What Might Have Been

Contador in Argyle?

On Tuesday, Bicycling’s Joe Lindsey put out a great piece that uncovers several of the contingency plans that were set to go into action had the Astana team’s Kazakh backers failed to deliver the €6 million bank guarantee the UCI saddled them with. Drawing on sources from within and close to Astana, Lindsey reveals that the team was set to continue as Livestrong-Nike had the Kazakhs failed to pony up the cash, and that Alberto Contador had been in talks with Caisse d’ Epargne. Lindsey also outlines what all this dealing means to an Astana squad that will now continue with both Contador and Armstrong attached, mainly focusing on the Lemond-Hinault showdown scenario that many have been salivating over since Armstrong announced his return.

For me, though, none of those things are the headline of this story. Rather, it’s the news of the team that Contador was allegedly most serious about joining – Garmin-Slipstream. According to Astana sources cited in Lindsey’s story, negotiations had gone far enough that the squad was shipping Felt bikes to Contador and had brought on Herbalife to chip in an extra $2 million to cover Contador and an entourage including a soigneur, a mechanic, and Astana compadres Sergio Paulinho and Benjamin Noval. So why should those little facts trump all the other juicy info in the article? Because, if accurate (Garmin sources have yet to confirm), they reveal that things are getting desperate in the Garmin camp with just a week and a half left until the Tour de France.

It can be hard to see at times, but Vaughters and company do have reason to be nursing a fairly sweaty set of palms these days. Last year, when the team was a scrappy Pro Continental squad looking to earn some respect, Dan Martin’s hard fought third place in the Med Tour, Tyler Farrar’s Zeeland GC win and sprint win over Mark Cavendish (Columbia) at Tirreno-Adriatico, and David Millar’s top-10 at the Dauphine would have been good results. But this year, with Garmin out of the underdog slot and playing in the big leagues, things are looking a little thin in the win column, and fans don’t get nearly as enthused about near-misses from breakaways and top five finishes in time trials. Additionally, the team’s “clean team” hook has worn a bit thin, and the focus has shifted more from establishing that reputation to earning results – the team has said as much. Add in Tour GC hope Christian Vande Velde’s ill-timed injury at the Giro, David Millar’s shoulder injury, and Columbia-High Road’s Giro thumping of Garmin at its own TTT specialty, and the team’s Tour campaign – the one that could save the season – was leaning towards a letdown. Set against that backdrop, it’s not hard to see why Garmin was looking for options.

But signing a three-time grand tour winner and agreeing to take on a few of his buddies as well? Loading up a more-or-less Anglophone team with a good portion of Discovery Channel’s former Spanish Armada? For a squad that’s always carefully selected riders to ensure team cohesion and proper fit, resorting to those sort of last-minute mercenary dealings is a marked departure. Indeed, the deal seems to be a departure from many of the team’s basic principles, and may indicate a bit of a crisis of faith within the organization.

Since the team’s TIAA-Cref days, team manager Jonathan Vaughters has set out to develop young talent, and though he made some battle-proven signings to help the team build momentum last year, he’s basically stayed true to that methodology. Sure, David Millar, David Zabriskie, Magnus Backstedt, Julian Dean, and Christian Vande Velde had already been around the block a few times when Vaughters picked them up, but Vaughters hasn’t been one to pursue and sign whichever superstar came up on the auction block, and those signings were hardly flashy.

Rather, slow, steady growth has been the model, and Vaughters has relied on an ability to spot young talent and on patience, nurturing riders like Martin Maaskant, Farrar, and Martin as they make names for themselves wearing his jersey. And of course, last year’s Tour revealed Vande Velde as a reasonable GC contender – an emergence that, despite Vande Velde’s long experience, still felt like the discovery of a new rider, and one that Vaughters has justifiably been given credit for.

On an organizational level as well, Garmin has made a name for itself by running counter to many of the dusty traditions and folk remedies of European cycling, instead developing its own management concepts and the various “protocols” developed by team physiologist Allen Lim. Combined with the team’s doping stance and its patient approach to rider development, Garmin had positioned itself as a new kind of cycling team for what many fans are hoping is a new era in the sport.

But the potential Contador deal, if such a deal was indeed in the works, undermines all that in one fell swoop. Simply hiring a big gun and his stable mates, tossing aside internal development, team cohesion, and slow growth in favor of results here and now, is straight from the old days. It doesn’t matter that, in the end, the deal didn’t happen – knowing that it could have tells us what we need to know. I’d also wager that those riders who thought they were vying for a spot on Garmin’s Tour de France roster have learned a thing or two as well.

Joe Lindsey was dead on about what the dead-on-arrival Contador-Garmin deal could mean to cohesion within the shored-up Astana team, but its potential affects on Garmin could be even more disastrous.