Versus' War on Contador

Jan 6 2010

Is January too early to talk about the Tour de France? Of course not—at least, not when the Tour is the only cycling event your employer bothers to cover live, and especially not when that employer is the Network formerly known as “Only Lance” and you’re bashing the chief rival of a certain well-known Texan.

While anything Bob Roll writes must be taken with a MassDOT-sized serving of salt, Joe Parkin’s commentary tends to be quite insightful. So when he writes that “Contador has weaknesses in his armor that leave many of the great champions who preceded him absolutely dumbfounded”, I’m teetering on the edge of my seat, waiting to hear exactly what those weaknesses are. Sadly, the A Dog in a Hat author doesn’t deliver any details.

The closest Parkin comes is implying that Contador’s team is weak—a sentiment echoed in no uncertain terms by Roll. While it’s true that Contador’s entire supporting cast from 2009 now rides for Lance, the line-up behind reigning Tour champ this season isn’t exactly a bunch of freds. Certainly Oscar Pereiro and Vino’ require no introduction, and Benjamin Noval certainly knows his way around the race, having put in some heavy lifting for Discovery Channel on Armstrong’s 6th and 7th tour wins.

The remainder of the squad is full of strong rouleurs, including Maxime Iglinsky, who’s proven competent on the cobbles, and David de la Feunte, a capable climber and escape artist. I suppose you could fault the latest Astana incarnation for a lack of “true” climbers, but if 2009 was any indication, going uphill will be the least of Contador’s concerns at this year’s Tour.

In case you hadn’t heard, there’s also significant debate about exactly how much support Contador received last July. While I doubt his ’09 victory should be considered in spite of his teammates rather than because of them, winning in a less-than-ideal environment speaks well of the Spaniard’s championship savvy. On more than one occasion, he made allies when he needed them; should Contador find himself isolated at the 2010 TdF, I suspect there’ll be plenty of riders willing to make a deal.

Lance Armstrong—whom Parkin seems to hold up as the very incarnation of a certain cycling je ne sais quoi that Contador apparently lacks—has shown almost none of this nuance in his approach to racing. Armstrong’s own autobiography is rife with tales of admittedly-idiotic individualism in his early career, and observers from Daniel Coyle to Bernard Hinault have made careful note of the Texan’s black-and-white, with-me-or-against-me attitude between 1999 and 2005.

Unless he’s referring to this hard-headed disregard for the rest of the peloton, I’m baffled as to what aspect of Armstrong’s greatness Parkin sees lacking in Contador. Nothing in the Spaniard’s career suggests any defect of pedigree, and from my perspective, a reluctance to heap praise upon your teammates is a far lesser flaw than chasing down a second-tier rider for daring to break cycling’s code of silence.

Armstrong’s personal mythology is built around overcoming adversity. But his post-cancer, pre-comeback career was a series of resounding, relatively simple, brute-force successes. Even in 2003—his narrowest and most hardest-faught win—the Texan battled to protect a lead, not overcome one. In 2010, Versus’ commentary team seems all-too-eager to restore him to the familiar role of favorite.

At this year’s Tour, Armstrong will once again have the complete support of a hand-picked, Johan Bruyneel-directed squad—the same formula that saw him roll to 7 straight Tour victories. However, no amount of commentary will convince me that Lance, half-a-decade displaced from his last Tour win and facing the only rival who’s ever beaten him soundly, is anything but a 38-year-old underdog, under serious pressure to learn some new tricks.

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