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Contador jumps to Saxo Bank in opening move of 2011 Tour battle

Any hopes that the close finish to the 2010 Tour de France – won by Alberto Contador with a slender 39-second advantage – heralds the dawn of a closely-fought and enduring rivalry between the Spanish three-time champion and runner-up Andy Schleck took a severe dent yesterday with the announcement of Contador’s departure from Astana for Saxo Bank.

Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck will both be sporting different colours in 2011 (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

With Saxo Bank reversing their decision to withdraw from cycling and staying on as co-title sponsor for 2011 alongside the software and IT services corporation Sungard, team owner and manager Bjarne Riis will continue to have at his disposal the resources he needs to run arguably the strongest squad in the professional peloton.

Who will be in the team come January remains to be seen, however. Contador’s transfer serves to further underline the Schleck brothers’ impending exit to a new, still unconfirmed Luxembourg-based team, reportedly backed by Luxembourg businessman Flavio Becca, and it is heavily rumoured they will bring key team members such as Jens Voigt, Stuart O’Grady, Jakob Fuglsang and time trial specialist Fabian Cancellara with them from Saxo Bank.

How much any such moves weaken Saxo Bank-Sungard remains to be seen. Voigt and O’Grady are nearing the end of their careers, and Contador will undoubtedly bring his own lieutenants from Astana, including compatriots Daniel Navarro and Benjamin Noval, both of whom put in impressive performances in the service of their team leader last month. Fuglsang would be missed, particularly in the mountains, but Navarro represents a more than adequate like-for-like replacement. And Cancellara’s potential departure may be a blessing in disguise, with his ability to drive the peloton hard on the flats and in the foothills offset by an increase in team focus – Schleck would not have lost as much as the 42 seconds he gave up to Contador in the Tour prologue had he been prioritised over Cancellara and allowed to go as Saxo Bank’s final (rather than penultimate) rider in drying conditions in Rotterdam.

Contador was understandably delighted to be joining a team with a more harmonious atmosphere than he has experienced at Astana, where he has had to play team politics with first Lance Armstrong and then Alexandre Vinokourov over the past two years:

I think I’ve chosen the best option and I have confidence in Riis to build a great team in 2011. I’m eager to start this new adventure together with a team and sponsors who have placed their trust in me and I want to show that they have not made a mistake.

Riis was suitably effusive about signing the man who has won the last five Grand Tours he has entered:

An impossible opportunity that has occurred, and that we are able to realise. With three Tour de France victories on his resume and a position as number one on the world rankings, he is sure to stay at the very top for several years to come. I believe we have not seen his full potential yet.

Contador will now race the 2011 Tour attempting to become only the second man (after Greg LeMond) to win with three different teams: Discovery Channel, Astana and now Saxo Bank-Sungard.

As for the Schlecks’ new home, they will have the benefit of a sizeable budget but the significant disadvantage of having to build the team – both in terms of riders and infrastructure – from scratch, which means 2011 is likely to see them struggling to achieve their full potential. Beyond that, who knows, but it seems unlikely Andy will initially have a machine as well-coordinated and fully functioning as Saxo Bank have been for the past three years, a period which has seen them win one Tour (with Carlos Sastre in 2008) and place second with Schleck the past two years.

We will not fully know the relative strengths of Saxo-Bank Sungard and the Schlecks’ team until the dust has settled on what promises to be a particularly fierce transfer period, with Sky and RadioShack also bringing their deep pockets to the party. With the window officially opening on September 1st, negotiations and deal-making are undoubtedly well advanced – or even completed, pending announcement – in many cases. It will certainly make for an interesting few weeks as we build up to the Vuelta a España, which kicks off on August 28th.

To employ a chess analogy, the major pieces are now in place, but it is the deployment of the pawns and the minor pieces which will determine the balance of power between Contador and Schleck when we reach the endgame of the 2011 Tour. For now, though, the early advantage clearly lies with Contador after the opening gambits.

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

14 Responses to Contador jumps to Saxo Bank in opening move of 2011 Tour battle

  1. Not convinced that Fuglsang will leave. He is a dane in a danish team. He’ll stay,

  2. Sheree says:

    Cancellara has one year remaining on his contract so will not be upping sticks and leaving with the Schlecks. Given that there’s a TTT in next year’s Tour, Cancellara’s presence may well have been one of the deciding factors for Conrador along with the additional dosh heading his way from Specialized who’ll now only have the expense of sponsoring one team.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks! I wasn’t aware of Cancellara’s contract situation, but I had seen his name mentioned as a “possible” rather than a “probable” in various rumours. It certainly makes it less likely, although not impossible – Sky did pay £2m to buy Wiggins out of his Garmin contract, although that’s a slightly different situation as they were acquiring a team leader rather than a key team member.

  3. Kitty Fondue says:

    It’s easy to say in hindsight that prioritising Cancellara in the Prologue worked against Schleck because of the 42 seconds but I don’t think he would have gained a lot of time by being the final Saxo to go out of the start house. Although he’s improved, he’s still not a great time triallist – I was there in Rotterdam and he went off in pretty good conditions, if I remember correctly. It’s not like he went out in pouring rain.

    His position also needs to be tempered with the fact that Cancellara is the World Champion and, for the fans on the course, you want to see him at his best – certainly on the opening day of the Tour. Cycling is a spectator sport, at the end of the day, and on a time trial, I would think most spectators would like to see Cancellara fly. I’m sure all of Saxo were looking to the mountains for Andy to make up whatever time he dropped in the Prologue.

    • Tim says:

      I agree with what you say, but if it had been Armstrong’s or Contador’s team, do you think Cancellara would have been allowed to go last? The reality is that the team should race for their own good, not for the benefit of spectators.

      As I’ve said elsewhere, I wouldn’t suggest that Schleck would have recovered all 42 seconds if he had swapped places with Cancellara – but given that he lost just 31 seconds against Contador in the long ITT which was nearly six times as long, it’s reasonable to assume the gap would have been at most half as much – which would have meant Schleck going into the ITT with a narrow lead rather than a narrow deficit – a big thing psychologically, as then the onus would have been on Contador to chase.

      Watching on TV, there did appear to be some (not all) stretches of the course which dried noticeably in the last 30-40 minutes. And even if the roads had been identical, going later would still probably have given Contador an advantage as he would have had more data coming back from the team watching other riders, and therefore a bit more confidence than if he had gone out earlier. Schleck, going out earlier, might well have been a bit more tentative (understandably) in the corners.

      Of course, all this is purely hypothetical. We’ll never know for sure whether it would have made any difference at all, but certainly swapping could only have made things better for Schleck – and in a race which was decided by such fine margins, who knows what might have happened? All part of the fun, eh?

  4. Kitty Fondue says:

    Your take on the situation is as valid as the next guy’s, obviously, but I disagree with the premise that a team should ride for its own good, not for the benefit of spectators – I disagree in that I don’t think that those two things are mutually exclusive. In this case, having Cancellara on your team and him winning the Prologue is good for the team and good for the sponsor. He’s in the yellow jersey for a few days, you get a lot of publicity, sponsor’s name gets a lot of camera time, fans get to see him in his full glory, everybody wins.

    I also think that while Saxo obviously had the long-term goal of a Tour win for Andy, that was three weeks away and anything could happen – it’s a huge gamble. As you say, who knows what might have happened? He crashed on the second stage and could have been out of the race. Then where is your team? Putting Cancellara out in a good position for an almost guaranteed yellow jersey for much of the first week is a short term goal that reaps a load of benefits immediately, and if something adverse had happened to Andy, the team would still have had some Tour success. So it could be argued that they were riding for the good of the team – we just disagree on what the good of the team was.

    But every team also has to ride for the benefit of the spectators – at least take them into account, as they’re the ones who ultimately keep the sport running and they’re the ones sponsors want to get to. Cycling spectators are much more integral to the sport than any other and that’s what makes the racing so special.

    • Tim says:

      Someone should tell that to the English FA with their scheduling of Sunday evening FA Cup matches, or to the powers-that-be in F1 – in both these competitions business is clearly prioritised over spectators (to the obvious detriment of the latter, sadly).

      Don’t get me wrong, as a spectator I want to see the big guns going head-to-head. And as you say, Cancellara in yellow was also good for the sponsors. But if Riis had had a (hypothetical) choice pre-Tour between Cancellara spending most of the first week in yellow and Schleck spending the final day in yellow, there is surely no choice to be made at all? Arguably he should have planned for the possibility that the Tour could come down to a matter of seconds; he didn’t.

      For sure, this year’s Tour gave us a set of exceptional circumstances: a wet/damp prologue and a race which genuinely hinged on a handful of seconds in a handful of key moments. In most years the prologue running order would have made no difference at all – 95% of the time the dual objectives of racing for business and racing for sport are not mutually exclusive, as you say. But the point is that if this had been Armstrong, say, he would never have allowed the 5% possibility of such an event happening – business (i.e. his objectives) would always come first – that’s why it was so rare to see a USPS/Discovery rider get sent into a speculative breakaway over the years. If Cancellara had been a RadioShack rider, he would have gone second-to-last and Lance would have been last, no question. I’m not saying I agree with that from a personal perspective, but I absolutely understand the desire to minimise the variables, and Saxo Bank patently failed to do this.

      Did it cost Andy the overall win? Probably not. But it makes for an interesting debate.:-)

  5. Kitty Fondue says:

    You know, Tim, I think we’re almost of the same opinion …but not quite. (And it’s fun having a conversation about this!) Let’s take an example of a team who did exactly what you say Saxo should have done and put all their eggs in the final podium basket. Team Sky. Who came away with nothing. Absolutely nothing. They put all their chips on Wiggins – Prologue and all – and when it was blatantly obvious to everyone that he wasn’t up to it, they didn’t have a Plan B, they couldn’t switch gears and get behind Geraint Thomas, who might actually have been able to salvage something for them. So they did use the Postal/Discovery model and got burned by it.

    I think that unless you’ve got a rider like Lance that you build the entire team around, who is so dominant and whose only focus is the Tour (and all other team members give up all personal ambitions for the Tour) then the model is incredibly risky. I don’t think any team has a rider that can dominate both the race and their own team like that at the moment. Andy couldn’t do that – he’s a different personality for one thing. And I think that they could certainly have won without being as obsessive as Postal – the chain, Tim, the chain! And Riis couldn’t have predicted the weather – Wiggins went early because it was supposed to rain around the time the final riders were to start – that backfired big time. So maybe he *was* hedging his bets, hoping that Andy would avoid another downpour?

    But also, Lance’s team never had a Cancellara (there would be no point in them having someone like him). Perhaps if Saxo didn’t have FC then everyone could concentrate on Andy. But why would you have such a strong rider, such a charismatic athlete on your team for the Tour if you’re not going to let him shine in the biggest race of the year? What a waste of his time – he’s more than happy to take on super-domestique duties when the time comes (one of the things I love about him is his team spirit) but I can’t imagine he would want to go into a Tour knowing that, no matter what happens, he cannot seek glory in a discipline that is his speciality if there’s a chance of a few extra seconds for Andy.

    So although I agree with you about Lance never leaving any stone unturned in the pursuit of winning, I think there are other important differences between Saxo and Postal that would make that model too risky for Riis to have used.

    But wow, what an exciting Tour it was. I thought the Giro this year was edge-of-the-seat viewing too (the mud! the Zoncolan! the gladiator arena at the end!) so two fabulous Tours in three months – this spectator was thrilled. 🙂

  6. Tim says:

    I think we probably are about 95% in agreement.

    Sky did put all their eggs in one basket, and I think the team knew that Wiggins was not in Tour-winning form before the race, which justified the risk of an earlier prologue start time. I don’t think Thomas is ready to challenge for the GC – he is nowhere near good enough in the mountains yet – so there was effectively no Plan B other than to go for stage wins.

    For sure, an Armstrong team would never have hired a Cancellara type – it would go against his objectives. USPS/Discovery teams were always picked for that one specific purpose – great climbers for the mountains, a strong right-hand man like Hincapie, and super-strong domestiques (who would be GC challengers on other teams) like Hamilton and Landis to control the peloton and drive the team time trial.

    Whether Riis should have thrown all his chips in with Schleck is an interesting question. I think if he had been drawing up his Tour team from scratch, he would have considered it. But obviously that wasn’t the case, and if you have a Cancellara, you cannot leave him out. Should he have swapped Fabian and Andy around? I think you can argue it both ways, but hindsight (a wonderful thing!) suggests maybe he should have done. But I am also assuming that he was 100% aware that the brothers were heading off to another team next year, so maybe Bjarne was a bit more ambivalent about putting all his eggs in the Schleck basket? I’m not assuming he would be so petty, but you have to wonder if it might have tipped the scales if he was wavering.

    Anyhow, here’s hoping the Vuelta can make it a hat-trick of exciting Grand Tours in 2010! (The Giro WAS amazing. I’ve stood inside the Arena in Verona where this year’s race finished, and it is a magnificent setting.)

  7. Kitty Fondue says:

    Yes, wouldn’t it be fantastic if the Vuelta was as blood and guts as the other two this year? I had been toying with the thought of going to the opening TTT in Seville, being as it was at night and all – it would have just been such a spectacle, but opted for the start and finish of the Tour as my cycling trips this year instead. The Schleck brothers are supposed to be racing in the Vuelta so there’s a possibility of fireworks.

    Re the Giro – I thought the battles between Evans and Basso were fantastic stuff and I was disappointed they couldn’t replicate that in the Tour (I’d put my money on that battle being the focus for the 3rd and 4th spot for the Tour… boy, did I misread that) but they must have been spent after such a hard Giro.

    I also thought it was so funny that their riding styles and look on the bike are so different – Basso, ever elegant and still, just turning the pedals calmly; Cadel ‘all over his machine’ and sitting on Basso’s wheel looking like Igor to Dr Frankenstein (in the nicest possible way). 🙂

    • Tim says:

      I find it fascinating that many riders have such a distinctive style on their bikes that makes them almost instantly recognisable – both Contador and Armstrong (or at least the Lance of old) have aggressive, choppy pedal strokes, and Tommy Voeckler is another one with a signature style. I find it much easier to pick out cyclists I’m familiar with than, say, F1 drivers.

      I’ve posted elsewhere (TDF Ten talking points) that I think both the Giro and the Tour are now harder than in recent years as they attempt to ramp up the excitement, and with them being so close together it’s perhaps no longer feasible for a rider to be in top form for Giro/TDF (or TDF/Vuelta for that matter). I think we’re approaching the point where the top GC men will have to choose between specialising in the Tour or opting for the Giro/Vuelta combination.

  8. Kitty Fondue says:

    Yes, Thomas Voeckler is easy to pick out. He reminds me of a little kid riding down to the shops for some sweets – that sort of casual bouncy way.

    I think of the sprinters, obviously Cavendish has a very distinctive style, but I can pick out Robbie McEwen every single time. Robbie’s one of my big favourites – he only grew in my estimation during the Tour this year by riding the whole damn thing even after he’d been sent 10 plagues and given every hurdle (or TV journalist) to overcome (and popping a wheelie on the Tourmalet). I think he and Evans and Basso – broken bones and bronchitis – really embodied the spirit of what it means to ride the Tour. They were in such pain but just refused to get off the bike because it was the Tour de France. And Jens carrying on with a kid’s bike after his horrific crash because ‘you can’t abandon the Tour two years in a row!’ Fabulous stuff.

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