The Bitch(ing) is Back

In the end, the great Astana “all-behind-Alberto” unification lasted all of three days, Monday’s rest day included. And once again, the team’s young star and current race leader is drawing his team’s ire for racing his bike to win.

On yesterday’s Stage 17 to Le Grand Bornand, Contador found himself in an elite four-man group along with the brothers Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Astana teammate Andreas Kloden. Out of that two-on-two matchup, Contador had the nerve to attack with two kilometers remaining on the final climb, presumably in an attempt to gain more than the two minutes worth of padding that separated him from the other GC contenders. Contador’s brief acceleration unshipped Kloden, which (despite the fact that Contador gained time over Brad Wiggins, increased his overall lead, and finished together with his other main extra-team rivals) was enough to set the Astana chapter of the U.S. Postal Alumni Association a-grumbling to anyone who would listen.

No sooner had the Astana boys settled in for their massages than Armstrong was Twittering snarky messages about being allegedly vexed by the move: “Getting lots of question why AC attacked and dropped Kloden. I still haven't figured it out either. Oh well.” Not to be outdone, DS Johan Bruyneel wasted no time in airing the team’s dirty laundry, telling reporters that he told Contador not to attack, but that he did anyway.

For what it’s worth, Contador told a slightly different story, noting that he checked with Bruyneel on whether or not to attack, and Bruyneel told him to ask Kloden, who gave the green light. (Kloden, for his part, comes off looking the best for simply saying nothing at all.) Now, I’m not claiming Contador’s was the most brilliant move, since it ultimately left him isolated against two Saxo Bank riders (though there was little they could have accomplished at that point, and from the looks of it, Kloden wasn't likely to be much help). No, the move wasn't without its problems, but the problems with his team’s reactions to it are far more serious.

Problem 1: No Manners

What happened to even the barest semblance of being on the same team? Of sticking up for your guy, or at least not tearing him down in public? You don’t do it because you like him, or because you’re friends, or even because you want him to win – you do it because you’re on the same team, and right now, it’s supposed to be your team versus the rest of them. It’s part of the job you get paid to do, and part of being a professional is keeping gripes you have about your teammates internal, not airing them to the media or taking them directly to your fans. Everyone slips up on that now and then, but none seem to do so as regularly, pointedly, and maliciously as Astana. For a group that’s rattled on so much about respect over the years, they’re showing precious little of it now that someone else is deserving of it.

Problem 2: Not Reading the Job Descriptions

They’re mad at the race leader for dropping his domestiques? Are we really making this argument again? Listen, Kloden is a high-functioning domestique, but make no mistake, when he’s riding with Contador or Armstrong, that’s his role. Getting dropped is what domestiques are there for, and we have to get over this notion that Contador should be waiting for his at every fork in the road. You don’t hear anyone complaining about how Mark Cavendish (Columbia) rudely dumps Mark Renshaw at the finish of every sprint. Or how Armstrong should have waited up for little Ty-Ty in all those early Tour de France wins. Complaining that your leader, in the yellow jersey, is making it too tough for the help to keep up is like complaining about the Apollo capsule dropping the Saturn V rocket on the way to the moon. It’s absurd.

Problem 3: The Podium Sweep Delusion

Bruyneel’s criticism of Contador (this time) largely consisted of the questionable assertion that Contador ruined the team’s chance at a podium sweep by dropping Kloden before the Schlecks got a chance to. Let’s start with the fact that regardless of how tight a leash they manage to put on Contador, that just wasn’t going to happen. While he’s rapidly proving himself to be the most professional guy in the Astana outfit, Kloden isn’t going to go anywhere in the mountains without a Schleck or two getting there two minutes before him, all things being equal. Yes, the man can time trial, and the Schlecks are indeed kind of terrible at it, but after the Annecy time trial the Schlecks still have the Ventoux to take what they need out of Kloden, and they’ll have the advantage of not having to haul Armstrong up the mountain. And even if Kloden gets the job done while serving both Contador and Armstrong, the sweep scenario still assumes that Armstrong can also get the job done, which is still up in the air after a few hard days in the mountains. If he can't, will that be Contador’s fault, too?

In addition to being a plan destined to fail, screwing around trying to execute the podium sweep delusion could potentially cost the team the outright victory. Look, typically there isn’t much I can tell a director who’s won 12 or so grand tours, but today is an exception to that. So to Bruyneel, I say this: don’t get cute. Yes, I know you’re Belgian, so you probably get cold sweats just thinking about those podium-sweep finishes that Patrick Lefevere used to engineer in the northern classics. But this is the Tour, not the classics, and there are a lot more competing goals in the Tour that could roll right in and make a mess of your carefully orchestrated plan. And regardless of the reputation you’ve forged and all you've accomplished, there is really only so much you can plan for and control, so you better focus on the primary goal.

In his efforts to keep all his ducks lined up neatly in a row, Bruyneel is in danger of ignoring the need to solidify Contador’s less-than-secure margin and blowing the whole thing. At the start of yesterday’s stage, Contador sat 1:46 ahead of Wiggins and 2:26 ahead of Andy Schleck. Two minutes is forgetting to drink in today’s time trial. Two minutes is a bit of inattention on Friday’s transitional stage. Two minutes is a bad patch on Saturday’s Ventoux. It would be a real shame to sacrifice the final yellow jersey because you held Contador back in order to set Armstrong and Kloden up for the podium.

There’s one final disconcerting element to Bruyneel’s sweep idea: if he’s really so confident of his own abilities and those of his aging riders that he thinks he can successfully stage-manage a 1-2-3 finish in the midst of the biggest crapshoot finale the Tour de France has ever seen, he’s truly gone around the bend. But I don’t really think he has. With the announcements of new teams and sponsors, Armstrong at the Tour in 2010, Bruyneel’s separation from Astana, and the rumors of Contador’s Formula One sugar daddy, I think Bruyneel’s just starting next year’s round of screwing with Contador a bit early. I also think he knows damn well he couldn’t have a podium sweep, but that’s not going to stop him from blaming Contador for ruining it.

Race Radio

  • If Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) isn’t wearing a red number today, there’s something wrong with the world. That was the most beautifully ridiculous ride I’ve seen by a green jersey contender, ever. With any luck, Hushovd’s little points-collection outing will shut Cavendish’s trap for a few days. Probably not, though.

  • In the midst of all this griping, I should probably also express my appreciation for the Schlecks. Someone needs to try to beat Contador besides his own team, and they’ve been more willing than most to give it a solid try. They’re not afraid to put the team on the front, and they’re not afraid to attack and see if it sticks. You know, not afraid to race.

  • Are the Astana mechanics in some sort of competition with the Mavic guys to see who can do the slowest wheel change without the rider actually punching them? Mavic set the bar with a downright leisurely change for Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) several days ago, but I tend to give neutral support a little slack since they obviously can’t have wheels gapped specifically for each team in the race. That said, it was still a crap change. Not to be outdone, Astana did everything but have a smoke before they got down to getting Contador’s wheel changed on one of the early slopes today. Sure, the pressure wasn’t really on at the front, but let’s show a little spirit here, boys.

  • Speaking of mechanics, did you catch the Cervelo mechanic pulling alongside Carlos Sastre and emptying a can of spray lube onto his chain? And his derailleur? And his frame? And his rims? That last target must have made for an exciting final descent, but I suppose Sastre is looking for speed anywhere he can get it these days.

  • I don’t know if someone lubed Denis Menchov’s (Rabobank) rims or not, but the guy’s been sliding along every piece of asphalt he can get his ass on. Is the medicine for vertigo on the banned list or something?

  • You know what I want to see? The complete list of all the inappropriate, lewd, offensive and profane messages people have submitted to the Nike Chalkbot. The ones that make it on the road may be inspirational, but I guarantee the rejects are funnier.