I like Johan Bruyneel. I think he’s a savvy, solid DS, knows how to play out a good hand as well as anyone, and can handle the occasional a curveball. He even has a book, and apparently, it’s a decent read.
But I think, some years down the road, if anyone ever writes book about him, this year’s Tour selection could be the moment they single out when everything—the aura of invincibility, the unshakeable confidence, the entire Cult of Johan—came rattling apart.
There’s no question that Astana’s Tour roster is stacked—and that should be the first sign of trouble ahead. Bruyneel has always been an active buyer of talent in the off-season—José Acevedo and Triki Beltran each had huge performances in assisting Armstrong to Tour wins—but they were never serious TdF contenders in their own right. Roberto Heras, Tyler Hamilton, and Floyd Landis each went on to become top-tier candidates for Tour victory, but only after their work for the Texan highlighted their potential.
Bruyneel’s high-level approach to the Tour has always been to assemble riders of talent around a single, pre-determined contender. After Discovery’s utterly average performance at the 2006 Tour, Bruyneel went after the best available riders in an attempt to return to this strategy, and in a race more notable for its absences, came away with a win thanks to the expulsion of Michael Rasmussen. However, Astana’s exclusion from the 2008 edition due to questions over Alberto Contador kept Bruyneel from re-employing his one-man, one-mission strategy.
This year, however, Bruyneel is back, and has a Tour squad with more contenders than there are steps on the podium (Kloeden, Leipheimer, Contador and Armstrong), and not one of those names has ever played a meaningful Grand Tour support role. Contador, Leipheimer, and Kloeden have ridden with other contenders as teammates, but their interactions could be better described as detente than teamwork.
Mark my words: this will be a problem. In 2003, the only time Lance was ever under pressure at the Tour, the presence of Triki Beltran in a strategic breakaway was instrumental in Armstrong’s win. You think that if Contador is under pressure with Leipheimer is 15 minutes up in a break, the Spaniard’s hand-picked domestique Paulinho will play along and not chase? Conversely, will the American not drive the breakaway to further his own chances?
Another scenario: Condator’s in yellow, with Armstrong near the top of the GC, and the Spaniard starts suffering on the climb. Do you you think the 7-time Tour winner is going to sit back and help pace the struggling favorite? Or will he jet off Bernard Hinault-style to further secure his place in the history books? And, if Lance goes off the reservation, can his long-time protege Yaroslav Popovych really be counted upon bring the Texan back?
Then there’s Andreas Kloeden—the rider who seems incapable of finishing anywhere between the podium and the broomwagon. He didn’t help Ullrich in 2004, and he didn’t help Vino’ in 2007; why call up an unreliable, individual actor with a checkered past over a solid company man like Horner—especially considering the German was on the receiving end of Armstrong’s crushing “no gifts” win in 2004.
There’s only one way this works out well for Bruyneel. Armstrong—as I mentioned in one of my first tweets—remains irrelevant, riding well but out of the top 20. Levi cracks on a climb early, and Andreas Kloeden forgets his good legs while packing for France. Contador doesn’t do anything stupid, and the whole team rides for him. Any turn of events other than that, and there will be drama.
The rebuttal to all this has been “Johan will keep them in line, just like he always does.” I say that’s BS. Johan’s never had to manage a team with more than two contenders, and even then, it wasn’t exactly a stirring example of teamwork. Getting Victor Hugo-Pena to ride back for bottles in the maillot jaune is a far cry from getting three top-ten riders to fall on their swords for a fourth. Astana may be stacked, but in my opinion, it’s a perfect storm for a dark horse like Roman Kreuziger to come away with the win.