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Tensions and power struggles part 2: Contador vs. Armstrong

The tension between Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong during the 2009 Tour de France was perhaps the most memorable intra-squad rivalry of the last 15 years.

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Tension and intra-squad power struggles are nothing new in pro cycling. Check out part 1 of this series, which focuses on Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, as well as the simmering rivalry at Team CSC. 

Who could have predicted that, only a year after CSC-Saxo Bank orchestrated a brilliant team victory in the Tour de France, another completely different intra-squad rivalry was already beginning to brew?

This rivalry would play out on the roads of the 2009 Tour de France between American Lance Armstrong and Spaniard Alberto Contador.

Reportedly unimpressed by Sastre’s victory, Armstrong, then a seven-time Tour winner, announced that he would come out of retirement, convinced that he could win again. It was a bold move, and it came as a surprise, especially to Contador. The Spaniard after all, came to Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team in 2007 and won the Tour.

At the rest day in Pau that year, Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong’s longtime director announced confidently that the successor to the American had been found in Contador. And Contador confirmed his position on the team and in the sport by winning the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España in 2008.

Contador and Armstrong battled for the overall win at the 2009 Tour de France. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

But with Armstrong’s return, Bruyneel was quickly cornered. He was committed to cycling’s new star, Contador, but could not deny Armstrong a chance to return. Armstrong’s return quickly divided the Astana Team as soon as the 2009 Tour started. Armstrong still commanded the allegiance of numerous riders and staff, and in almost Hinault-like manner, he attempted to rewrite the narrative. But while he still possessed the authority of a boss, he was not the Armstrong of old, and his legs, while good, were not as good as Contador’s.

Already on stage three, when Contador got caught behind a split caused by crosswinds, several of Armstrong’s teammates could be seen driving the pace at the front. In all fairness Armstrong did not initiate the move or take any pulls.

“I immediately told Johan that we shouldn’t pull in front or behind until we knew exactly who was in the front group,” team director Alain Gallopin told VeloNews about the strategy. “But there was no real dangerous overall rider in the group. Johan, however, understood immediately that it would cause tension with Contador and the Spanish press.”

After the finish Contador clearly was upset and felt isolated. And Armstrong was openly critical of his Spanish teammate for missing the split. Hinault likely would have done the same. But for many, the move sent a clear message: “If you want to win the Tour you have to beat me first.”

And on a larger scale, it also projected the image to everyone watching that the team was not united around a common goal.

Contador continued to be frustrated by passive team tactics in the Pyrenees that seemingly favored Armstrong. And on stage 15 as the race entered the Swiss Alps, he launched his decisive attack to take the stage and the yellow jersey in Verbier. But while the Spaniard was in yellow, Armstrong still controlled much of the team.

When the two stood together on the final podium in Paris, Armstrong’s face showed clear frustration. And the thin veneer that held the team together during the race quickly came off afterwards as Contador said flatly on Spanish television, “My relationship with Lance Armstrong on this Tour was nonexistent.”

Looking back today, Bruyneel admits that he was caught in a difficult situation, one that pitted his personal relationship with Armstrong against a more professional one with Contador. And unlike Bjarne Riis, who methodically began his team’s building process with an annual pre-season survival camp, Bruyneel largely had to improvise on the road with the sudden return of Armstrong.

When it comes to managing numerous champions that all want to win the Tour de France, Riis insists that his own experiences as a rider were also crucial in moments like these. And while he regrets being an active participant in an era of prevalent doping, the many core values gained on roads of the Tour de France have provided life lessons.

Bjarne Riis leads Team CSC. Photo: James Startt

“My experience working with Jan (Ullrich) in 1996 and 1997 was absolutely crucial,” Riis said. “Jan was so loyal to me. He was just super loyal, and that helped define our relationship. If I was the strongest he helped me and if he was the strongest, I helped him. We never spoke about it. We never had a fight. That is just what we did.

“He respected me and I respected him,” Riis continued. “In 1996 I need him to win the Tour and in 1997, he needed me. He was very loyal to me in 1996. And although I may have been the defending Tour champion going into the 1997 race, Jan was the strongest, and I was very loyal to him. I know how to be loyal. I rode in support of Laurent Fignon for years. I know what that means. Of course it was tough not to win again, but this kid, he was just stronger than me that year, and there was never a moment where I doubted that I should help him.”

Interestingly, while Cyrille Guimard and Riis come from different generations, when observing the current situation at Ineos, they agree on one thing: leadership will be the key to preventing tension.

“As long as the management is good on Ineos, there will be no problem,” Guimard said.

“It’s going to be interesting to see this year with Ineos. No doubt about it,” Riis said. “It’s going to take a lot of leadership. It’s going to be fun to watch. Year after year, generation after generation, it is always the same story of the young talents coming up and challenging the established riders.”

Neither Guimard nor Riis doubt that general manager Dave Brailsford lacks the management skills necessary. And like Riis, Brailsford has made it clear over the years that the team’s success supersedes the interest of any individual. Just ask 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, who never returned to the race, even as a support rider for Froome.

But never in the history of the sport, has a team potentially come to the start of the Tour with the three previous winners all in top condition—something that remains a very real possibility if the Tour in fact begins in Nice on August 26.

Guimard, however, insists that any leadership dilemma Brailsford may have come into this year’s Tour is a problem of luxury at best.

“To be honest it is easier to work with three champions that really want to win instead of guys that don’t,” he said. “At least you know what they want. They are all there to win!”