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Johan Bruyneel, the Belgian manager who was behind the wheel at Team Astana in 2009, offered his take on the bitter rivalry between Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong during that year’s Tour de France.
Bruyneel, speaking on a YouTube podcast, admitted he was caught in the middle between two strong characters who both wanted to win the Tour. Armstrong, who later saw his seven Tour victories disqualified, was on his comeback. Contador had missed the 2008 Tour because his team was kicked off that year’s edition for past doping violations, and was equally intent on victory.
The result was tension that spilled out of the bus, and onto the racecourse.
“My main objective as manager was to win the Tour, and my biggest fear was that we’d lose it squabbling between ourselves,” Bruyneel said. “We had a very strong team, and I had to manage two types of winners. All my decisions were in favor of the [Astana] team, not of Armstrong’s ‘team’, or Contador’s.
“I knew very well that, in 95 percent of all cases, our card to play was Contador,” he said. “Both Lance and Alberto wanted to win. They do not have easy characters, not even with themselves. I had a very close personal relationship with Lance, and up until that Tour, a very close, professional relationship with Alberto.”
Contador revived discussion about the 2009 Tour during a YouTube interview over the weekend, explaining his point of view on several key incidents during that year’s Tour. Bruyneel countered Contador’s version of his assertions that he was forced to buy his own wheels ahead of the opening time trial in Monaco.
“Remember that Lance raced in 2009 for free. He received no money from the team. He wanted to race, and he knew he’d make money from other sponsors,” Bruyneel said. “The agreement with the team was simple — Lance was a rider at Astana, he wore our jersey, but the rest of his components he had the freedom to use whatever brand he wanted to. One of the top reasons for Lance’s return was to expand the reach of his foundation. He raced with a different, specially-designed bike at every race, and later sold them for his charity.
“The aero wheels for the team were from a Trek subsidiary, while Lance rode other wheels. If Contador thought there were other wheels, and that he bought his own, well, that was his decision. In 2009, [Contador] had the best equipment from the team for his use.”
Bruyneel also laughed at suggestions that the team was trying to sabotage Contador’s equipment. Contador claimed that his mechanic slept with his bike in his room at night to make sure there were no surprises.
“If his bike was with Faustino [Contador’s mechanic], that is a mental fabrication of someone who doesn’t trust anyone. That’s paranoia,” Bruyneel said. “That’s his problem, somehow it entered his mind that someone from the team was going to do harm to his bike. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. That would never occur to anyone what he’s asserting. He was still young in 2009, and the three or four people close to him had a lot to do with how he viewed the situation. [Contador] wanted to win, and he won because he was the strongest, but a strong rider cannot win without a strong team.”
Contador the leader, Armstrong the usurper
Armstrong retired in 2005, and despite growing questions about the legitimacy of his victories, he returned to racing in 2009. He linked up again with Bruyneel, who was the manager at Astana. Both left the team in 2010, to found RadioShack, with Armstrong retiring again in 2011. Armstrong was later banned for life, while Bruyneel also received a lengthy ban.
“When Lance announced his comeback, I went to see him in Texas, and he knew in his head he wanted to win the Tour again,” Bruyneel said. “I told him that Contador was the leader of the team. And I told him I could guarantee him that he was not stronger than Alberto. He said, ‘we’ll see.'”
“Even today, Armstrong’s third place after being retired for three years at 38 years old is one of the biggest accomplishments,” he said. “He raced in a smart way. At that moment, he wasn’t the third-strongest rider in the race, but he knew how to read the race, and he had the support of the team time trial we did. It’s normal that he didn’t want to be a helper.”
Another point of contention for Contador was a key split late in stage three, when Armstrong and several teammates made a front split, catching Contador out for 41 seconds.
“We had Zubeldia and Popovych, but it certainly wasn’t a conspiracy between Lance and George [Hincapie],” Bruyneel said. “What happened was it was his team that split the group, and those who weren’t paying attention were caught out. I later realized that none of our GC rivals were in the group, so it was beneficial to us to collaborate.
“I can understand how Alberto might have read the situation, but I had to make decisions that were for the good of our team,” he said. “It’s easy to criticize now, but in the heat of the moment, it’s something else. At that Tour, I had won eight Tours, and I had been in other complicated situations, so I knew what to do.”
Tension within the team
Bruyneel, who often joins Armstrong on his podcast, admitted it was a venomous environment between Armstrong and Contador during the 2009 Tour. Armstrong has not remarked in depth about what happened during that Tour, but posted a message on his Instagram saying, “the strongest rider won that Tour, and it wasn’t me.”
“It wasn’t easy to get along during that Tour,” Bruyneel said. “It was already complicated from the first training camp in Tenerife in January. For me, it was never as dramatic as the Spanish media made it out to be. I am disappointed in this interview that Contador did. At first, I doubted what to do, but then I thought it would be a good idea to give another version of the events.”
“Lance said something on his Instagram, and he said the strongest ride won, and that’s it. That says a lot about him.”