Lance’s Team Split

Lance’s Team Split

Lance’s Team Split
By Joe Lindsey,
Amid sponsorship turmoil and just days before the Tour de France, Alberto Contador had a deal to leave Astana and race against Lance.

With the news last week that its Kazakh sponsors had finally made good on their financial obligations after months of non-payment, it seemed like the Astana team could face its biggest goal of the season, the Tour de France, without distraction. But the team that takes the start in Monaco could be a badly fractured squad, riven with trust issues and power struggles that, under the pressure of the Tour, could explode.

A source within the team told Bicycling that when Astana looked like it would default on its obligations, a new structure had been set up to supercede it. Two different sources close to the team confirmed, also anonymously, that the team name was going to be Livestrong-Nike. Seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong raced last Sunday’s Nevada City Classic on an all-black Trek Madone wearing Livestrong kit; his teammates, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, rode in Astana team clothing.

“About three weeks ago, we learned that there could be a new sponsor, and that it was Livestrong-Nike,” said one of the outside sources, while the other said that they first heard the possibility of the new team structure about two days before the team switched to its “faded” Astana logo outfits at the Giro d’Italia.

The source within the team said that 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador assured manager Johan Bruyneel of his desire to stay with Livestrong-Nike, but was at the same time also quietly talking with Garmin-Slipstream about switching teams should Astana default on his contract. Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters could not immediately be reached for comment. Sources have also confirmed that Contador was in discussions with Caisse d’Epargne.

Significantly, the Astana team source said, Garmin was said to be not only signing Contador, but also his Astana teammates Benjamin Noval, Sergio Paulinho, and bringing aboard Contador’s preferred mechanic and soigneur from Astana. Herbalife, which sells weight loss and nutritional supplements via multi-level marketing, was said to be willing to contribute $2 million as a co-sponsor to sign the riders and staff for the remainder of 2009.

That deal was initially set to be announced last Saturday (and, according to the team source, Felt bikes were already on the way to Contador), and the Livestrong-Nike deal, said two of Bicycling’s sources, was also alive until just before the weekend.

But unexpectedly, Astana’s Kazakh sponsors derailed all those plans. In conjunction with the federal government and, according to some reports, an unnamed American corporation with business interests in the region, Astana managed on Thursday to make good on the $6 million bank guarantee that the UCI required.

What this makes clear is that the team’s uncertain sponsorship was not its biggest potential problem. Astana is far from a cohesive unit. Although the strongest team in the race on paper, with Armstrong, Contador, Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden all confirmed to start, their internal divisions could fracture the team and cost them the Tour de France.

Paulinho and Noval are among seven riders who are competing for three remaining spots on the team’s Tour squad. If Paulinho and Noval make the Tour roster, it could mean that the team could develop an even sharper split in allegiances, with riders such as Leipheimer and Chris Horner backing Armstrong, and others backing Contador. If Bruyneel leaves Paulinho and Noval off the Tour team (for that reason or others), then it could mean Contador would be isolated, vying for a second Tour win against his own team.

There has also been discussion of Contador forming alternate alliances, with Caisse d’Epargne leader Alejandro Valverde saying he would help Contador where possible – provided Valverde, who is banned from racing in Italy, even starts. The race’s 16th stage crosses briefly into Italy.

It also seems clear that Contador will switch teams when his contract is up after 2009. And Astana’s problems are far from past as well. The UCI announced in a brief statement today that its License Commission was provisionally suspending its procedure to withdraw Astana’s ProTour license. But the UCI said that the suspension was for an “unspecified length of time” and could be reactivated if necessary. In May, Armstrong mentioned he wanted to launch his own team in 2010.

With just 12 days to go before the start in Monaco, the only thing that seems clear at this point is that, for all its strength, Astana’s biggest opponent at the Tour may be Astana. Whether Armstrong, Contador or some other challenger will emerge victorious, only the race will tell.

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