The Vuelta a Espana concluded yesterday in Madrid and Spain's Alberto Contador won his third grand tour claiming the trifecta of the Tour, Giro and Vuelta. Clearly, the 25-year old is the world's top stage racer he climbs like an angel and time trials well enough to limit his losses. Unfortunately for American Levi Leipheimer Contador is his teammate which means that unless Alberto totally melts down in the mountains, Levi is going to have a tough time standing on the top step of the podium.
That's both good and bad. Without a doubt, Levi was the best time trialist at the Vuelta, winning both the races against the clock, and he was clearly the second best rider in the race behind his teammate. Thank heavens team director Johan Bruyneel let Leipheimer and Contador ride without orders in the final TT, it would have totally bogus to ask Levi to throttle his engine. That would not have been right.
There is a bit of history here. Way back in 2001 when Levi was in his first tour of duty with Bruyneel and the then US Postal Service Team, Leipheimer and his teammate Roberto Heras were locked into a dual for third place going into the final TT. Bruyneel let them ride then and Levi bested Heras to claim the final spot on the podium and it was that race which really propelled Leipheimer into the upper ranks of the pro peloton.
If anyone has any doubts as to which is the strongest stage race team in the world, I think that question has been answered. With a win in the Giro and a 1-2 finish at the Vuelta, my guess is that Carlos Sastre is thanking his lucky stars that Team Astana did not get invited to the Tour. Hopefully, that situation will be rectified for 2009.
The Lance angle in all this is that on Wednesday, the 24th, the Texas Tornado will make a public announcement about his future in pro cycling. Recently, Armstrong has been logging some pretty serious training miles in both Aspen and Solvang, the big question is not if, it is with whom? Given his strong ties with Trek Bicycles, the most likely candidate is Team Astana, but where does that leave grand tour champion Contador and Leipheimer?
If Lance has any ambitions to win the Tour again, I think he has to sign with Astana. I think Contador is a strong enough challenger to Lance's ambitions that the only way Lance can neutralize that challenge is to make him a teammate. Lance has a history of doing just that, the most notable example was the signing of Roberto Heras in 2001 after he put Lance in a spot of bother at the 2000 Tour. I don't know what Lance's arrival at Astana will do to team dynamics, but from a purely competition side of things, Contador has to be neutralized.
Of course, all of this is just speculation. We will hopefully get a much clearer picture on Wednesday. One interesting piece of fallout from Lance 3.0 (Lance 1.0 was the Motorola years; Lance 2.0 was the post-cancer years) is that the Tour of Georgia just might be saved. Rumours are that the Tour of Georgia will not return for 2009, but the power of Lance may just be strong enough to keep the Georgia race alive.