Monday, 13 July 2009

Courtesy of Team Astana
By Graham Watson

(Submitted on the Tours Rest Day)

While some critics might say the domination by Astana is not good for the Tour de France, it is hard to dispute the fact that the team has four of the strongest and most talented cyclists in the race. In Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden, Astana has achieved its aim of controlling the first week without actually adding the pressure of having the Yellow Jersey to defend. It is quite likely that AG2R and its race-leader, Rinaldo Nocentini, will spend the next four days doing the work that Astana would otherwise have had to do at the sharp end of the peloton if the team and any one of its top men had put his nose too far in front and actually taken the coveted maillot jaune. Despite the unwanted distraction of who is actually the team leader, Astana¹s ultimate goal is in sight ­ overall victory in Paris ­ although we will have to wait until at least next Friday or possibly as far as next Sunday for the next phase to begin.

Now that is has become very public, with declarations by Lance, Alberto and Johan Bruyneel, that all is not well between the two leaders, these next few days carry a fascination so rarely seen on the Tour, or indeed at any other sporting event. Yet the fact is nothing that has happened between Lance and Alberto was not already anticipated by Bruyneel and his staff, and the team was selected specifically for that reason ­ to give both men the best opportunity to succeed. It is quite simple: both Lance and Alberto want to win this Tour, and both men believe they are capable of winning it. The problem now is that only one of them can win it, which means the final week will see some racing that has never before been seen in a modern Tour. Everyone talks of the 1986 fight between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, but this 2009 version is very different ­ and far more explosive as well.

LeMond had never won the Tour when he started off as leader of La Vie Claire twenty-three years ago, so the resulting battle with Hinault was partly because LeMond did not actually know if he could win ­ or if Hinault was still the stronger man. LeMond won through in the end, but his victory wasn't without its tense and uncertain moments. The situation at Astana is that both Alberto and Lance have already won the Tour, and they still possess the confidence and strength and talent to win it again. And seeing as both men are certain to race again next year makes it an even more complicated situation. Hinault was always going to retire at the end of 1986, so once LeMond got the upper-hand in that Tour, the entire La Vie Claire team gave their full backing. Such is its professionalism that things with Astana will likely be the same if Alberto or Lance proves to be the stronger.

As a relative outsider, it is hard to see beyond the darkened windows of the team bus, or through the walls of the closed-off restaurant, to see how the other cyclists are coping with the duel between their leaders. What does Bruyneel say to his men at dinner, and more especially what is the content of his team-talk each morning on the big bus? I'd like to think that Johan goes to sleep each night with a big grin across his face, knowing he holds
most of, if not all of, the cards in this game ­ except that he doesn't. Talent in this sport carries an ambition that is sometimes hard to control or contain, and the danger with such a stand-off is that another team might hijack the initiative and prove to be the final winner. Bruyneel has to juggle things very carefully to avoid Astana being weaker because of their unique situation.

We'll just have to wait and see it play out on the roads ... And that may not be until the second to last day of the Tour. Get ready!

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