Monday, 13 July 2009

Fear And Loathing In Astana

The upper reaches of the Tour de France standings are currently being dominated by the Astana team. Astana is the team of the pre-race favourite and 2007 winner Alberto Contador, of seven-time winner and all round super human Lance Armstrong, of German Andreas Kloden – twice second in previous Tours, and of Levi Leipheimer – another cyclist who has previously stood on the podium in Paris.

Both Kloden and Leipheimer are potential Tour winners with the right team behind them, but Contador was always the team leader, and it was understood that they would have to put aside their ambitions in order to help him win.

But that was before Lance came back.

The main problem is that Lance Armstrong has not been a team player since he recovered from cancer and began to single-mindedly win every race he felt like winning. On his return, the US Postal Team (which later became known by the name of new sponsor Discovery Channel) was built for him, around him, and by him. The directeur sportif (team manager) Johan Bruyneel was Lance’s confidant, and everything was geared around Armstrong.

After Armstrong’s retirement, the old team broke up and everyone went their separate ways, finding their own niche in other teams. Some of his loyal domestiques found themselves leaders in other teams, whilst some simply swapped their loyalty to another contender.

At this point, let me move the story to Kazakhstan, where the fledgling Astana team was being created around Alexandre Vinokourov. Firstly, Astana is the capital of the central Asian nation, and secondly, the most famous man in Kazakhstan is most certainly not Borat, but Vino. The blonde haired, blue eyed rider was one of the most exciting on the circuit in the early part of this decade, with a merciless climbing style, and an ability to sprint of the front of almost any pack. He had raced for the German T-Mobile team, but wanted to create his own team, nurturing Kazakh talent, as well as bringing in some of Europe’s best riders, and challenging for major honours.

He secured the sponsorship of the Kazakhstan government, and, wearing the light blue and yellow of the national flag, the Astana team joined the peloton.

Vino was my favourite rider. Although I admired Lance Armstrong, he is almost impossible to like, and I always enjoyed watching the more adventurous Vinokourov to the metronomic and relentless Armstrong. In 2003, he came third in the Tour; in 2005, after missing 2004 through injury, he came fifth and won a couple of stages; in 2006, he won the Vuelta a Espana.

In 2007, he had won two stages of the Tour before, the morning after his second win, the entire Astana team withdrew after positive blood doping tests.

Cycling has been riddled with doping, and I will gladly defend the sport’s efforts to rid itself of the stigma. The fact that there have been so many bad headlines is testament to the governing body’s determination to find the cheats. But that didn’t make it an less upsetting.

For the first time, I switched off. I didn’t bother to watch the rest of that accursed tour. He wasn’t the only rider that year to get thrown out, but he was the one that hurt the most. Say it ain’t so, Vino.

This brings us back up to date, and to the current Astana team. With the banning of Vinokourov, the management staff, and several other riders, the team was dead on the road. It was resurrected by Armstrong’s old directeur Johan Bruyneel who, looking for a place to call home after the disbanding of the Discovery team, set about building a new squad at Astana.

As you would expect from a man of his pedigree, he built a terrific team which, with Alberto Contador leading the charge won two of last three Grand Tours – Italy and Spain – but the Tour de France eluded them. 2009 was to be the year, with Contador one of the strongest men on the road, and a strong team to ride him to the front.

But that was before Lance came back.

From the moment Armstrong announced he would come out of retirement and link up with Bruyneel once more, there were rumours that Contador was deeply unhappy. He briefed the press so regularly to assert his status as team leader that his insecurity was painful to see.

So far this season, Armstrong has kept quiet and, by virtue of solid but unspectacular performances in the Giro D’Italia and other races, his potential as a threat has diminished. But then last Monday, he was in the break that was created by a freak cross-wind 20km from the finish. Contador was not in the break, and so lost valuable seconds to his rival.

In truth, the margin itself was negligible, and no neutral observer would blame Armstrong for his actions – he had been in the right place at the right time, and he had exploited it. Contador, however, had just as clearly NOT been in the right place and the situation spoke of the older man’s better brain for the game. Armstrong did not help the situation by caustically commenting in post-race interviews that Contador had not been unlucky, but had simply “not been there.”

On Friday, as the riders climbed the mountain into Andorra, Alberto Contador pulled away from the other contenders and established a gap that would eventually by nineteen seconds. Again, the margin itself is not as important as the moral victory. As Contador streaked away, Armstrong did not follow. The question is whether he was being a good team player and allowing his leader to establish a lead whilst marking his rivals from other teams, or whether he was simply not capable of matching his speed.

Either way, he once again showed a lack of tact in post-race interviews when he responded to questions about team spirit by saying, “the honest truth is that there’s a little tension. Alberto is strong and he’s very ambitious.” This is not how any domestique would talk about their team leader. It seems clear that Armstrong is determined to win this race, even if it at the cost of his own teammate’s interests.

The only question that remains is whether or not his 37-year-old legs can compete with the younger man over three weeks. As is so often the case in the Tour de France, the answer will lie in The Alps.

Related Articles:
Armstrong and Cavendish – Two Men Of Concrete

No comments:

Post a Comment