No Admiration for Armstrong? Thank You, Alberto Contador!


You’ve probably already heard the news that Alberto Contador, the 2009 Tour de France champion, returned to his home country of Spain yesterday and promptly trashed Lance Armstrong, the teammate who helped him win his second Tour championship.

What a pendejo, our friend Gustavo “Ask a Mexican” Arellano might say.

But actually, we’re very pleased. Here’s why.

Throughout this year of watching Lance Armstrong on his comeback, our excitement to see the man back on his bike was tempered with the frustration of his maddening team situation.

What’s the point of a comeback, we have asked repeatedly, if the greatest Tour de France champion in history is just going to take a back seat to a teammate?

Sure enough, Armstrong was as good as his word, and in both the Giro d’Italia (the Tour of Italy) and this month’s Tour de France, the Texan played the good soldier for others on his Astana team. Could he have won either race if he’d played the leader role himself? In the Giro, he was still recovering from his collarbone fracture of March, and in the Tour, he seemed outclassed by his young teammate, Alberto Contador. Perhaps helping another rider was the best Armstrong could do.

What was frustrating, however, was not knowing whether Armstrong could do even better. But Lance and team director Johan Bruyneel and the other Astana riders put up a united front, saying repeatedly to interviewers that the team was fine with having so many strong leader types (besides Armstrong and Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden were two additional Astana riders who could lead teams of their own).

Interviewers never let up because it all seemed so preposterous. Pairing Armstrong and Contador on a team based in Kazakhstan was a colossal joke, but it gave each of them a way into the Tour with Bruyneel, the best tactician in the business. Astana was originally put together for a Kazakh rider, Alexandre Vinokourov, who was caught blood doping and was suspended from the sport for two years. That left Astana rudderless, and once the Discovery Channel pulled its support two years after Lance’s 2005 retirement, that team’s refugees, including Contador and Bruyneel, used what was left of Astana to put together a super-team.

But between Vinokourov’s blood doping and Contador’s own troubling connections to a Spanish doping scandal, Astana was so unsavory, the team was not invited to last year’s Tour. (A reason why winning this year is such sweet revenge for Contador, who should probably be celebrating his third Tour victory. But the race organizers got him back by playing the Danish national anthem Sunday during his trophy presentation. He’s still livid about it.)

Thankfully, the Astana experiment will soon come to an end. Like a bad 1970s rock ‘n’ roll supergroup, this is a monster that should never have existed to begin with.

Vinokourov soon returns to the sport and wants his Kazakhstan team back. Lance is forming a new squad, Team RadioShack, with support from the creepiest of electronics retailers. (Ever notice how Radio Shack always asks for your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address, even if you’re paying cash for a couple of batteries? We’ve long suspected Radio Shack is actually a cult. Or something). And Contador will be looking for his own new home.

We actually hope Contador does well and finds a strong team. Because he’s going to need it. Armstrong will no doubt return to a single-minded focus on the Tour next year, foregoing flashy side-projects like the Giro.

Oh, it’s on. And we can only thank Alberto Contador for making it personal.