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Double team?

As I’ve noted before, cycling is as much about what happens off the road as it is about on-road events. Which is why I’m increasingly wondering whether the highly anticipated battle between Astana teammates Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong will be less of a head-to-head fight and more of a team-to-team battle, involving both factions within the Astana team and – most intriguingly – two (possibly more) other teams.

The most likely external sources of support for the two rivals are, I would say, Caisse d’Epargne (Contador) and Columbia HTC (Armstrong).

Why should Caisse d’Epargne help Contador? Well, here are five good reasons:
– The team and six of its nine riders are, like Contador, Spanish
– They are competing in this Tour without their leader, Alejandro Valverde, so they do not have a general classification hopeful to support
– Without Valverde, they have already fulfilled their expectations for this race with Luis-Leon Sanchez‘s win at Saint-Girons last Saturday
– At last month’s Dauphiné Libéré, it appeared Contador was riding to support Valverde en route to his eventual victory in the traditional pre-Tour warm-up race. There can be little doubt he has banked a favour he may call in once the Tour hits the Alps – Contador remains unhappy about not being named as clear team leader for the Tour, something he believes is his right having won the last three Grand Tours he has entered. There is a strong chance he will leave Astana over the winter – his most likely destination being Caisse d’Epargne.

And here are five reasons why Columbia (and potentially other riders in other teams) might opt to help Armstrong:
George Hincapie, his old loyal lieutenant from his US Postal Service/Discovery Channel days, is one of the senior riders at Columbia
– Columbia’s team leader, Mark Cavendish, has become friendly with Armstrong and developed a strong mutual respect. With only today’s stage to Besançon and the finale in Paris earmarked as sprint finishes, the Brit could allow one or more of his men to slip away with the leaders into the mountains, potentially to either defend or support Armstrong, knowing it will not severely hamper his chances of winning further stages
– If so, that rider is most likely to be either Tony Martin or Kim Kirchen, both of whom will be keen to improve their overall standing in the general classification anyway and have their own motivations for riding up front. (In the case of the former, he is also defending the white jersey for the best young rider, which will undoubtedly come under heavy attack from Saxo Bank‘s Andy Schleck)
– Generally, Armstrong still commands a lot of power in the peloton, and could potentially call in a number of favours
– In addition to past favours, it is strong rumoured that Armstrong will create his own team for 2010, potentially branded Livestrong after his cancer charity, the lure of which may be attractive to many riders who are looking to establish themselves as genuine contenders. Martin and Kirchen, whose objectives are ultimately subservient to Cavendish’s at Columbia, would certainly fall into this category.

Even though it’s an open secret, both Contador and Armstrong would probably prefer it if the intense rivalry between them could be resolved without forcing their Astana team to take sides one way or the other, which could be ultimately destructive and open the door for another rival such as Schleck to steal the maillot jaune. Utilising their political power to engage other riders to bolster their ranks carry the fight on their behalf seems a far more palatable option.

Here are a couple of potential scenarios of what we might see:

1. On the climb to tomorrow’s summit finish at Verbier, Andy Schleck attacks, looking to improve his overall position. Contador is forced to mark him, as is Martin, but the latter allows Armstrong to sit on his wheel and drags him across the gap, saving Lance valuable energy to jump Contador further up the climb.

2. On next Saturday’s pivotal finish on Mont Ventoux, Armstrong still trails Contador by, say, 30 seconds and is forced to attack. A group of Caisse d’Epargne riders, with Contador riding in their wheels, repeatedly covers every move he makes, affording a less tired Contador the luxury of launching a later attack on his own terms.

It may all sound terribly far-fetched and delightfully Machiavellian, but that’s the way cycling has always operated, with deals being constantly negotiated between riders and teams, and favours being set up to be cashed in at a later date. It all helps make cycling the incredibly fascinating sport that it is, because it’s so much more than just the immense physical challenge of covering over 2,000 miles in three weeks: the psychological and political chess game that goes on in top riders’ heads is every bit as demanding.

Don’t get me wrong, Grand Tours such as the Tour de France are generally won by the rider with the best legs. But sometimes they are also won by the one with the best wits. Contador appears to hold the physical advantage, but Armstrong has frequently been linked with a future political career, and certainly has the upper hand when it comes to wielding personal power.

We shall see how things pan out, but don’t be fooled for a minute into thinking this is just a simple mano a mano battle.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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