Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Where will Alberto Contador land?

By Andrew Hood

Alberto Contador is still celebrating his dominant Tour de France victory, but speculation about where he will race in 2010 will be fueling the rumor mill for weeks to come.

While he’s been linked to moves to Garmin-Slipstream or Caisse d’Epargne, what is clear is that he will not join Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel on the new RadioShack team for 2010.

“What’s sure, it will be on a different team than Lance,” Contador said. “We’ll see what we can do, whether it’s a new team or find a team that is 100 percent behind me to confront this race to win it again.”

Whether he likes to admit it or not, Contador will be missing the Armstrong-Bruyneel tandem in 2010.

The Belgian director is bringing many of the team’s top riders as well as most of the infrastructure, mechanics, sport directors and other support staff – much of it left over from the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel days -- with him to RadioShack.

Riders expected to follow Armstrong and Bruyneel are Levi Leipheimer, Yaroslav Popovych, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner, Haimar Zubeldia and others such as Janez Brajkovic and Tomas Vaitkus.

Those names alone create a strong base for a grand tour squad, especially if there’s another team time trial in next year’s Tour.

Gone, too, will be Bruyneel’s collective acumen on what it takes to win a grand tour.

Contador might be the most successful grand tour rider in a generation, but right now, he’s a champion without a team.

Still tied to Astana
Contador still has one year left on his contract with Astana, but with the team’s future anything but certain, the Spanish climber is going to be weighing all his options in the coming weeks.

The departure of all the horsepower as part of the Bruyneel-Armstrong exodus leaves behind a shell of team at Astana.

All that remains is the Contador’s clan (Sergio Paulinho, Benjamin Noval, Jesus Hernandez and Dani Navarro) on one side speaking Spanish and a bunch of Kazakhs on the other, without a strong sport director like the polyglot Bruyneel to keep them all pedaling in the same direction.

If Contador stays, he won’t have Armstrong to butt heads with, but could run headlong into the returning Alexander Vinokourov.

Astana always was and always will be the team built for Kazakh national hero Vinokourov, who is coming off a two-year doping suspension and fully expects to return to Astana as the team’s star and focus.

Co-habitation with Vinokourov could prove troublesome for Contador simply because Vinokourov’s presence on the team could risk another veto by Tour organizers in 2010, which is the last thing Contador wants to risk after being unable to defend his title in 2008.

Unless Astana comes to the table with a huge offer and guarantees that he can keep his loyal riders with him, expect Contador to try to break his remaining year with the Kazakhs.

The Kazakhs, however, might not be so keen to let him go. The French sports daily L’Equipe reported Tuesday that Contador will have a lucrative offer to stay with the team for three to four more years.

Formula 1 option in fast lane?
The ideal for Contador would be a new Spanish-backed team built entirely around his skinny legs.

The presence of Spanish Formula 1 star Fernando Alonso at Monaco for the start of the Tour fueled speculation in the Spanish media that he is working on a project to back a new Spanish team centered on Contador.

The Spanish sports daily MARCA said the deal is ready to move forward, with Spanish bank Santander and Renault lined up as title sponsors.

Alonso is a keen cycling fan and indicated he would like to build a Spanish team in the future, but said in a recent interview that he’s too busy racing cars to jump into it this season.

Even if the project is moving forward, building a new team would be a daunting task so late in the season.

With new teams Sky and RadioShack also recruiting riders to fill out their rosters, constructing a Tour-caliber team from scratch wouldn’t be easy, even with big bucks.

To an existing team
As Contador suggested, joining an existing team interested in cherry picking the best grand tour rider in a generation is likely his best option.

Contador might be in for a shock, however, because there are not many teams with the budget or expectations to take on the Spanish climber.

Teams such as Columbia-Highroad, Cervélo TestTeam or Rabobank already have their anointed team captains or simply are not interested in incorporating Contador and his retinue into their existing programs.

A lack of Spanish-backed teams is a major problem south of the Pyrénées. Fuji-Servetto is now a shell without the kind of money to afford Contador’s price-tag and Euskaltel-Euskadi is a team apart, based in Spain’s Basque Country and built around Basque riders, which the pistol-toting Contador is not.

Other teams simply don’t have the budget to shell out Contador’s asking price of 1.5 million to 2 million Euros per year, plus the salaries of the other riders and support staff he would want to bring with him.

One option is Garmin-Slipstream, which was taking a serious look at Contador in the weeks ahead of this year’s Tour when turmoil within the Astana team might have opened the door for Contador’s early exit.

An addition of a co-sponsor at Garmin would open up the necessary money to sign a big name like Contador, but team boss Jonathan Vaughters would not elaborate to journalists’ inquiries last week about a possible deal with Contador.

“Alberto Contador is an incredible rider and would be a fantastic rider to have on any team,” Vaughters told AFP. “But negotiations with riders are not something we would discuss.”

Another likely destination would be Contador’s move to the French-backed, Spanish-based team of Caisse d’Epargne.

Team manager Eusebio Unzue is a veteran mover and shaker within the cycling community and knows a thing or two about winning the Tour, having won five straight titles with Miguel Indurain and one with Pedro Delgado.

The uncertain future of Alejandro Valverde – who is facing the possibility that his two-year ban in Italy for alleged links to the Puerto doping scandal becomes worldwide – and the prospect of getting their hands on the best Spanish grand tour rider since Indurain could prove too tempting for Unzue.

Like Garmin, finding a new co-sponsor that can pony 2 million to 3 million Euros is critical for Unzue to have any chance of getting his hands on the man who has been anointed as Indurain’s heir.

In search of a home
Contador will be need to be very careful about where he goes.

It’s one thing to have the legs to win the Tour, but a strong team organization to protect a captain’s flanks on all fronts is that essential 10th man.

Racing history is full of big names who haven’t won Tours because they’ve been on the wrong team – Cadel Evans is the most recent example of this – and Contador could see his winning ways grind to a halt if he chooses badly.

Contador has been an “orphan” ever since his mentor and advisor Manolo Saíz went down in flames as part of the Operación Puerto scandal.

Bruyneel happily picked up Contador in 2007, but the pair never gelled the same way the Belgian did with Armstrong.

Despite winning the last four grand tours he’s started, Contador is still looking for that confidante and advisor that is so key to long-term success.

Whether he finds it in the coming weeks and months will have huge implications for his future.

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