Without question, Alberto Contador has achieved great success as a cyclist, winning the TDF (twice), the Giro, and the Vuelta. He sits with a very small class of riders that can achieve this. And, he’s been able to achieve this at a tender age of 26, after almost dying of an aneurism in 2004. This article is not a comment about his achievements nor is it a critique of his skill as a climber or time trialist. Clearly, his record speaks for itself of Contador’s obvious talent.
That said, Contador still has a lot to learn as a rider, or more particularly, the politics of being a rider. Contador reminds me of Lance Armstrong prior to his cancer when he was an outspoken, unapologetic, overconfident prick. To Contador, it seems perfectly reasonable for everyone to bend under his will and to be visibly and pissed if anyone crosses him. After all, at least to Contador, he is the undisputed champion of the world.
But cycling is not like boxing. There is a politics to it, because in many ways more than boxing, it’s an old boys network. Contador really put his foot in his mouth for unapologetically telling Armstrong off in public that he never respected Armstrong and never will. Contador also put his foot in the mouth when he attacked in one of the first few stages (if a rider attacks, a person on the same team is not supposed to follow). Contador is certainly entitled to his opinion but that is where politics comes in. You definitely don’t say that to the hand that in large part feeds the sport and not to expect some consequences.
Armstrong is an institution, which means he frankly doesn’t need to get into a war of words with Contador to prove his point. Like a powerful politician, Armstrong, unlike Contador (who is a great rider but not yet an institution), has the money and influence to make Contador’s life a living hell.
The main way he is doing that is to ensure that Contador remains at Astana for the 2010 season. Other members of the team were allowed to break their contract. To Contador and his brother Fran, it seemed like he was entitled to do the same. But, surprise, surprise, a reality check for Contador: he had neither the money nor influence on Astana. And, let’s not forget that Armstrong has a financial interest in Astana, enough so that no team in their right mind be able to afford a buy out of Contador’s contract.
And, is it any surprise that all the good riders are getting signed by other teams, particularly Radioshack? That is not happening by accident. Armstrong may be a prick, he may be overconfident, and he may be an arrogant son of a bitch. But, unlike Contador, he can express it in more subtle ways.
Who do you think is laughing the hardest at Contador’s apparently inability to get out of his Astana contract? Who do you think is laughing the hardest when one great rider after another is getting signed by other teams? Who do you think is laughing the hardest that Vino is back at Astana? The UCI is still getting all the paperwork to from Astana to ensure they get a pro license . . . but do you really think there is any doubt they will not have the bank guarantees? They have it already. Armstrong and his influence will make damn sure that Astana will not be omitted from UCI races because of a technicality.
Armstrong wants to win the TDF ’10. He’s being coy about it, by saying things like, “I’ll try,” or “Contador will be tough to beat!” — but he’s been coy since coming back from cancer when he clearly realized to play the cycling game, you have to play the political game. Armstrong is one of the masters at that game.
Contador will certainly be tough to beat on a stacked team such as Quickstep or Garmin. But beating Contador will at least be manageable if he’s not on a great team (i.e., Astana) such as these. This is no accident but a racing strategy. It’s not necessarily race fixing as it is race dealing, and everyone knows in cycling there is quite a bit of quid pro quo. You mess with that and you get screwed. That’s what’s happening to poor old Contador now.
Maybe this young champion will learn his lesson. Maybe not.