Ever since Lance Armstrong announced his return to professional cycling, speculation has increased about the potential rivalry between Armstrong and Alberto Contador. I don’t profess to hold any goblets of truth here, so at best this post is just another drop in the speculation bucket.
Let me first get this out of the way. Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador are world class cyclists and champions in their own rights. They both have egos that have for better or for worse made them the champions they are today and both can climb mountains on their roadbikes at speeds and distances that 99% of mortals can’t.
What has made this interesting, of course, is that both of these riders are on the same team — Astana — during the 2009 Tour De France. The first four stages of this year’s race have caused many pundits to believe that Armstrong is positioning himself ahead of Contador — the team leader — in some strange quest to “steal” the yellow jersey from Contador.
Of course, memories of the rivalry between the elder Hinault and young Le Mond come immediately to mind, although in the Armstrong/Contador debate, Hinault is Contador and Le Mond is Armstrong. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Anyone who has followed the Tour De France at all for the last ten years knows that without question, the race is won and lost primarily in the mountains (in the last few years, it appears the race was won and lost with injections of EPO and blood doping). In that regard, the 19 or so second gap between Armstrong and Contador at this point is, as far as the final results are concerned, insignificant. The placings at this point when it comes to GC mean, and particularly to podium spots, absolutely nothing.
Armstrong is no fool. He has come here to win, but perhaps not in the way he has done so in the past.
Armstrong is a brilliant tactician. As we have seen in the past, Armstrong will do whatever it takes to win, from weighing everything he put into his mouth to feigning fatigue back in 2001 when Ullrich was his main rival. Put another way, nothing is by accident when it comes to either Armstrong’s preparation for Le Tour or his cycling conduct during Le Tour.
I think Armstrong is purposely distracting attention away from Contador, which ultimately benefits Contador. This will be hard to swallow for Armstrong fans, but Contador is the strongest rider out there right now on the Astana team. Armstrong is making it appear to other teams that he is the strongest rider out there and has aspirations to win.
Cycling, of course, is a team sport, and imagine how these perceptions completely mess up tactics for the other teams in countering Astana. Armstrong can ride strong now, because frankly its not the mountains. If Armstrong and Astana wanted to be predictable, they’d make Armstrong ride with Contador and Levi, protecting them as they made their way to the mountains. But by displaying attack mode at this stage, teams are going to change their tactics, forcing, for example, GC riders on other teams to expend energy to bring back Armstrong . . .when frankly, Armstrong is not a contender for the number 1 spot. Even if teams know this, they have to have their top guys expend the energy, because you just can’t ever count out a 7 time champion. And that very fact benefits Astana and, particularly, Contador.
It’s actually quite brilliant on Astana’s part. This does not mean Contador has an easy ticket to Paris, but it will be made easier by Armstrong’s sacrifice and distraction.
In the end, I think Armstrong will receive more credit in the history books for supporting Contador in his quest for his second Tour win, than trying to win himself and coming up short.