“To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It's always simple. There's no mystery on the street, no arch-criminal behind it all. If you got a dead guy and you think his brother did it, you're going to find out you're right.”
- Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects
As a conspiracy theorist, I’m not much good. Whether that’s due to a certain lack of creativity in analyzing the news or because I simply don’t look good in tin foil hats, I’m not quite sure. Whatever the reason though, my take on the great Columbia-instigated, Astana-fueled, Lance Armstrong-benefiting, Contador-rattling crosswind breakaway yesterday is surprisingly simple.
I don’t think, as some have postulated, that George Hincapie (Columbia-HTC) tipped off Armstrong that his team was going to drill it when they did, and if Hincapie did look to help out an old friend, he probably didn’t need to. Throughout his career, Armstrong demonstrated a well-honed ability to be in the right place at the right time, and not get stuck behind stupid field splits or crashes. Athletic ability may decline at Armstrong’s age, but, if only for my own sake, I’d like to think the mind holds on a few more years, and Armstrong’s is still sharp. On the coverage, you could see him moving rapidly up the left side some 8 kilometers before the right hand turn that took the peloton into the crosswinds.
I also don’t think that Armstrong set out that morning to shiv his Astana teammate Alberto Contador, but hey, when a prison riot breaks out, it’s a good chance to take care of some business, no? While there may not have been a plan in place to put time into Contador and make an early play for team leadership, I do think Armstrong knows an opportunity when he sees one.
The most visible evidence of exploiting that opportunity was the decision to send Astana workers Haimar Zubeldia and Yaroslav Popovytch into the rotation in the break over the last 10 km, helping preserve the gap to the rest of the field, Contador included. The less obvious sign that Armstrong was seizing an opportunity, rather than just covering a move or protecting himself, is a bit more speculative. Armstrong clearly knew enough to get himself to the front before the peloton made that right hander into the crosswinds, and he had time to get himself and two domestiques up there before the deal went down. What he seemingly did not do was get on the radio to inform the team’s top-placed GC rider to get to the front as well, which is what you would probably do if you were taking the “all for the team” approach to the race.
None of that, of course, was typical behavior of a unified team. Sure, Astana is still polling “undecided” as far as leadership duties are concerned, but Contador’s stomping opening time trial should have earned him a bit of relaxation for a few days, at least until some natural obstacle like a hill or another time trial sorted things out. But a tactical assault on what should have been a GC-irrelevant day, partially fuelled by your own team, is a little bit of a different story than the Astana party line of riding for “whoever’s strongest.” Whoever's smartest, maybe.
So, as most do, I’m willing to believe that yesterday’s shenanigans were an Armstrong play for the top spot, or at least the upper hand in the inter-team mental game. In that respect, they seem to have been reasonably effective. But I’m less inclined to imagine that there was some elaborate, premeditated plan involving blood-is-thicker-than-water and friends-are-thicker-than-teams tipoffs and whatnot. As much as people have been convinced over the years, rightly or wrongly, that every move Armstrong makes is carefully considered, thoroughly vetted, meticulously calculated, and ruthlessly executed, sometimes a bike race is just a bike race. And even without all the perceived maneuvering and head games, Armstrong is damn good at winning bike races.
In closing, and if I can at least wear a tin-foil beanie for a moment, it’s also very possible that it was just a calculated but ultimately harmless move for temporary glory, and that both Armstrong and Contador knew it at the time. With the team time trial today, and Armstrong Astana’s top placed GC rider, there’s a very good possibility that Armstrong will find himself in yellow at the end of the day. That would allow Armstrong, who, remember, will ride into the mountains as a 37-year-old former retiree, at least some token time in yellow for the masses before Contador enters his stomping grounds. Or maybe not – I think the aliens may be scrambling my thought waves.
- Oh, by the way, Mark Cavendish (Columbia) won again yesterday, so good on him. Yes, the talking-on-the-phone victory salute was cheesy, but I have to give him credit for keeping his head well enough to give new sponsor and cell-phone manufacturer HTC their money shot. The kid knows who pays the bills.
- With Bjarne Riis spending less time in the team car, has Saxo Bank lost its institutional memory? They’re about the last team I would have expected to get caught out by the whole-team crosswind acceleration, since they practically introduced it to modern cycling back at the 2005 Paris-Nice. Yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara did well to get himself into the move, but his overall chances are somewhat limited, and the Schlecks can’t afford to toss away stupid time like they did yesterday.
- Several reports noted that Columbia-HTC was made aware of the turn into the crosswind section by Eric Zabel, who serves as a consultant to the team and coach to Cavendish. Zabel apparently rode the closing kilometers of the course and called in course conditions to the team car. It makes for a more interesting and earthy tidbit that it was the legendary Zabel that provided that key piece of information from the seat of a bicycle, but the truth is, every team sends a ton of people and equipment up to the finish of every stage, and you don’t have to be on a bike to know which way the wind blows. The other teams need to tell the soigneurs to pay attention while they’re driving from the second feed zone to the finish.
- Skil-Shimano did well to place four men in the break, and they were up there pounding it out with Columbia for the duration. They even tried their hand with a last minute attack. I know a few people are trying to figure out what their motivation was, and again, I think it’s simple. When you’re a wild card team with no GC threat, your job is to show up and ride hard. So far, they’ve been doing a far better job of it than eternal charity case Agritubel.