Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Lance Effect

Make no mistake: this year's Tour de France was what it was because of Lance Armstrong. There are many who, for various reasons, are not fans of Lance, but there is absolutely no denying the effect he has on the popularity and intensity of that race. Fans want to get as close to him as possible, reporters want to ask his opinion on everything, shoot, even the other riders want to chat with him or ride near him. His aura is captivating.

Not only does he rally his team and bring out the best in his competitors, but he now is able to do it in a way that really says "I'm just a country boy from Texas." Mellow Johnny is what his friends used to call him; a play on words of the French term for the yellow jersey (maillot jaune) and how the Texans would say it. And it wasn't all that long ago that he really was just a country boy from the US, taking on the best in the world and winning their race.

Like anyone at the top, he has detractors, and like anyone at the top would, he ignores them. He politically deflected questions about the tension between him and Contador, while giving enough sound bytes to make reporters wet their pants. He referred to himself during and after the race as an "old fart" who was just trying to keep up with the kids, but not only did he keep up - he was on the podium and made it look so darn easy. After a 4 year hiatus from the highest level of the sport, to come back and ride that well was simply not something most thought he could do.

I have long considered Lance to be among the greatest Tour riders of all time, which would go without saying that he is one of the greatest cyclists of all time, but I felt his insular focus on the Tour would prevent him from being considered the greatest of all time. Surely Eddy Merckx "The Cannibal" or Bernard Hinault "The Badger" would own that title. The way they rode in their heyday was mythical; the stuff of legends. If a competitor pissed off Eddy, he would put his team on the front and punish them when the race was already in the bag. Or, he would solo to a win just because he could. He was ruthless; he won 8 stages in a single Tour, snagging wins in the mountains, the flats and the time trials.

But to compare these great riders to Lance is the same as attempting to compare Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron to Barry Bonds*. They played their sport in a different era when the nature of the sport was different. Back when those two were in their prime, every cyclist was a jack-of-all trades. Now we deal with specialists. There are prologue specialists, long time trial specialists, sprinters, climbers, power climbers, lead-out men, super domestiques. I had a notion that in 2004 or 2005 Lance was going to attempt the nearly impossible - to be in yellow wire to wire. I am pretty sure we'll never see this happen, but I thought, just for a minute, that if anyone could do it, it would be him.

As aggressive a rider as Eddy Merckx was, he is also very stoic and contemplative. He's a man of few words, but when he speaks, everyone listens. Miguel Indurain, I don't think he ever said any words. He just went about his business, got things done. Hinault, a little more colorful. Then there is Lance. He used to seem so uncomfortable with the formalities of the media, but he's developed into a surprisingly candid, if not political, ambassador for so many things. Needless to say, I called bullshit throughout the three weeks of the Tour when they really tried to act like the team was cohesive.

It was pretty clear that there was a group of riders that were largely loyal to Contador (including the vociferous Benjamin Noval, who was left off the roster for what he felt was being "too loyal" to Contador). There is no doubt in my mind that Johan Bruyneel wanted Lance to win, wanted to set the team up for Lance to win, and was hoping that Lance would have beaten Contador in that first time trial so he had a legitimate argument to make to ride for Lance. There were guys loyal to Lance, like Popovych, Kloden and Leipheimer, and no doubt these will be the ones that ride for Team Radio Shack next year.

Where will Contador go? Well, reading some of the post-Tour news and even though the Tour is not the end of the season, it has a feeling reminiscent of the days following the World Series or Superbowl - who will get dealt to where. The problem for Contador is he has an entirely too high asking price (est. 1.5mil-2mil Euros annually) and that doesn't even take into consideration his entourage of staff and riders necessary to build a winning team.

As it's always pointed out, sometimes the strongest rider doesn't win because they're not on the strongest team. There are those who feel that Cadel Evans is in this category, because he's a great rider and his team has never been quite strong enough to launch him to that final position in Paris. Twice runner-up is as good as he'll ever do. But to me, he was 2nd in soft years of the Tour, and has never proven he's a worthy champion. I will say that his tenacity and willingness to attack are admirable, he's never done it in an effective way, and when things aren't going his way I've seen him give up. Not boss-like.

Contador is definitely a skilled rider, and with 4 consecutive grand tour starts and victories, any team would be crazy not to look at him and salivate. Not many teams, unfortunately, can afford him, and there are some that really don't care to have him. Caisse d'Epargne, a Spanish team, would certainly like the chance and I'm sure he'd ride for them. Their stars have all but fizzled out, in guys like Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Pereiro. Valverde was always tapped as a successor to Lance Armstrong, but poor Tour performances and now a ban from racing in Italy for 2 years limits his effectiveness, and Oscar Pereiro, who won the 2006 Tour (by disqualification of Floyd Landis) is just a baby.

Garmin has expressed interest in Contador and I could envision them pulling a cheeky move like that, but they have neither the resources nor the management to build a team around him. I'd guess as long as Astana gets their act together he'll continue to ride for them under whatever new management they have going. After all, he's won two Tours and one each of the Giro and Vuelta, at this point unless he really cares about a legacy he'll just ride for the money.

Lance, meanwhile, couldn't care less about the money (something rich people say, cause they have lots of it). He wants another crack. He can do it, of course, and he'll pay attention to every detail, build his team around it and train harder than he ever has before in order to do it.

One thing I do know is that Alberto Contador is definitely not making any friends in the peloton after his dismissal of Lance Armstrong on Monday: "My relationship with Lance is zero. He is a great champion and has done a great Tour, but on a personal level I have never had a great admiration for him and I never will." This coming just after the Versus little profile on him where he said that during his recovery from a life-threatening brain aneurysm he read Lance's book and it inspired him to come back.

Hmm, curious. Sounds to me like someone had his feelings hurt. In fairness, I can see Lance being a little bullish during the race and isolating this non-English speaking teammate, much like I isolated and made fun of just about every kid that ever came onto my team that I didn't like.

A quick note about Johan Bruyneel, before I forget. I'm tired of everyone sweating his nuts. He is a paper champion. I do not doubt the guy is smart, a good tactician, but to me he's like Phil Jackson. I'm pretty sure I could win a gazillion NBA titles too if I had players like, oh, I don't know, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant playing for me.

So when you look at Bruyneel's grand tour performance you think geez, he's got two wins in the Giro (Contador 08, Salvodelli 07), a win in the Vuelta (Contador 08, Heras' may still stand but he cheated so I won't count it) and 9 wins in the Tour. But of those 12, 10 came from 2 people, and 1 has seven alone. That would be like me taking credit for Ben's marathon, because I ran with him a few times and yelled at him on the track. I'd almost be more concerned with the fact that he has been involved with many cheaters - Heras, Landis, Hamilton.

Postal/Discovery/Astana has really been solely focused on one goal each year. It's nice they have that luxury - their sponsors are willing to see them not win any other races ever. During the Lance1 era, nobody was allowed to win stages, and I always felt bad for George Hincapie because he just wanted to win Paris-Roubaix and nobody would ever really ride for him. Or like when Levi tried to win the Vuelta and Lance wasn't really doing much, I figured he'd ride to help him out. Nope.

In the era P.L. (post Lance), when they didn't quite have a Tour win in them necessarily, or at least it wasn't a given, they started to move towards winning stages and other races, but it almost seemed more like dumb luck than real strategy. Now you have Columbia boasting 58 wins or whatever they have this year, again, I could show up at the People With No Legs 5k and sneak a win, and also having Mark Cavendish doesn't hurt. They surely have a good team but no real big wins.

Then you look at Team Saxo Bank and Bjarne Riis. A Tour winner himself in 1996 (even though he publicly admitted to using EPO during this time and offered to give back his jersey, but everyone was cheating then so really it's moot), he has built a team that can win just about any race all the time. He's got two overall contenders in the Schleck brothers, even if Andy has cemented the fact he is the better of the two; he has a legitimate Classics/weeklong stage race/prologue/TT rider in Cancellara; he has the most aggressive and fun-to-watch cyclist in the world in Jens Voigt; he's got wins in the biggest races throughout the year. He's a guy that I would not mind having as my directeur sportif.

But it all comes back to the Lance effect. He essentially made Bruyneel the director he is considered today. He blew up Chris Carmichael's Training Center, leading to probably boatloads of dollars for Chris. He is King Midas, only everything he touches turns to a bright yellow.

In all honesty, Lance Armstrong is the reason I ride a bike. He's the reason I (along with millions of people) watch the Tour. He's the reason I don't have a reason to not train. And I'm pretty sure he'll continue to be the reason I have to get back to racing as I work through this recent setback.

There are people that choose to use their powers for good in this world, and people that choose not to. Lance is one of the good guys, and the world needs more people like him around. But something to always keep in mind is that the higher up on a pedestal he is, the longer the fall to the ground. People are so invested in him that I think if he ever said "I cheated" that cycling would collapse and millions of cancer patients would pull the plug.


fbg said...

I like your analysis. Where do you get your information from, in particular, who has money, how much Contador costs, etc.? I remember reading somewhere that one of the prominent team managers said that all but one of their team members were under contract for next year, and that the other rider was "loyal". It sounded like he was telling Lance to stay away from his guys. Was that Hincapie's team? I forget.

I'll be watching for announcements of the Radio Shack team members.

RM said...

The team budgets are all public and pretty easy to find. Rabobank currently has the highest team budget I believe, at 12 million euros.

Back when T-Mobile was around they definitely spent the most at about 15mil, and Postal/Disco was more like 12mil.

The riders' salaries are also pretty standard, with most of your big name guys looking for at least a mil annually. Lance, of course, currently not being paid, but guys like Sastre (super expensive, which is why nobody really tried to pick him up last year after he won the Tour) and Contador asking for a LOT.

I haven't heard or read that quote, but it would come as no surprise if that was Columbia. Lance would have no shame in going after George, but especially after George felt so slighted this year (by Astana, mostly) I think he would stay with Columbia. Plus, he's really tenuous about committing to riding the Tour next year.

I remember after George left Discovery he went to ride for T-Mobile the one year. That's like seeing Roger Clemens go from the Red Sox to the Yankees (not that I'm a fan of any of those). Or someone defecting from America to become a Nazi spy. It was deplorable to me.

Garmin is apparently pretty set for next year, at least that's what they're saying. They're definitely exploring the possibility of Contador, as they feel they could just cherry pick a win that way. Vande Velde will never win a Tour, but I could see him winning a Vuelta or a Giro. Bradley Wiggins just committed to focusing on the Tour for the next few years, and wants to double with a Tour win and Olympic golds in track cycling in 2012.

My favorite quote is: "I'd like to win Olympic gold and then win the Tour in the same year."

Well, Bradley, last I checked, the Tour will be in July, as per usual, and the Olympics will be in August. So you're going to have to ride the Tour first, and you'll be pretty wrecked after that, and then not have been focusing on the Tour. That would be a real tough double. Like Usain Bolt trying to win the 5000m and the 100m, but I guess if it came down to a kick in the 5k he would win...