Yesterday it was announced by a representative from the Kazak Cycling Federation that Alberto Contador will indeed be honoring the final year of his contract and riding for Team Astana in 2010.
I'm sorry, Mr. Proskurin, but I’m not buying it.
Can you blame me?
It’s not as if we’ve been receiving accurate information regarding the situation at Astana. Since spring we’ve been inundated with nothing but conflicting reports, inaccurate sound bites, and contradictory quotes from individuals supposed to be working for the same team (Red Kite Prayer’s discourse on the matter shines more light on this). Riders are transferring, then they’re not. Riders are returning from suspension, then they’re not—until they do. Directors are leaving, then they’re staying, then they’re leaving. Paperwork’s being filed on time, then it isn’t, but then it was.
Confused? You should be.
It all contributes to a current state of affairs in which we absolutely cannot believe anything we hear until we hear it again…from the same person…on separate days. (Sure enough, hours after I began this piece, Contador announced that he was still making his decision.)
But for now, let’s give Astana the benefit of the doubt and assume the official was correct. If so, we have to ask: why would Contador stay with such an incredibly mis-managed organization? He's received plenty of offers from several Pro Tour teams, right?
Well, yes, he has—sorta. At least that’s what we’ve been led to believe. Garmin’s been a rumored destination since before the Tour--Caisse d'Epargne as well. Quick Step's Patrick Lefevere has done everything short of taking-up residency in Spain to get Contador to make the move North. That said, when you at these teams closely, reasons exist why no accord has been reached; one or both parties might be a bit apprehensive to seal the deal.
Let’s begin with the obvious choice: Caisse d’Epargne. While Contador would love to ride for a Spanish team—especially one with Grand Tour pedigree—he might be a bit hesitant about riding for a team already containing Alejandro Valverde. While he's not a threat to Contador's Tour-status, Valverde is certainly a contender in several of the races Contador uses during his Tour build-up. It will take some pretty sophisticated scheduling to keep Valverde and Contador in races where their talents and objectives will not overlap. Maybe Contador realizes this; or maybe management isn’t quite ready to put their money behind another horse--a horse that did win them the Vuelta. Overall, if Caisse and Contador were truly a match made in heaven, it would certainly have happened by now.
Garmin entered the sweepstakes in June when it looked like Astana didn’t even have the tenge to make it through July. Had it happened, Contador would have given them an instant contender--maybe a victory--and Jonathan Vaughters claimed to have had the capital necessary to bring the Spaniard into the fold. But then Astana secured some last-minute funds, entered the race, and well, the rest was history. But as fall began rumors began to re-circulate that Contador was once again being courted by JV.
But a funny thing might have happened on the way to a Contador-Garmin deal—well actually, several things did. First of all, Contador won the Tour outright, which has certainly driven the price for his services higher than they were pre-Tour. Team Radio Shack was also finalized, giving Garmin an instant US-registered rival in the races that garner the bulk of its exposure with home fans. Contador and his savvy team of advisors surely know this, adding even more value to his services should he provide them to the boys in argyle. Then there’s Bradley Wiggins, Garmin’s latest rouleur-turned-Tour-contender. While the result was the same, Wiggo’s performance this year was far better than Christian Vande Velde’s in 2008—better enough that maybe Vaughters thinks he has all the manpower he needs (even if Wiggo wants out). And last but certainly not least, let’s not forget that Garmin’s supposed to be the cleanest team in cycling and has Dr. Prentice Steffen, a well-known watchdog for suspected dopers, at the head of it’s medical staff. Steffen allegedly tried to the blow the whistle when approached by riders about doping during his term at US Postal. Maybe he smells a rat, and is encouraging Vaughters to re-think the acquisition of a suspected cheat. I could be completely off-base, but no deal has gone down--maybe for one or more of these reasons.
Finally we have Quick Step, a team looking to add a rider capable of winning races in France that don't involve cobblestones. Patrick Lefevere has tried this before, but unfortunately he’s chosen poorly. Remember the Juan Manuel Garate experiment? How about Stefan Shumacher? Even though Lefevere’s luck finding GC talent hasn’t worked the way he hoped, it hasn't stopped him from pursuing Contador (and his 4 trusted domestiques). Whether or not his bank account is up to the challenge is another story though, especially since Contador’s counsel likely realizes that the pressure is on Quick Step to live-up to the victories earned by Silence-Lotto at the end of this season--their salary demands are likely to have reflected that.
That said, I think Contador’s apprehensive for another reason. Allow me to explain with a trivia question: name the last rider—from any country—to win a Grand Tour for a Belgian team. Go ahead and take your time, I’ll wait.
[Jeopardy Theme Song]
The answer is Greg Lemond, who won the 1989 Tour de France for José De Cauwer’s Team ADR. For whatever reason, Belgian teams are not well-built to be GC powerhouses anymore—especially in the Tour de France, the race Contador cares about the most. Maybe it’s because the Classics are a bigger part of Belgium's national cycling culture or maybe it’s the single-day kermis mentality. But whatever the cause, Belgian teams just don’t seem able to get themselves over the hump in 3-week races. Silence-Lotto’s made a valiant effort recently, but there’s a big difference between the top step of the podium and the other two.
I suspect Contador thinks he won’t get the support at Quick Step he requires to win the Tour for a 3rd time. Even if he brings 4 teammates, will the team have what it takes to overcome The Shack and Saxo Bank? It’s possible, but not likely. The team's just not built for it. No wonder he hasn't signed yet.
In the end, it's becoming more and more likely Contador will stay at Astana. And maybe it's indeed the best move for him right now. His contract is rumored to be filled with provisions designed to protect him should things go sour (such as freeing him to sign somewhere else should Astana remain uninvited to the Tour). And if he does overcome Astana's shaky management and suspicious funding to find success, he'll be able to demand the richest contract in the sport's history.
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