The verbal sparring between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador is making big headlines. Since the conclusion of the race in Paris on Sunday the sparks have been flying as both riders have taken off the gloves and are airing their feelings on the past few weeks with stunning candor. It is clear from the remarks that one, they will not be riding together on the same team next year and two, there must really have been a lot more tension within the team at the Tour than was evident during the race.
My analysis of the situation is that Lance is upset that Contador has not given more credit to his team, Astana, for his win. Lance was always about the team, but Contador has been less than forthcoming on his appreciation for the efforts of his teammates. It may well be that Contador feels he won the race on his own or that there was so much disharmony on Team Astana that he just can't bring himself to pretend that everyone on the squad was supportive of his quest.
Contador's comments about Lance probably have root in the same soil especially if Alberto believes that Lance was trying to turn the team against him. I could see some manoeuvering inside the team for support early on in the race, but as the Tour progressed and it was clear that Contador was the stronger rider, the team should have been more committed to Alberto.
This situation is similar to the Greg Lemond/Bernard Hinault affair in the 1986 Tour when the two teammates were rivals. The difference is that in 1986, Lemond and Hinault were first and second place. If either faltered (and not both) then the team still rode into Paris in the yellow jersey. In 2009, the situation, while it appeared to be similar was significantly different.
I think one of the reasons Contador may have felt betrayed is that Andy Schleck was positioned in second place between Alberto and Lance. Andy was far enough ahead of Lance that if Contador had faltered and Schleck inherited the jersey, he could have kept it all the way to Paris. My guess is that even though Andy Schleck was looking very strong in the mountains, Lance always believed that he could take significant time out of Schleck in the Annecy time trial. That made the gap between the two not as big as it appeared.
The result was that Lance probably always felt that Contador was his main rival, even when Andy Schleck was ahead of him in the mountains. However, the climb of the Cote du Bluffy from the south was a much more difficult ascent than first thought. This meant that Andy Schleck's climbing prowess was able to offset some of his weakness on the flatter portions of the time trial. So, in the end, Schleck was a worthy rival and Lance was not just battling Contador for the yellow jersey in Paris.
It is unfortunate that Lance and Alberto have been carrying out their post-Tour war of words in public. Lance's third place was an incredible result for him especially considering that he was somewhat inconsistent in both the mountains and the time trials. As I said in an earlier posting, if Lance hadn't taken those 41 seconds in the crosswinds to Le Grande Motte way back on stage 3, he would have finished fifth place overall. Lance should be celebrating his podium finish. He probably is happy with his finishing position and his comments about Contador are just a response to Alberto not giving enough credit to the work by the team.
This might start sounding like a broken record, but come Saturday in Monaco, the great battle of wills between Astana teammates Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador will begin. Certainly, there will be other challengers, but these two are the main favorites for good reason and deserve all the hype. Lance and Alberto are very well matched physically so I think it will come down to the mental game to determine the winner of the 2009 Tour.
Right after the Giro, I wouldn't have given Lance much of a chance, but after being with him at the Nevada City Bicycle Classic, two weeks ago, and seeing how fit and motivated he was, Armstrong is a man on a mission. He is starting the race five pounds lighter than he ever did during his seven victories and his eyes show a keen focus and determination. Lance is not coming to France to ride in support of Alberto Contador.
Alberto Contador is probably feeling a bit lonely on Team Astana with only his old teammate from Liberty Seguros, Sergio Paulinho, as a trusted ally. Rumour has it that Contador might be getting some help from the riders on Caisse d'Epargne if he needs it. I am hoping that things remain civil on Astana. There is no need for a replay of the 1986 race where American Greg LeMond and Frenchman Bernard Hinault while they teammates, rode as rivals.
With all this talk of teammates and allies, it is probably fitting that the first stage of the Tour is a 9-mile(15km) individual time trial in the hills surrounding Monaco. That means a head-to-head battle between Lance and Alberto with the best man on the day assuming an edge in the fight for team leadership. With all the "Lance versus Alberto" hype in the past nine months, look for Contador to come out blazing, trying to prove that he is the true team leader of Astana.
However, Lance is a master tactician and will do everything in his power to try to match Contador. Unless we are talking Brett Favre, I am a fan of comebacks so I hope that Lance can match Alberto and if he does, the battle of wills will really be on.
You are probably thinking that the mental toughness of a rider is always part of the equation, but given that the two riders in question here are on the same team makes the mental aspect way more critical. Alberto and Lance will be spending way more time in close proximity than just during the race. Any gamesmanship can be played out long after each day's podium ceremony has concluded.
So, while it is clear that you have to be physically strong to win the Tour de France, this year's victor will also need to be as tough if not tougher mentally to prevail, especially if your name is Lance or Alberto.
One of the iconic figures in the sport of professional bike racing, Frenchman Laurent Fignon, announced today that he is suffering from intestinal cancer. Those new to the sport might not know the name, but in the 1980's he was one of the best stage racers in the peloton winning the 1983 and 1984 Tours de France and the 1989 Giro d'Italia. The Professor, as he was known to his French fans, was best remembered for his eight second loss to Greg LeMond in the final stage TT of the 1989 Tour.
Once again, cancer has proven that it plays no favorites and while Fignon has acknowledged that the disease is at a very advance stage, he will fight with all his will to beat it. He has already undergone two rounds of chemotherapy, but admits that the road to recovery will be difficult.
Fignon was a virtual unknown when he won the 1983 Tour de France. When he faced four-time Tour champ, Bernard Hinault, and Tour first-timer, Greg LeMond, in the 1984 edition of the race, nobody believed that he could repeat his victory. But, that he did and in convincing fashion. His victory in the 1989 Giro d'Italia made him the overwhelming favorite for the Tour that year, but Greg LeMond hung tough with the Frenchman in the mountains and then uncorked that amazing final day TT in Paris to wrestle the jersey from Fignon.
In the 1990's Fignon bought the Paris-Nice bike race and ran that event until his divorce forced him to sell the race to ASO, who also owns the Tour. Recently, Fignon opened the Laurent Fignon Center outside Bagneres de Bigorre at the foot of the Col du Tourmalet. The center is a state-of-the-art facility offering coaching, training, and just about everything associated with riding a bike.
While the Omloop Het Nieswauld marks the beginning of the European professional classic season, the 8-day Paris-Nice(PN) event signals the beginning of the stage racing season. PN goes from, well, Paris to Nice and is the first big goal for all the Pro Tour teams. Not only are the stage race riders looking to show well, but because PN offers racing for all types of riders, just about everyone is hoping that they can prove something to their team directors and sponsors.
The format gives the first few days to the sprinters on flat roads, then gives the less vertically-challenged opportunists their day in the sun. The last several stages are downright hilly and usually feature the climbers. With all the chances to show, PN is extremely competitive and a stage win here is highly treasured. And if you think the weather has been bad for the past two editions of the Amgen Tour of California, try freezing temps and snow for mile after mile if the weather turns unfriendly.
As an interesting side note, Greg Lemond's old nemesis on the bike, Laurent Fignon, used to own the race. Unfortunately, he never incorporated the event into a company(limited liability corporation or LLC). When he got divorced a few years ago the judge deciding on the division of assets couldn't figure out how to split up the race. Should Laurent get Paris and his soon-to-be ex-wife get Nice? Luckily, ASO stepped in and bought the race.
But, I digress. In the 2009 edition of the event, the fireworks have been going off since the opening prologue where Alberto Contador, not known as a fastman in a flat 5.5mi (9km) prologue crushed everyone including Garmin-Slipstream's double 2008 gold medalist Bradley Wiggins. Two days later, a well-planned attack in severe crosswinds by Team Rabobank put Contador in trouble and opened the door for Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel in the leader's jersey.
This might seem insignificant except that Sylvain is French, Paris-Nice is a French race (well, duh) and the French have been dying to find a new hero for over 20 years to replace the likes of Fignon and Bernard Hinault, the last two Frenchmen to win the Tour de France. Chavanel will be under attack by Alberto Contador and it will be a great race to Nice with a very difficult day in the mountains on Friday.
Not lost in all the Franco-drama, was the cracking ride by Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde who continues to climb out from under the domestique shadow notching a huge solo stage win into the legendary bike city of St. Etienne. After crashing hard in the prologue, it shows the measure of the man to pick himself up and get a very tough stage victory. Chapeau Christian.
It is going to be a very exciting run into Nice. Can Chavanel carry the weight of the whole French nation on his shoulders up the Col de Eze or will the 'Pistolero of Pinto' (Alberto, you really need to work on a better moniker) gun him down?
Today is the first rest day of the Tour so I caught up with one budding cycling legend, Mark Cavendish, and one bonafide cycling legend, Bernard Hinault, and sat down with each for a one-on-one interview to see what was shaking. Mark has been a huge hit in only his second Tour winning two stages and doing it in grand fashion. He struggled on yesterday's mountain stage coming in dead last, but in his defense he crashed early on in the stage and the race doctor, Gerard Porte, gave him something for the pain which upset his stomach. Bernard Hinault is not only a five-time winner of the Tour, but he is the last Frenchman, way back in 1985, to do so. He is now one of the organizers of the Tour, you can see him each day as he greats the riders after they leave the podium.
I asked Mark what it takes to win a stage of the Tour in the always chaotic field sprints. "First and foremost it takes a good team to get you to the finish. I've got an amazingly strong team that gets me there to the finish. You need the speed in the end, but you need to save all your power and punch so you can use it in the last few hundred meters of the finish. That's where you need a great team behind you."
Do you have to be slightly crazy to deal with all the dangers and be a great field sprinter. "I think the reason it looks so dangerous is that there is not that much going through your mind apart from being first across the finish line. You haven't got time to think about anything else. You haven't got time to think about the consequences or anything like that. You just have to be first. That's what matters."
"Sure it is dangerous, but if you start thinking about it you are not going to win. If you are driving a car and you come fast into a corner if there is something in your mind that says maybe I should slow down because my brakes don't work or my tires don't work. In cycling I don't have that. You can't really have that. You can't really think of consequences. You can't think of anything except being first across the line."
Bernard Hinault still looks as fit as he did when he climbed off his bike in 1986. The five-time tour winner commented on how the race has gone through the first rest day. "It has been a great Tour. After yesterday, you have only one second between Evans and Schleck for the yellow jersey. Even without a prologue there has been excitement from the beginning. It was a short first time trial but it produced some interesting results none the less. The stage finish to Super-Besse was very exciting and now we have had two spectacular days in the Pyrenees. I think it has been a great race so far for the riders and the fans."
When asked about who he fancies for the yellow jersey in Paris, he replied,"I don't know. The stages in the Alps are yet to come. The Agnello is long and hard and nobody knows about the finish in Italy. Then you have the Col de la Bonnette which is very long and hard. Then you finish on Alpe d'Huez. It could be Evans. It could be Menchov, Schleck or even Vandevelde the American."
Hinault is most remembered by Americans for his battle with teammate Greg Lemond for the yellow jersey in 1986, a race where in the end, Lemond finished first and Hinault second. Lemond has been at the Tour this year; how have the two former teammates and competitors been getting along? "We had our differences as competitors, but we are now friends. We have talked a lot at the Tour and have shared stories of our familes."