contador likes the martyr complex a little. I think it motivates him.

RERIDER said...

BKW, I agree with you completely. Let me tell you one thing no matter who wins this tour, someone on Astana or some other team this is shaking up to be one of the best I have ever seen (I'm 27).

Anonymous said...

Good post, no doubt this is further proof of what you have been saying all along. Here is my theory - Conti never left because the "program" under Johan is so good. By program I'm talking the administration PEDs. How much more proof do we need that if you leave Johan, you will be caught? You want to see the Don of pro cycling - look no further than Johan and Lance.

Conti is young, you're naive, and he never had the drive that Amstrong had/has. Armstrong has a drive to prove himself and, at least as important, prove others wrong.

This years tour is going to be drama, more drama than I care to watch, but it will be fun.

Padraig said...

Thanks everyone for the interesting and insightful comments. I appreciate how you all take the time to give us your heartfelt thoughts, even when the topics can be truly frustrating.

Sophrosune: I'm not sure I have a preferred scenario other than to see Armstrong be able to ride his own race. Do I actually want him to win? I can't say that. Let the chips fall, but it will be more interesting if he isn't riding support.

Bruyneel isn't going to Contador under the bus. And Contador can't just leave the team; Bruyneel wouldn't let him out of his contract that easily. It's one of the more interesting points of the Astana bailout money (golly, that phrase has a familiar ring) is that by keeping the old sponsor paid up, rather than having a new sponsor step in, no contracts were broken and Bruyneel keeps each and every rider.

Contador helping Valverde at the Dauphine Libere may have been the most brilliant tactical move of his entire career, other than signing with Bruyneel. With Valverde sidelined during the Tour, who else would they race for other than a Spaniard?

Even if Astana bellied up and a new sponsor stepped in, one must wonder if Contador would actually have left Bruyneel. Sure, plenty of Spnaish teams wanted him, but when was the last time a Spanish team won the Tour? Well, at least it was more recent than the last French team with a French rider. The question becomes, how unhappy do you have to be to leave a king maker?

Doug said...

Let's not count out the competition from Christian Vande Velde and Garmin either. We still have to see if he has fully recovered from the Giro crash, but strong time trialists, decent climbers, and a team united behind one can go a long way.

reverend dick said...

I look forward to the circus. This is the best possible outcome for Armstrong's return. It will be the most fun to watch of any of his Tours.

earlofwarwick said...

Always great posts, but I'm not sure you've got this one right. Did Contador really say anything we didn't already know, or, that Astana hadn't already copped to? They've said, repeatedly, that the best rider would be the leader. With that in mind, hasn't Contador merely confirmed that Leipheimer and Armstrong are both potentially competitors for that leadership? I agree it's rife with conflict, and it won't end well, but I don't think this is quite the coup you make it out to be.

Padraig said...

Chris: I do think it is significant because only a week ago Contador said Armstrong was "just another teammate." What he told la Gazzetta dello Sport may have been something he's been thinking for months, but saying such a thing out loud does change matters. For all his competitors it creates an air of opportunity. Psychologically, the importance of such a statement can easily be underestimated.

sophrosune said...

Da Robot,

Not only do I live in Europe, but I live in Spain!

I can tell you that Brunyeel was not knocking on the doors of any Spanish companies to jump in and take over sponsorship from Astana. You can rest assured they were almost exclusively US-based.

db said...

Interesting how this interview can be taken in different directions. A different take: Contador rode strongly in the Dauphine, and is telling his teammates that he will be ready for anything... and anybody. He's serving notice that they will not surprise him.

Is he almost forcing Brunyeel to come out and reiterate that the team is supporting Contador?

Sean said...

Two words:



Julian said...

Or perhaps Johan the puppet master is creating the impression of mayhem in his camp specifically to confuse the tactics and strategy of his opponents.

Surely it'll be an exciting tour.

ridgeandjenny said...

So it seems sophrosune gets the red badge for "most combative". I personally am tired of GC drama. I am usually more interested in who will throw himself upon his own spear in the interest of a stage win. It was impressive the way Menchov stayed with "The Killer", but in the end Diluca put on a better show. Hope is personified by the rider that escapes and remains away until the finish. I must admit that I am more turned on by a good attack every day than a drawn out, 2 or 3 attacks in 3 weeks, long time trial GC victory. So I will cheer for the foolish (Sebastian Chavanel, and others). I guarantee that Chris Horner's performance in this years TdF will be ten times more inspiring than any other member of the washed out Astana logo squad.

Da Robot said...

@ sophrosune

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend. When I expressed the belief that a Euro sponsor would be interested in Contador, I didn't mean as a takeover from Astana. I meant that one of the existing teams/sponsors would love to have him, and would likely pay him as well as Astana (and probably support him more clearly).

I am jealous that you live in Spain, a country obsessed with racing AND football. Perfecto.

solerider said...

My guess is that Brunyeel will try to field two teams under the Astana banner. One with Leipheimer and Horner riding in support of Lance, at least until he is out of contention, which I believe will be the case, and another with Kloden (probably reluctantly) and others in support of Contador.

Sure, it would be great to have a united team, but this is not a terrible scenario.

It will be interesting to see how Lance responds to Contador's comments. He cannnot be sure about his form and chances of winning and it would therefore be risky to acknowledge a competition because once he is out of contention, who/what will he ride for? What is also interesting is that Contador does not seem to even contemplate the possibility that Lance shows up in the condition of his life and the rightful team leader.

The team meetings will be interesting. I doubt we'll be seeing those on twitter.

Henryg said...

I guess Contador does not have the requisite Machiavellian political skills. He just stated what everyone knows. He didn't whine when left without support in Paris-Nice. He took responsibility for blowing up. He didn't twitter any negative digs about his teammate when Lance had an accident. Had Contador broke his collar bone Lance probably would have been twittering about Contador's 'inexperience'.

I wish he were on a team where he is clear leader. I'd like to see him ride and test his skill as a cyclist rather then see him get thrown off his best by head games and political maneuvering.

Anonymous said...

I like the notion of Contador calling out Armstrong. After his performance at the Dauphine', why not?

I still believe that Astana's Spanish Armada will ride for Contador, with the exception of possibly Chechu.

USAZorro said...

In the end, Bruyneel is going to go with the rider who can deliver. Levi looked to be out of form at the close of the Giro, and I'm not convinced that father time hasn't stolen a little from Lance. Alberto is the guy who can deliver, and I've no doubt he will be the man for Astana.

Perhaps this latest revelation is as calculated as anything Lance or Johan have done in the past. It has sent the hype meter for this year's Tour through the roof. I know I will be watching closely (but that's a given).

feedmedia said...

"So now Sastre, Evans, Menchov and the Schlecks all know an important truth: Astana is divided."

Who's to say that this isn't Astana working everyone? I'm not saying there are no issues with the team, but if JB wants to win another badly, and the others are willing to go along, there might be no better better way to mess with the opponents' heads than to portray a divided Astana.

Anonymous said...

I'm also very suspicious about this "divided" Astana team. Lance came into the team, and the entire world was immediately chattering about whether he would actually ride for Contador. JB didn't even have to create this narrative, just cleverly stoke the flames, keep the story alive and build it to a fever pitch right before the Tour.

There's some possibility that this is all genuine and Astana will be a disunited mess when (if) it starts the Tour, but I would be very unsurprised if this turned out to be more mind games by Johan Bruyneel, shaking up and confusing the opposition. In fact, that's my bet, so far. It's hard to believe that someone as smart as JB would be so vulnerable to such an obvious threat to his chances of another victory. Everyone was talking about this and he didn't take sufficient steps to deal with it? I find that hard to believe.

Diablo Scott said...

1. Could be a disunited mess as Grolby suggests.

2. Could be pre-Tour mind games aimed at the other teams.

3. Could be that Armstrong, no longer content to have eclipsed Lemond's Tour victory record, now also wants to take from Lemond the glory of having the nastiest intrasquad backstabbing bitchslap title.

Anonymous said...

Mind games, period.

-er said...

I wonder: How many of us have already been beaten by all of this BS?

How many people know what Astana is?
How many people know what Caisse d Esparne is?

Let's not forget that nobody has a perfect record. How many times has Bruyneel gone into the Tour without a single strong dedicated leader? And how did that turn out?

I still like Alberto to win this one. I think he's got more inside than a lot of people realize, and he's PRO.