Friday, July 10, 2009

Return of the King, Part II

As a team, Astana has been fairly dominant in the race so far. They have four riders in the top ten, and three in the top five. It is expected that one of Astana's riders will take the leader's jersey pretty soon, now that the race has gone into the Pyrenees. What no one knows yet is which of Astana's top riders it will be: Alberto Contador, or Lance Armstrong.

This is something the team's director Johann Bruyneel needs to sort out sooner, rather than later. If a serious rivalry for team leadership festers, the team's performance could suffer accordingly, and neither rider will win. If one thing is clear, in order to win the Tour, the lead rider simply must have the total backing of his team.

The thing is, having two really good riders is a massive advantage. Your rivals cannot focus on a single rider. If you give chase to one, the other can make a break for it. Then, you try to chase him down, and the first rider scoots off. That constant change-up of speed can exhaust riders faster than just about anything, especially on a climb. The down side to having two really strong riders is ... well, they both want to win.

Right now, Contador and Armstrong are just about even on time: Contador rode a better time trial on Stage 1, and launched a late attack today to hang a few minutes on his rivals; but Armstrong took advantage of rough side-winds during Stage 3 to keep contact with a breakaway group. Not only are they about even on time, but it's probably fair to say that they're about even as cyclists. Contador is younger and stronger, and a better climber; but Armstrong has years and years of experience as a guide.

Bruyneel has an unenviable job ahead of him. He has to decide which man should take the lead from here on in. And he has to decide quickly. Making the decision will definitely put an end to one man's ambition, but failing to make the decision could be worse.

Of course, there's also the outside chance that this "controversy" is a put-on, a sham orchestrated amongst Bruyneel, Contador, and Armstrong to psych out the other riders on other teams. I wouldn't put it past them. It's already a fairly psychological sport. Head games are part of the package.

Still, we'll be able to see it play out on the road for another two weeks. Seven days down, fourteen to go...

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