The question of who will be the leader of the talent-laden Astana team at the 2009 Tour de France has been a hot topic of discussion ever since Lance Armstrong announced that he would be riding for Johan Bruyneel's squad during his comeback.
Before the Texas Tornado threw his hat into the ring it was all but a foregone conclusion that Alberto Contador, who had won all three grand tours in little over a year, was Astana's undisputed 'capo'. When you add a seven-time Tour winner into the mix, suddenly it doesn't look like such a done deal.
So, how does a team determine who their go-to guy is? Clearly, a track record of winning and delivering the goods is important. Nothing kills a team's motivation like setting their man up for the kill, only to watch him go backwards on the final climb. During his seven-year reign as the king of France, Lance never faltered when his team dug deep to set him up for the yellow jersey. You could almost set your watch by the surge Lance would launch on the final climb in the Pyrenees or Alps. To steal a phrase from Vince Vaughn, Lance was "money."
However, you can be a rocket in the mountains, but if you lose handfuls of minutes in the time trial all that hard-earned teamwork will be for naught. Once you get the lead you have to hold it. Yes, your teammates can help you defend the lead, but in a time trial it is only the leader against the clock. There is no place to hide if it just isn't your day. Ask Michael Rasmussen about the 2005 Tour, when he dropped from second place to 'who cares' in the final time trial.
Once again, Lance never came a cropper, fending off Jan Ullrich in that Tour's final time trial, when everything hung in the balance. That kind of statistic is a huge motivator for a team to give its all, especially in the final week when all they can think about is getting to Paris.
Can Contador Deliver the Goods?
Alberto Contador, though he has won three grand tours, has not had the unblemished record of his teammate. To be sure, Contador possesses one of the most blistering uphill attacks in all of cycling, but he has faltered on more than one occasion. While we can probably cut him some slack after being called from a vacation at the beach to ride the 2008 Giro d'Italia, this year at Paris-Nice he surrendered the leader's jersey after making a rookie mistake.
OK. To be sure, Miguel Indurain's sixth Tour win went bye-bye when he failed to eat on the way to Les Arcs in 1996. And Contador did not have a particularly strong team at Paris-Nice. But the fact remains, he needs to deliver the good, especially when he is wearing the leader's jersey in a major tour.
One big surprise this year is Contador's noticeable improvement in the time trial. Last year, he won the Tour of Spain based on his riding in the mountains. Teammate Levi Leipheimer beat him soundly in the time trials.
This year, while Leipheimer continued his winning ways over Contador by besting him to win the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, there is no doubt that Alberto is finding ways to go faster. His win in the opening time trial at Paris-Nice was nothing short of awesome and his race winning TT at the Tour of the Basque Country was also impressive.
Factoring in the Unknown
So, Lance is still money and Alberto is improving. That would have been the racing form about a month ago. But if the unknowns didn't have an affect on the outcome, it wouldn't be bike racing. Yup, the unknowns. Stuff like Lance breaking his collarbone. Levi looking so solid you could make bank and Contador having more ups and downs than the stock market.
Lance's broken collarbone has thrown a huge wrench into his training preparations for the Tour. He returned to competition at New Mexico's Tour of the Gila in late April, then rode the Giro d'Italia from May 9th to the 31st.