Alberto Contador put his stamp on the 2009 Tour, attacking the elite group of overall contenders with two miles(3km) remaining to the finish at Arcalis in Andorra. Many speculated that Contador, in an attempt to keep team harmony at Astana, would only follow an attack by another squad's overall contender such as Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck or Carlos Sastre. But, after Cadel Evans had tested the waters with 2.5 miles remaining and had been easily brought back by both Contador and Armstrong, Alberto launched his convincing attack.
The gap quickly went out to double digit seconds, but seemed to stabilize at around twenty seconds as Evans led the chase. Garmin-Slipstream's overall favorite Christian Vande Velde signaled his return to top form by launching an attack out of the Evans-led group just under the red kite. He was brought back and he, Evans, Armstrong, Leiphimer and Andy Schleck all finished together 21 seconds back of the Spaniard.
While the race for overall was going on down the road. Brice Feillu of the French Agritubel squad won the stage. He was part of a large breakaway group that had a ten minute lead as the race entered Andorra. He attacked with about five kilometers remaining and held off all his break-mates. As a bit of a break from form, he forgot to zip up his jersey to acknowledge his sponsors as he crossed the line.
One side effect of the large time gap given to the breakaway was that Rinaldo Nocentini, who earlier this year won the Pasadena stage of the Amgen Tour of California, inherited the yellow jersey ahead of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong. Contador has only a two second lead over Armstrong on general classification, though with the strength he showed in the closing kilometers, he looks to be a tick better than Armstrong on the climbs.
But, after struggling to stay in the lead group at the Giro d'Italia, it is a testament to Lance's form that not only did he finish in the lead group, but he easily neutralized Cadel Evans' attack and looked very relaxed in the drag over the final kilometers to the line. Based on how good he looked, it is a distinct possibility that Lance was playing the good teammate and forcing the others to chase Contador.
It was another exciting stage. Even though Contador appeared to have the upper hand on Armstrong, those who doubted Lance as a true contender may well be silenced. It was also very gratifying to see Christian Vande Velde back up with the leaders after his horrible crash in the Giro. Christian's teammate Bradley Wiggins also climbed well. More on his transcendence soon.
Stage winner Brice Feillu.
Popovych leads Lance and Alberto with about 4km remaining.
Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Andreas Kloden and Frank Schleck.
Sergio Paulinho has done his work at the front and is now just riding to the finish.
The fallout from yesterday team time trial is still being felt among the teams with contenders for the yellow jersey. Clearly, Team Astana is in the drivers seat while hopefulls such as Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto), Carlos Sastre(Cervelo Test Team) and the Schleck brothers(Saxo Bank) have some catching up to do.
This morning at the stage start in Le Cap d'Agde I talked with a number of riders about the team trial and what the results mean for the days ahead.
Yaraslov Popovych was a key player in Team Astana's victory. He described the course and the resulting team strategy. "It was hard because it was a very difficult course. The road was really small. We had only one object, to not crash. We wanted to win, but we wanted to save the team for the next two weeks."
Lance Armstrong signaled out Popovych and Andreas Kloden as the two strong men during the ride. What was Popovych's reaction to the praise. "Everybody pulled very well. Alberto was good, everybody was good. This is a really strong team."
Cadel Evans and his Silence Lotto squad had a disastrous race. They waited for several of their stronger riders when one got dropped and the other flatted, but both came off, for good, soon after. In the end they ceded over two minutes to Lance and Alberto which does not bode well. I have a lot of time to make up on the guys from Astana. As far as a podium place goes I am really going to have to work at it."
When asked if he found the course difficult, Cadel replied "it wasn't hard for me. Just for my teammates."
Cadel's teammate, Charly Wegelius had a bit of a different take on yesterday's events. "First I have to say that considering everything that happened to us in the race yesterday the team performed quite well despite a lot of misfortune. The course was highly technical with corners that you didn't see very well how they were going to finish up. If you add into that the stress and the pressure of riding a team time trial at the Tour it was quite an explosive combination."
"If you look at the general classification we are not alone. We will be looking for opportunities to make up some time. Maybe there will be other teams who want to make movements with us, too," added Wegelius.
Cervelo Test Team rider Hayden Roulston, teammate of Carlos Sastre, echoed Wegelius' comments on what lies ahead. "I think it is going to be a very interesting race now. A lot of guys who are two minutes down are contenders so who knows what is going to happen. It might have just opened a whole new can of worms."
Frenchman Thomas Voeckler pulled a bit of an upset by winning solo into Perpignan on a stage that most thought would end in another sprint finish. Voeckler was part of a small breakaway group that had been off the front for most of the race. Columbia-HCT and Garmin contributed to the chase and things looked good for another bunch finish when Voeckler attacked his companions and while the peloton caught his breakaway mates, they didn't catch him. Sometimes persistence pays off and things don't go according to form.
I got to play technical service rep at the start. I am shooting small video clips for Saris Cycling (www.saris.com), the people who bring you Power Tap power meters. I was shooting a video with Cadel Evans when, afterwards, he remarked that his Power Tap wasn't working at the moment. He asked me, since I was working for Saris, to fix it and that I did.
If you watch the Tour de France everyday hoping for drama then the last few stages have been extraordinary. On a very difficult 25-mile time trial course around Montpellier, Lance Armstrong came within an eyelash of putting on the yellow jersey for the first time in almost four years. It would have been an incredible step in his comeback, but the Fabian Cancellara-led Team Saxo Bank did just what it needed to retain the maillot jaune.
By just, I mean literally less than one second. It was oh-so-close for a storybook ending to a day which saw the American Garmin-Slipstream team put in a valiant effort which almost won the day. They finished only 18 seconds back of stage victors Team Astana after 47 minutes on course. It is not a coveted stage win, but the boys in argyle should be proud of almost toppling arguably the best team in the sport. Garmin-Slipstream have clearly proven that they deserve to be a Pro Tour team in only their first year at that elitest of levels.
The TT course was far from the usual flat and fast affair. Small roads, sharp climbs and a punishing wind made this one of the sternest tests for a team the Tour has seen in years. I was fortunate to ride with Garmin-Slipstream team during their warm-up lap this morning (hint: it wasn't a warm-up for me) and I was impressed by how difficult and technical the course was. Look for a report including on-the-bike photos, in an upcoming blog. I am still recovering. It may take years.
Garmin's power guru Dr. Allen Lim described the team's game plan. "Stay careful. I think it is a dangerous, dangerous course. I think the guys have to be conscious of one another and not take any risks. Normally it is full throttle. Now it is full throttle plus a high sense of awareness of one and other and careful through the corners. Some places we are going to have to be conservative and then try to make it up elsewhere. Through the very fast techinical sections there will be very few changes at the front."
After the race, Lance spoke with Gerard Holtz on Antenne 2. When asked to describe the TTT course his only response was 'tricky'. He admitted that he was a bit disappointed not to get the yellow jersey. Hollywood actor Ben Stiller appeared on stage and took full responsibility for losing the jersey by less than one second. He was certain that Lance had looked back just before the finish to see if he was watching. Ben went on to present the yellow jersey to Fabian Cancellara.
Just before Astana took the start ramp, Lance shook Conador's hand. Alberto responded as we see in this photo as the two teammates realized that they would need to work together to beat the other squads.
Team Garmin-Slipstream heads down the start ramp.
Just before Team Columbia-HCT started down the ramp, Mark Cavendish and George Hincapie shared a fist bump.
If Lance doesn't win his eighth Tour de France this July, the cycling pundits will certainly be dissecting his race and his pre-race preparations ad infinitum. But, regardless of what happens over the next three weeks it is interesting to note that Lance had clearly deviated from the formula which brought him seven consecutive Tour victories.
During his record setting string of wins, one of the critical components of his preparation was to ride, sometimes two or three times, the key stages of that year's race. That usually meant long days in the mountains and previewing all the time trials. Obviously, the strategy and tactics of a given stage dictated how a stage played out on race day, but for Lance and his teammates, there were no surprises when it came to what a particular course might dish out.
This year, mostly due to his broken collarbone, his committment to ride the Giro and the birth of his son, Max, Lance has not had the opportunity to preview all the key stages. Lance did ride the opening time trial course in Monaco several times in the days preceding the race. He reckoned, correctly, that the tricky descents were just as important as having maximum power on the climb to the summit of the Col du Beausoleil.
But, instead of being in Europe in June doing recon rides, Lance and his Astana teammates Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner trained out of Aspen, Colorado.The three amigos rode four and a half to six and a half hours a day in training. One of their most popular rides was to go from Aspen up over Independence Pass at 12,000' then down to Twin Lakes at 9000' then back up and over Independence Pass to Aspen. This 80-mile ride with about 8000' of climbing took the boys about 4 and a half hours at moderate training pace.
At the recent Nevada City Classic, both Levi and Lance remarked that it was good to come down from altitude to race as training at such a high height really does not give a good indication of overall fitness. However, it has been proven that altitude training does work so these guys were not wasting their time. They just weren't in Europe as was the case from 1999-2005.
We will have to wait and see if the deviation from the formula was a good idea or not. Sometimes circumstances force you to change your game plan. The jury might still be out, but judging from how Lance and Levi rode in the Monaco TT, things are looking good.
Some guy named Mark won stage two from an intact peloton. It was great to see Tyler Farrar in second and the fact that Hushovd slipped in there for fourth meant that nobody is giving away any victories just yet. Yes, Cavendish may seem unbeatable, but Farrar did just that this past March in the Tour of Mediterranean. Don't count Garmin-Slipstream out. They can definitely give Cavendish a run for his money and if the Manxman gets a bit cocky and leaves it late, like he did at the Giro when he lost a couple of stages to Allesandro Petacchi, Farrar could pounce.
The Tour de France has officially begun and while the winner on the day, Fabian Cancellara, was not a huge surprise, the race for Astana team leadership got very interesting. All four of Astana's Tour podium finishers, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden finished inside the top 10 with only 22 seconds separating those riders after the 9-mile(15 km) time trial. While Alberto, 3rd overall, did best Lance, 10th overall, by 22 seconds the question of team leadership is still unanswered.
On a warm, muggy day in the principality of Monaco the relatively short course resulted in interesting, but not necessarily significant, time gaps. None of the favorites faltered; Cadel Evans was right in the mix, five seconds behind Contador and 17 seconds ahead of Armstrong while Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre were within a minute of their rivals.
The Garmin-Slipstream team also demonstrated their time trialing prowess, putting four riders in the top 17, led by Bradley Wiggins' third place finish, 19 seconds behind Cancellara. David Zabriskie, 13th, David Millar, 14th and Christian Vande Velde, 17th, had solid rides. Vande Velde's comeback after a race-ending crash in the Giro seems to be on track to finding his top form as the race progresses.
This year, because there are no time bonuses at the finish, it is likely that Cancellara will keep his yellow jersey at least until Stage 4 on Tuesday and the 25-mile team time trial. Based on the results of the opening time trial, it should be a battle between Astana and Garmin-Slipstream for the stage win.
It has been an up and down season for Cancellara who won the opening prologue of the Tour of California, but was forced to withdraw the next day due to sickness. A training crash at home in Switzerland severely hampered his preparation for the Classics, but he recently won his home tour, the Tour de Suisse, and appears to be finally finding his form.
The next few days should be the domain of the sprinters. Look for Team Columbia-HTC with Mark Cavendish to be challenged by Cervelo Test team and Thor Hushovd, but Garmin-Slipstream and their up-and-coming sprinter, Tyler Farrar, might surprise.
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.
The power of Lance is pretty awesome. It is felt not only in the cycling world where media and fans simply can't get enough of him. But, it transcends the sport of cycling and the cycling community to America and most of the rest of the developed world. One only needs to know that Armstrong has over one million followers on Twitter to see the power of Lance.
This past Sunday, I got to see the power of Lance. The Texan was scheduled to ride the Nevada City Bicycle Classic. His appearance caused quite a stir in the tiny Northern California town and a local TV station stepped in to broadcast the race live. Team BMC professional rider Scott Nydam was supposed to be the color commentator for the broadcast, but he got the call to fly to Aspen to train with Levi, Lance and Chris and was unable to provide his insights.
I was at the event covering it for cyclingnews.com and was asked to step in and take Scott's place. I have done enough live radio and TV to know the drill so I agreed to get behind the camera. What was supposed to be just a local TV broadcast grew to epic proportions when Lance tweeted the web address for the broadcast. In an instant, our TV production was now a worldwide affair. It was a lot of fun and I continue to get comments from people across America who listened and viewed the broadcast.
Switching gears a bit, I love putting photos in my blog, when interesting and appropriate, so in keeping with the Lance and Nevada City Bicycle Classic, here are several photos of Lance and Levi warming up before the race. Those with a keen eye will notice that they are riding all-black Madones and not their usual steeds painted in Team Astana colors. These are clearly prototype bikes.
It seems that Trek is about to announce an updated version of the Madone; the new models will be unveiled to the press and public just before the start of the Tour de France in Monaco. Of course, it is a bit of speculation, but it appears that Trek is going to address one of the concerns of the current design of the Madone by modifying the integral seat mast and clamping mechanism to allow some side-to-side play.
This new design will make it easier to insure that you can dial in the direction of the nose of the saddle to meet your desires. The Madone re-design may include other changes. Keep your eyes peeled at the end of next week for more details.
Lance Armstrong won his first pro race since his comeback with a solo win at Sunday's Nevada City Bicycle Classic. Lance, Levi and Chris came to Northern California from their training camp in Aspen, looking to test their fitness and also ramp up the intensity a bit after multiple five to six hour rides in the Colorado high country. Long rides build and preserve endurance; the 90-minute effort at Nevada City was designed to add some snap.
The 1.3 mile criterium course is considered one of the most difficult in America with over 100 feet of climbing per lap. There is no place to hide and the pretenders are quickly separated from the contenders. Lance and Levi attacked early on in the 90 minute/35 lap event and went clear with only Ben Jacques-Maynes(Bissell Pro Cycling) able to catch the train.
Lance and Levi did all the work on the front. Jacques-Maynes realizing that he was over matched by these two Tour de France veterans. With about 10 laps remaining Armstrong and Leipheimer started trading attacks, Ben finally had to let Lance go and suddenly, Armstrong was solo and looking very good for the win. The crowd erupted in applause for the seven-time Tour winner. Clearly, it was a very, very popular victory.
After the race I talked with Lance and Levi. Lance is looking extremely fit with nary an ounce of body fat on his frame. He will be starting the Tour two kilos lighter than any of his seven victories in France crediting the hot weather and long, tough stages at the Giro, rather than Jenny Craig, for his trimmer self. A couple of weeks ago, I would have questioned his fitness to contend for the overall at the Tour. Now, I have to say that he looks ready to be very, very competitive.
Levi took some well-deserved time off after the Giro, but is now ramping up his training and feeling good though he did comment that it is hard to really gage ones fitness when you are training at 8000'.
If the Nevada City Bicycle Classic was any indication of what we will see in France, things are going to be looking very good for Team Astana and the three amigos.
With all the drama surrounding Lance Armstrong's comeback and his chances for another Tour win, lost a bit in the hysteria is the fact that his Team Astana might not be at the Tour. I want to say up front that I want them at the Tour because they are one heck of a good team witness their win of the team prize at the recent Giro d'Italia. But, just this past week, Team Astana boss Johan Bruyneel indicated that the sponsors have still not paid up all the money owed to the riders and the team as of June 1.
You might be thinking that it is less than a month before the Tour and that Lance, Johan or some additional sponsor could step in to make good on the money owed, but you have to remember that the governing body of the sport, the UCI, is the one who makes the decision to suspend a team for financial non-payment. The UCI usually does this to protect the riders. If a team is not paying its riders then the UCI has the power to suspend the team until all salaries are paid up-to-date.
So, while Johan and Lance are doing everything they can to keep the team afloat through the Tour, the UCI may step in and spoil the party. The UCI could suspend the team or it could revoke the team's Pro Tour license if no long-term solution is possible. If the team is suspended then Lance, Alberto, Levi, Chris, etc, will be sitting on the sidelines watching the Tour. If the UCI revokes Team Astana's Pro Tour license, then the team is basically disbanded.
If the team disbands, that means that all the riders' contracts are null and void which free the racers to seek employment with other teams. Rumours abounded at the Giro about the teams who were talking to Alberto Contador if the Astana did disband. Also a hot topic in Italy was the very real possibility that Johan Bruyneel would get Astana's Pro Tour license and he and Lance will have their own top-tier pro team in the very near future.
Personally, I don't think the UCI will revoke Astana's Pro Tour license or suspend the team. Johan Bruyneel is clearly frustrated at the Astana sponsors inability to satisfy their financial commitment, but I think everything will probably hang together long enough to get the team through the Tour. But, it is clear that the money is slow in coming and the UCI might just step in to set an example. Team Astana should have been at last year's Tour. Hopefully their exclusion won't happen again.
I stopped by the Team Astana bus during the Rome TT and spoke to Chechu Rubiera, Jani Brajkovic and Johan Bruyneel. Here is what they had to say on a variety of topics.
Bruce: it appears that, for the TT, the race organizers found every bad section of cobbles in central Rome.
Chechu: Not just in Rome, the whole Giro. We should start a business in Italy with asphalt. It is a good thing. You could make money here. The whole Giro had cobblestones and it has been really tough. It is the Centenario(100th anniversary) and the route was very nice with places like Rome, Venice, Vesuvio, but it was pretty damned dangerous. We were lucky it didn't rain because if it did rain this race could have been a big mess.
Bruce: You keep threatening to retire. Is this your last Giro?
Chechu: Maybe my last one. I didn't feel very good. I trained hard and I did my best, but I was pretty far from the best guys. It was a little bit of a disappointment.
Bruce: Will we see you at the Tour?
Chechu: No. I will be doing the Vuelta and not the Tour.
Bruce: how do you assess your performance in the Giro?
Jani: It was a pretty good Giro. I am pretty satisfied. We did a good job as a team also. I am not feeling super tired so I am happy. I was there to help Levi and Lance so I did that and I am happy about it.
Bruce: You seemed to excel as a climber in the Giro. Did you do anything special to become a better climber?
Jani: I think so far I have been quite a decent climber so I had no problems with that. I was not here to be a leader so there was no reason for me to go 100%. I tried to save as much energy as possible and use it on another day.
Bruce: what was it like riding for Lance and Levi?
Jani: Lance is incredible and Levi is also really strong. I am really happy to be racing with them. It is just incredible.
Bruce: for today's TT will you ride a road bike or a time trial bike?
Jani: Actually, I haven't decided yet. Maybe I will go on a road bike because I don't want to do it for the results. I just want to ride it because it is super-dangerous.
Bruce: what positives for Team Astana do you take away from the Giro?
Johan: For us it has been a race where we didn't start with the obsession to win it or anything like that. We thought 'OK we want to have some good results', but we were not obsessed with winning it or having to have stage wins. Ultimately we are going to win the team classification. It is always a good indication of what the team performance is like.
Bruce: how do you feel about the performances of Levi and Lance?
Johan: I think Levi's sixth place is good. It's not great. We hoped for a little better, but his crash right before the time trial and the fact that he is on high form already since February makes it really difficult to maintain in the last week of the race. The last week of a big tour is always hard. We are happy with his performance at the end of three weeks.
Lance has improved considerably and is able to ride comfortably in the mountains.That is also a good thing we take away from it(the Giro). It has been a good three weeks.
Bruce: what does Lance need to do to be at top form for the Tour de France?
Johan: He needs some time. He needs another month now to have some good training in June. He'll be in good shape for the Tour. I don't know how good that can be to be with the best, but he will be in good shape.
The 100th anniversary Giro d'Italia finished today with a 15km(9-mile) individual time trail around the streets of central Rome. The course passed a number of Rome's most famous landmarks including the Colosseum, Saint Peter's Basilica and Circus Circus. In the end, Denis Menchov's overall victory appeared to be a relatively easy affair, but that was far from the case.
It was a drama-filled final stage as the organizers seemed to try to heap additional difficulties on the riders by running the race on just about every poorly-cobbled street in central Rome. In fact, almost 7 miles of the 9-mile course was on cobbles and bad ones at that. It was a bumpy ride for all the contenders and with rain falling on and off, the outcome was far from certain.
Many riders not in contention for a high placing chose to ride a regular road bikes so as to have more control on the twisty, turny route which also included significant ups and downs. Also, riders looking to the Tour de France like Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer decided not to take any chances on the slick cobblestones and definitely rode within themselves.
The drama was provided by the rain which caused race leader Denis Menchov to crash in the final turn, but he was up quickly and lost little time. In the end Menchov was a deserving winner. He gained the bulk of his time in the race's 61km Cinque Terra time trial, but he rode consistently in the mountains, avoiding a single bad day, to keep his margin all the way to Rome.
Here are some photos. Race leader Denis Menchov(Rabobank) with 1.5 miles to go.
Danilo Di Luca(LPR Brakes), who finished second overall, negotiates a turn in the first kilometer.
Carlos Sastre(Cervelo Test Team) win two hard mountain stages and finished fourth overall. Look for him to be a factor in the Tour de France.
Lance Armstrong took it easy in the final TT. He will head to a high altitude training camp in the USA in the next few days.
The Roman Colosseum was the backdrop for both the start and finish of the stage.
ps - I shot a lot of photos and did a bunch of interviews. Look for them to be popping up once I get back to the states.
While Lance may not be making big headlines on the bike at the Giro, what he is doing off the bike is generating some exciting news. To be fair, Lance did not come into the Giro in peak form and he is showing that he is the master of the three week race by riding within himself in Italy so he can go the full distance and not burn out too early.
It was reported last week in several Colorado newspapers that Lance had called Governor Bill Ritter to sound out the Governor on the potential of putting on a Tour of Colorado much like the Amgen Tour of California. Last summer Lance bought a house in Aspen and has been using that dwelling for his altitude training. Lance and many of us remember the glory days of the Coors Classic and the possibility of re-capturing those magical times is a huge motivation to bring big-time bike racing back to Colorado.
At this time the idea is only in the 'trial balloon' stage. My guess is that Lance was just testing the waters to see how receptive the Governor's office was to the idea as the state is key to pulling off such an event. It would most likely be 2011 at the earliest before any race could happen.
In the past several years, Medalist Sports who run both the Tour of California and the Tour of Missouri has been working with a group in the Vail Valley to bring a 3-4 day professional stage race to Colorado, but that event has yet to be held. Hopefully, Lance will have more success.
My rumours and speculation on some of the details of the new professional team run by Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong generated lots of comments. Remember, the details of the team are all just speculation at this point.
One alternate scenario that is emerging is that the team will continue as Team Astana until after the Tour which would mean that Lance, Alberto and Levi would all be racing together in France in July. One good reason to keep the current squad intact through July is that if a new team emerges after the Giro, but before the Tour, it is not clear if that team would be allowed to start the Tour de France.
Given that the French National Anti-Doping Agency(AFLD) backed off on the "Showergate" incident, it seems clear that the French want Lance to start to the Tour. So, if the new team did emerge before the Tour there is a good possibility that a number of rules would be bent to allow them to participate.
My guess is that since Lance and Johan are pretty smart guys they have already contacted the Tour organizers and asked them if their new team would be allowed to start. The answer to that question will probably determine when the new team emerges.
Word coming from the Giro d'Italia is that it is all but a done deal that Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel will have their own professional cycling team. Details are still a bit in the speculative stage, but it appears that an official announcement will be made on or about June 1st, the day after the conclusion of the Giro and also the day after the UCI's deadline for Team Astana to get it's financial situation in order has come and gone.
More than likely, the bulk of the team will come from the current roster of the Astana squad. Speculating on the exact roster, the new team should include Lance, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaraslov Popovych, Chechu Runiera, Daniel Noval, Jani Brajkovic, and a most of the remaining supporting characters (Gregory Rast, Steve Morabito, etc.)
One rider who is rumoured to not be part of the new team is Alberto Contador. He has been linked to Caisse d'Epargne, the team of Alejandro Valverde whose own participation in the Tour de France has been put in doubt by a recent two-year ban in Italy for his participation in Opercion Puerto. It is not clear if Contador's good friend and training partner, Jesus Jernandez, will follow him to Caisse. Obviously, if Contador does not come to the squad, all questions about who will lead the team at the Tour de France become moot!
Another rider whose future is uncertain is Andreas Kloden who has recently been linked to blood doping during the 2006 Tour and will almost certainly face some sort of disciplinary action. Also, it is unclear if any of the Kazhak riders currently on the team will be retained.
Rumour has it that Bruyneel and Armstrong have already produced the team kit with their new sponsors and will be unveiling it at the public announcement in the days after the finish of the Giro. Look for Armstrong to be wearing his new team colors as he trains with Leipheimer and Horner at his home in Aspen between the Giro and the Tour.
We will have to wait and see how this all shakes out, but suffice it to say, the excitement in pro cycling won't go into hiatus between the Giro and the Tour.
The 100th anniversary of the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy or just plan Giro) will start on Saturday in Venice and end three weeks later with a time trial around the streets of Rome. Only one American, Andy Hampsten, has won the event, but this year, another US rider comes into this grand tour with the form to contend for the overall. No, it's not Lance Armstrong who recently admitted that his broken collarbone suffered in March has delayed his fitness.
Three-time winner of the Amgen Tour of California Levi Leipheimer arrives at the Giro with the form and the motivation to attempt to repeat Hampsten's 1988 performance. Levi has been on a tear since winning the AToC, taking Spain's Vuelta Castilla y Leon and dominating several races in the US. While Leipheimer has the chops to shine in the mountains and the time trials, he is going to have to stay close to the front in the flat bunch finishes to avoid the crashes which seem to plague the Giro.
Look for Lance Armstrong to work for Leipheimer in the mountains and on the flats, but he should be given free reign to go full gas in the time trials. I am hoping that Lance will ride the entire three weeks, he deperately needs the racing miles if he is going to be a factor in the Tour, but I suspect that he might pack it in after the 60km time trial south of Genoa in the middle of the 2nd week.
The Garmin-Slipstream team made huge waves last year when they won the first stage team time trial. This year, the first stage will again be a TTT. The argyle boys have the talent to repeat and take the race's first maglia rosa, or pink leader's jersey. Again, like last year, the team will most likely be using this race as training for the Tour. Christian Vande Velde might test his form for a stage or two in the mountains, but don't look for him to be high up in the general classification. Tyler Farrar will need to outfox and outpower Mark Cavendish to win a bunch finish. Look for Tom Danielson to go stage hunting in the mountains.
The other contenders for the overall include Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. All three riders have won a grand tour so they are going to be part of the mix. Usually a rogue Italian climbs into the fray as well. What this makes for is a very open Giro with no clear favorite. I am putting my money on Levi and hoping that his team will be focused on supporting him all the way to Rome.
BTW, NBC Universal Sports will be carrying daily updates from the Giro both online and on their TV station. If you have Comcast Cable you are in. Also, some metropolitan areas (Bay Area and Denver, Yeah!) get the channel over the air with the digital NBC network.
On Monday, Lance Armstrong went public with his announcement that he hopes to run his own top-flite European professional team in 2010. This year, Armstrong launched an Under 23(U-23) team, Trek-Livestrong, captained by current World 4000m Pursuit Champion Taylor Phinney, but the plan for next year is to put together a squad that will compete at the highest level of the sport.
Also mentioned in the announcement is that long-time friend and team director Johan Bruyneel will also be part of the program. Bruyneel, who currently runs Team Astana will need to figure out how to sever his ties with the Khazak squad. Given the current rumours surrounding the health of Team Astana that might not prove to be too difficult. It appears that the Astana, which is funded by a conglomerate of Khazak companies, has been hit hard by the economic downturn and has not been able to meet its payroll commitments.
There is some speculation that Astana may not be able to stay afloat long enough to participate in the Tour de France. Also rumoured is that the UCI may step in an revoke the squad's Pro Tour license. Obviously, this is all rumour and speculation, but something appears to be happening. Before we jump to any conclusions let's hope that the team can iron out the difficulties and continue with its dominating season.
Also in the announcement, Armstrong indicated that he would like to be a team director and rider for the new outfit meaning that he would still be on the bike in 2010. It is too far off to get a feeling if he would ride the Tour or other big stage races with his new squad. Let's let him get his 2009 season under his belt before we all start guessing on his racing program for next year.
Just who the title sponsor will be for Armstrong's new squad is a mystery. Some have speculated that Nike will step up. Another possibility might be SRAM, the component manufacturer who has a big enough budget to step up in a major way. Whoever decides to write the checks, the Armstrong/Bruyneel combination combined to form a very potent force. We will have to wait and see if Alberto Contador is recruited for the team, but whoever joins the ranks will be part of an exciting new team.