June 23rd, 2009

Lance’s Team Split

Amid sponsorship turmoil and just days before the Tour de France, Alberto Contador had a deal to leave Astana and race against Lance.

by Joe Lindsey

With the news last week that its Kazakh sponsors had finally made good on their financial obligations after months of non-payment, it seemed like the Astana team could face its biggest goal of the season, the Tour de France, without distraction. But the team that takes the start in Monaco could be a badly fractured squad, riven with trust issues and power struggles that, under the pressure of the Tour, could explode.

Happier days? Lance and Contador at Astana's pre-season camp in Tenerife.

Happier days? Lance and Contador at Astana's pre-season camp in Teberife.

A source within the team told Bicycling that when Astana looked like it would default on its obligations, a new structure had been set up to supercede it. Two different sources close to the team confirmed, also anonymously, that the team name was going to be Livestrong-Nike. Seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong raced last Sunday’s Nevada City Classic on an all-black Trek Madone wearing Livestrong kit; his teammates, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, rode in Astana team clothing.

“About three weeks ago, we learned that there could be a new sponsor, and that it was Livestrong-Nike,” said one of the outside sources, while the other said that they first heard the possibility of the new team structure about two days before the team switched to its “faded” Astana logo outfits at the Giro d’Italia.

The source within the team said that 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador assured manager Johan Bruyneel of his desire to stay with Livestrong-Nike, but was at the same time also quietly talking with Garmin-Slipstream about switching teams should Astana default on his contract. Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters could not immediately be reached for comment. Sources have also confirmed that Contador was in discussions with Caisse d’Epargne.

Significantly, the Astana team source said, Garmin was said to be not only signing Contador, but also his Astana teammates Benjamin Noval, Sergio Paulinho, and bringing aboard Contador’s preferred mechanic and soigneur from Astana. Herbalife, which sells weight loss and nutritional supplements via multi-level marketing, was said to be willing to contribute $2 million as a co-sponsor to sign the riders and staff for the remainder of 2009.

That deal was initially set to be announced last Saturday (and, according to the team source, Felt bikes were already on the way to Contador), and the Livestrong-Nike deal, said two of Bicycling’s sources, was also alive until just before the weekend.

But unexpectedly, Astana’s Kazakh sponsors derailed all those plans. In conjunction with the federal government and, according to some reports, an unnamed American corporation with business interests in the region, Astana managed on Thursday to make good on the $6 million bank guarantee that the UCI required.

What this makes clear is that the team’s uncertain sponsorship was not its biggest potential problem. Astana is far from a cohesive unit. Although the strongest team in the race on paper, with Armstrong, Contador, Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden all confirmed to start, their internal divisions could fracture the team and cost them the Tour de France.

Paulinho and Noval are among seven riders who are competing for three remaining spots on the team’s Tour squad. If Paulinho and Noval make the Tour roster, it could mean that the team could develop an even sharper split in allegiances, with riders such as Leipheimer and Chris Horner backing Armstrong, and others backing Contador. If Bruyneel leaves Paulinho and Noval off the Tour team (for that reason or others), then it could mean Contador would be isolated, vying for a second Tour win against his own team.

There has also been discussion of Contador forming alternate alliances, with Caisse d’Epargne leader Alejandro Valverde saying he would help Contador where possible – provided Valverde, who is banned from racing in Italy, even starts. The race’s 16th stage crosses briefly into Italy.

It also seems clear that Contador will switch teams when his contract is up after 2009. And Astana’s problems are far from past as well. The UCI announced in a brief statement today that its License Commission was provisionally suspending its procedure to withdraw Astana’s ProTour license. But the UCI said that the suspension was for an “unspecified length of time” and could be reactivated if necessary. In May, Armstrong mentioned he wanted to launch his own team in 2010.

With just 12 days to go before the start in Monaco, the only thing that seems clear at this point is that, for all its strength, Astana’s biggest opponent at the Tour may be Astana. Whether Armstrong, Contador or some other challenger will emerge victorious, only the race will tell.

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    Who needs General Hospital or Days of our Lives? The real drama is on the road, in between the ditches.

    Great piece of reporting and writing here, Joe.

    [...] Lance’s Team Split addthis_url = ‘http%3A%2F%2Fwww.keefermadness.com%2F2009%2F06%2F23%2Flances-team-split%2F’; addthis_title = ‘Lance%26%238217%3Bs+Team+Split’; addthis_pub = ”; [...]

    Thanks for the well-written piece that simplified a rather complicated situation. I look forward to seeing how all of this works out at the Tour, especially now that Valverde won’t be there.

    nice - i hope for the inter-team battles of la vie claire to return. it’d make for great racing if all those guys race for themselves. astana has four or five potential podium finishers, and their infighting may open up opportunities for others. i can’t wait. maybe it’ll be as exciting as cyclocross?

    Is there no integrity left in professional cycling. Contador has nothing to fear if he performs to his potential. He will be supported by his entire team, including Lance. Bruyneel is the best, and would except nothing less than a cohesive team, so Contador’s actions show me he is not confident he can beat Lance. I am also very disappointed in Garmin if these rumors are true. I would expect a European team to do some behind the back campaigning, but what has made Garmin one of my favorite teams is their appearance of openess and integrity. I say “appearance”, because if they did try to lure Contador away behind Bruyneel’s back, then I have lost a great deal of respect for them. Lastly, probably the only thing that could keep Contador from winning the Tour, is Contador, and damned if he ain’t well on his way to throwing it away. How’s the rest of his team going to feel about backing him now that they know he was preparing to jump ship without telling the team. Looks like Lance’s chance at number 8 just got a lot better. It may not matter how good Alberto’s legs are in July. They may not be able to overcome Lance’s brain. Like the earlier comment, this might best be called “As the Crank Turns”. It’s going to be a wild ride this July, wish I could be there!

    [...] TdF may just be Astana’s last big race with its current roster. Much has been written about Lance’s desire to create a Livestrong-Nike team and Contador’s discussions with other te…. There wasn’t time to put a new team together before this year’s tour, but don’t [...]

    [...] I took a break and did a little reading at one of my favorite blogs — Joe Lindsey’s Boulder Report on Bicycling.com. And yes, it really is one of my favorte blogs, and it does not bother me even a little bit that [...]

    [...] I took a break and did a little reading at one of my favorite blogs — Joe Lindsey’s Boulder Report on Bicycling.com. And yes, it really is one of my favorte blogs, and it does not bother me even a little bit that [...]

    Yeah, Alberto’s youth is showing, but if he had not looked after his own interests during the Astana meltdown, who was going to do it for him? Come on, guys, this isn’t the Boy Scouts here. Now Alberto should shut his mouth and go racing: I believe Lance is man enough to back him up if he can’t do the job himself: He has shown that selflessness already this year in every major race. Next year? Well, look out!

    [...] timing of Astana’s announcement is quite the coincidence, what with Joe Lindsey’s article yesterday suggesting that Garmin/Slipstream had discussions with Alberto Contador about joining their team in [...]

    I’m curious about where Lance was going to get or will get the funding for for Team LiveStrong/Nike.
    I sincerely hope that he isn’t looking to The LAF.
    If he does, this is the last year I ride in the challenge. I think having the LiveStrong name would be great but in no way should the foundation’s money be used for anything but research and survivorship. That’s my armchair opinion. That and $4.50 will buy ya a cup of coffee!

    [...] why did a write this post? I’m writing this post in response to the recent rumors of a Livestrong-Nike team entering the sport in 2010. If a brand like Nike sponsors a professional cycling team, I believe it [...]

    Listen up - Lance is all about Lance - don’t kid yourselves - LA went back to TDF for 1 thing - to win an 8th TDF - whether it’s with Astana, Livestrong-Nike, Contador or whatever & no distractions will derail him…Contador knew this - give him credit - AC is pretty savy. LA’s problem is that he is 38 yrs old and the field is a lot stronger than when he won the previous 7. The one who is really losing out on this mess is Kloden - he has had bud luck with teams - he’s always had the talent in past years to win the TDF but always ended up supporting another GC.

    Yea, Lance has helped other riders in other races because those races were not the TDF. Contador is the best stage racer in the pelaton and LA used to be the best. Contador stuck it out with Astana when they were not invited to the TDF, when they brought LA back, and when he was’nt sure if he was gonna get paid. He should have went to Garmin and I wish he had. Speaking of which, you can’t blame Vaughters for going after him. If Astana was’nt even sure they were going to the TDF, why should’nt another team try to recruit him. Its Vaughters’s job to field the best team he can. Just my opinion.

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