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Rags to possible riches again for Discovery
By Nick Bull
Date: 7/20/2007
Rags to possible riches again for Discovery

Rags to possible riches again for Discovery
Luchon, July 14th, 2006. Johan Bruyneel tells his Discovery Channel team that they have to win a stage in le Tour. This is uncharted territory for the Directeur Sportif of the team...

Luchon, July 14th, 2006. Johan Bruyneel tells his Discovery Channel team that they have to win a stage in le Tour. This is uncharted territory for the Directeur Sportif of the team; normally, in this post-first-mountain- range part of the Tour, the Belgian had a certain Texan looking unassailable. With the exception of 2001 and 2004 (where he took yellow on stages 13 and 15 respectively), Lance Armstrong climbed to the top of the race lead after the first mountain stage every year he went on to win le Tour. Truth be told, that fact isn’t important - only 2003 is notable, as this was the only year the American failed to take control of the race after it first hit the big ascents.

By the time Bruyneel made his call-to-arms, Discovery had forgotten about the overall classification. On the Pla-de-Beret, the first finish at altitude, Jose ‘The Ace’ Azevedo was the teams best placed man, losing 4’10”. This, all told, was unheard of. The previous year, Yaroslav Popovych lost less time on the road to Courchevel, and that was after completing his effective domestique duties for Armstrong.

Come the race end in Paris, the situation was just as bleak. It was the Portuguese rider who was Discovery’s highest placed finisher, losing thirty-eight minutes and eight seconds, settling him into nineteenth place. Re-using the previous year’s comparison model, after Lance, it was the aforementioned Popo who came in in twelfth position; losing half of what Azevedo conceded in 2006. To add insult to injury (at the time, anyway), ex-Postal rider Floyd Landis (2002-2004) took over Armstrong’s mantle by winning in Paris.

Not only did Landis win, but also Levi Leipheimer, another ex-Postal rider, rode quietly to 13th overall. In terms of disasters, this took Discovery into the breaches of mediocrity, something they last experienced in 1997 (people tend to overlook John Cyril-Robin’s fourth place the year before the Armstrong-show began). Ag2R and Agributel won as many stages as them in 2006, and the former had a rider wear Yellow and finish in the top ten.

It was during the race that Leipheimer re-signed for the team. His career has witnessed some solid results - before the Tour he won the Dauphiné - but his record in July has always been on the periphery of expectation. One podium finish in the Tour of Spain shows, or showed, his three-week potential, but translating Vuelta form into French results is a rare occurrence in this era.

Looking back at the last four Vuelta winners since 2005, every single one of them (Menchov, Heras, Casero and Gonzalez) has struggled to eclipse their victory by a superior Tour de France ride. Add to this the fact that Levi was approaching his thirty-third birthday when Bruyneel signed him for 2007, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a patriotic act of desperation based on the team’s disappointing showing (remember Hincapie was touted as the big hope by many before the race began last year).

Any buoyancy that Leipheimer would have had about leading the American team into the 2007 season would have been removed on November 9th, when the team controversially announced that Ivan Basso would join Discovery for the forthcoming season. One can only assume that management at the team had a positive view on human behaviour; despite being cleared of wrongdoing in the Operation Puerto case, the Italian Olympic Committee were still investigating claims of doping. By May, Basso had been released, having completed very little racing - a crash in Tirreno- Adriatico made more headlines than any Spring form.

Alberto Contador (Liberty Seguros/Wurth) on the attack to win Stage 3 of the 2006 Tour de Romandie. Photo © Fotoreporter Sirotti

While they were plagued with the Basso case, the outlook had become brighter with the emergence of Alberto Contador. The Spaniard had been without a team for some weeks in the off-season, following the withdrawal of his manager Manolo Saiz’s license. Remarkably, Discovery only signed him in mid-January. His career riding for Spanish teams is notable for a handful of stage wins in what one could call second-tier races- for example the Tour of Poland, Setimana Catalana, Tour de Suisse, the Tour of Romandie and the 2005 Tour Down Under. Most significant would be the win in Australia, his first victory following removal of a large blood clot in his brain.

Alberto Contador victory over Davide Rebellin in Paris - Nice.
Photo © Fotoreporter Sirotti

This young man is a fighter. Having trained hard over the winter months, ‘The Accountant’ was keen to reward Bruyneel’s faith. Within a three-week period in March, he won the Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, amassing three stage wins along the way. The victory along the Promenade des Anglais was notable; attacking on the Col d’Eze, he faced a 16.5km descent down to the seafront, as well as Davide Rebellin trying desperately hard to defend the race lead. Much of the press attention following the win in Nice was about any possible aim to emulate Miguel Indurain, the last Spanish winner Paris-Nice and le Tour. Contador was unnerved: ‘(This win) doesn't mean I'll win the Tour de France as well. I can dream about it, but dreaming is free’.

Contador in the maillot Blanc wins stage 7 and the G.C.
Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti

Now, as we prepare to enter the final week of this years Tour, he is standing as the outside bet to win in Paris a week on Sunday. Typically, so far he has ridden like a Postal/Discovery leader has always done - stay out of danger in week one, then show your hand in the mountains. He looked in great condition on the Montée de Tignes, with an unfortunate puncture costing him at least twenty seconds on a group containing Valverde and Evans. The way he rode after the flat showed aggression, but also a pace that could have  matched Iban Mayo, who took second on the stage. He dances on the pedals far more efficiently than almost anyone in the peloton.

 Undeterred by the previous stage’s problems, he attacked on the Galiber on Tuesday, with a move so quick yet smooth that no-one could keep up with. Popovych, once the great hope of Discovery, helped him on the long descent into the finish, clearly showing where the team’s leadership firmly stands. I find this terribly ironic, as Leipheimer, the leader/not the leader/ the leader/not the leader, is riding his best Tour in a couple of years, though I suspect his poor form at the Dauphiné is in the mind of the management, who are clearly aware that he traditionally has one bad day in the Mountains. (If this theory is true, it is due by Wednesday evening- he lost over eleven minutes on the many of the other Tour favourites on the stage into Valloire in the Dauphiné).

Alberto Contador Salut!  Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti

Of course we all have to be careful not to attach a dogma upon Contador that he is the next Lance Armstrong, or Indurain. His skills against the watch will not gain him minutes in comparison to the other favourites, and importantly Contador has only finished the Tour once, back in 2005, when he finished a respectable 31st (he was a tender twenty-two at the time).

In the Time Trial around Albi, expect him to lose a couple of minutes at least; though that won’t bother him by the time we reach the first Pyrenean stage on Sunday. Interestingly, Wednesday’s stage to Gourette includes fifty kilometres on home soil for Alberto, though I suspect it is not a case of where he wins, it’s when that’s more important. And if he’s not coming in first, taking time out of his rivals is equally as crucial.

Provided Contador, and also Leipheimer keep riding as strongly as they have thus far, any plea from Bruyneel to take a ‘mere’ stage win to salvage pride will be a long way off. Discovery are withdrawing from the sport at the end of the year; hopefully an uncertain winter won’t come the way of the Spaniard again. His results in 2007 wouldn’t justify another bleak winter. In the two years since Lance retired, the team have debated (and failed often) over tactics, team leaders as well as making a knee-jerk singing in Basso (some may include Levi here too).

Now, though, the team are slowly rising out of the post-Armstrong problem. A victory in the White Jersey competition is looking likely, and a podium placing certainly cannot be ruled out. The memory of last year’s race can be firmly pushed aside now, thanks largely to an unknown Spanish quantity.

I suspect Bruyneel was dreaming of this a few weeks back, especially after that 2006 nightmare, especially since it costs nothing to dream.

Contador King of Spain

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