Questions on Leadership

Coast - (c) Ken Conley

A friend e-mailed m a question on team leadership, so I thought I'd share the response here:

Q: I know Contador is the team leader for Astana right now, but how set in stone is that for any team? I know that's what they sort of shoot for at the beginning, but is that something that just changes as the race progresses or does something official have to happen?

It's not an official matter who the leader is, merely a strategic one. There's generally an idea of who the best rider is on the team, as well as second-best rider for that matter. You can usually be 90% certain who that is, but a crash may take your leader out, or your leader may not have the form you hoped, so someone else steps in. That's how Oscar Pereiro won the TdF (i.e. the Floyd year). Valverde crashed out, and Pereiro got a really lucky break. Another way a leadership situation can change is by semi-accident. For example, you may want to send your second-best rider up the road. If the other teams chase, they burn their matches and you get to rest. If they don't chase, your second-best rider takes a huge chunk of time and is put in a position to win.

It's important to understand who is in charge as the rest of the team must focus on protecting that rider. Discovery Channel (the first year post-Armstrong) and other teams in the past have tried to go into a race like this with "options", but they ultimately fail because you can't build a cohesive strategy around that. One could argue that CSC won last year's Tour with the options strategy -- Sastre and 2 Schlecks -- but when push came to shove on the Alpe d'Huez, Sastre was sent on the attack and the two Schlecks worked their butts off to protect that move.

So, where it becomes important is in the mountains. If Saxo Bank whittles down the Astana team so that it's only Armstrong and Contador left, you want to know who is going to work for who. If Armstrong attacks and a top GC contender like Andy Schleck goes with him, does Contador pull it back or let it go?

Leadership battles have compromised Astana in the past: Contador won the Vuelta, but Levi was a close second. Contador complained that Levi didn't work as hard for him as he should have been, and Levi even beat Contador in the final TT. Granted, Contador still won, but it could have been different if other teams were in a better position to take advantage.

As for Lance vs. Contador, Lance doesn't really stand a chance, so I'm not understanding what's going on there -- unless this is intentional subterfuge on Astana's part to confuse other teams. Given their past tactics, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a game that they were playing, though it would have taken a lot of effort over the past several months and a lot of acting to pull this off. The fact is, Contador is a much better rider than Armstrong is right now. Armstrong is either lying to himself that he's a potential leader, or he's playing games. The only way Armstrong could win is the second-best rider strategy, i.e. if Bruyneel uses Armstrong as a carrot and the other teams don't respond.

related articles: Tour de France Tour de France 2009
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Comments (7)

Could LA have gone ahead by accident? He saw the break and went for it?

I wonder what the chatter on the radio was Contador and the rest of Astana stayed back with the peloton.

kwc Author Profile Page:

It's not a question of whether or not LA went ahead by accident -- he's just happened to be in the right position when Columbia surprised the pack. The main question is why did Zubeldia and Popovych help that break gain time? There was no advantage for Contador in doing that.

My read is that Astana was working for Lance in the break because all the other GC contenders missed it. Lance gaining time on Evans, the Schlecks, Sastre et al. means that they'll have to mark him more closely later on in the race. That means less work for Contador and more opportunities for him to counterattack in the mountains. I doubt Astana thinks that 40" will be the difference between Lance and Alberto.

kwc Author Profile Page:

@Kadisco: I think that's a good read, though I still think there's the internal Astana conflict to consider as well. Contador's post-race non-comments indicate to me that he at least was not thrilled with this tactic and would like to have his image as leader better projected.

krw:

Curious where contador and armstrong have gone head to head and why you believe armstrong is so inferior to contador. armstrong looked good in TOC and was looking better in Giro. But there is nothing to compare the two. Also I think contador show an almost amateurish lack of experience today (as did a lot of the GC hopefuls). I think any questions about astana will be sorted out on stage 7 in the climb to arcalis. That is a classic mt top finish http://www.procyclingphotos.com/vuelta_a_espana/2000//11_alp-arcalis/vuelta00_11_001.shtml

kwc Author Profile Page:

@krw: I'm not sure that Contador's mistake was that amateurish today. He didn't lose time on anyone of import. Even Saxo Bank stopped working to pull it back.

It's minor, but I saw Contador and Armstrong go head-to-head at the Astana training camp and Contador won. Not a true test, especially so early in Armstrong's comeback, but based on what I saw at the ToC and Nevada City, I stand by what I've said.

But as you say, Stage 7 will be the true moment of truth.

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