If All You Have Is A Hammer

Jul 17 2010

I just finished reading an article about how Alberto Condator has matured as a rider, and frankly, I don’t agree. While I don’t want fall in with the masses who criticized his attack at Verbier last year (just ask Saxo how “burdensome” that GC lead has been this Tour), I do think—to borrow a phrase—that Contador sees every problem as a nail. Fortunately, the guy is pretty damn good at swinging a hammer.

The final 5 minutes of Stage 12 yesterday (I’d post video, but since the ASO wants to throw down again, I’m gonna hold off on that for the moment) give a pretty good example of where I see the Spaniard’s shortcomings. Condator likes the Monte Laurent Jalabert, Andy Schleck does not. Clearly, this finish should have been near the top of the list of places to Contador to take time out of the Luxemburger, and if he really did talk tactics with Vino’, something should have been planned for this climb before the stage.

But that’s not really what happened—at least it sure doesn’t look that way. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say once Vinokourov got clear in the move of the day, the Official Astana Game Plan was for the Kazakh to try and win, for Pistolero to sit back and monitor Schleck, and for the rest of the squad to enjoy a day of doing nothing on Vino’s tab.

My basis for this is that Alberto’s actions in the final 4km that day seemed like someone fumbling to attain the three simultaneously impossible goals of winning a stage, cutting into Schleck’s lead, and respecting his teammate. Examine the Paris-Nice video: Contador starts spooning out the hurt around the stiff, sharp bends 1.7km from the top of the climb. Today, he went only a few hundred meters down—hardly an ideal amount of real estate for one to open a GC-relevant gap.

Perhaps more tellingly, Contador’s attack doesn’t come until Joaquim Rodriguez pulls out a legitimate amount of space to threaten Vino’ with recapture—I’m guessing for the plausible deniability of marking Rodriguez’s move, but the constant head-turning to monitor Schleck’s position betray an ulterior motive.

After bridging to Rodriguez, Contador doesn’t really pull through—more deniability for any post-race discussion—until, that is, he realizes motorbikes, narrow roads and Andreas Kloeden could form a road blind that might obscure him from Schleck’s field of vision. Alberto dives into the gap, and pulls Rodriguez up to Vino’. Now it’s decision time, and if I have to pick a place where Contador looked worst, it’s here.

Rather than attempt to work with Vino, Contador dances away, pulling himself and Rodriguez clear. While you can’t say what would have happened with any accuracy, Vino alone still wasn’t slow enough for the Schleck group to bring back (he finished seven seconds ahead), and Vino’ with Contador and Rodriguez almost certainly would have been faster than the two Spaniards alone. And if a bigger gap isn’t a given, the improved tactical situation of a 2-on-1 would have made the Astana stage win far more likely.

Still, as Vino’ churned away after Contador went past, he was continuing to build his gap on Schleck. Here’s a still frame from just outside the final KM, showing the amount of clean road between Rodriguez/Contador and Vino—and keep in mind, Schleck is still further back. But coming into the line, Contador begins talking to Rodriguez, turning his head, sitting up, and trying to get tactical for the final sprint to the line, and even then, he failed to take it.

In the end, Contador achieved no real success in any of his objectives. While ten seconds isn’t a bad take—it’s nearly 25% of Schleck’s current advantage and entire Tours have been decided by smaller margins—it’s also less than he would have made up ignoring the stage win entirely. And if Vino’s bar-pounding as he crossed the line was any indication, there was—until Vino’s fantastic win in Revel today—slightly less goodwill on the Astana team bus.

While Contador did show a bit more nuance in his responses to, and eventual cooperation with the attacks of Andy Schleck on Stage 9, I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say he’s “matured”. When he learns to negotiate a conundrum like Friday’s finale with a bit more elegance—and a far more positive result—I think then we’ll be able to say that Pistolero has finally come of age.

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