At tomorrow's stage one of the 2009 Tour de France, Team Astana's Alberto Contador may be wearing the squad's number one backnumber, but the issue of leadership inside the outfit still seems unresolved.
In the team's press conference in Monaco on Friday, attended only by team manager Johan Bruyneel and Alberto Contador, the Belgian team tactician maintained that the Spanish Grand Tour winner was the team's protected rider for general classification. But in an exclusive interview granted to French newspaper L'Equipe, Lance Armstrong said he was unaware of Contador being the team captain.
"When we made the selection of the team, we made it very clear that Alberto would be the leader of the team at the start of the race," Bruyneel said. "He's wearing number 21, and I discussed this with Lance, that I wanted him to have the 21. It's a sign of how we value him and how we respect him for what he has done. We could have had an alphabetical order, just to avoid any polemics - but then Lance would have had the 21."
In the French newspaper, however, Armstrong said that he did not understand why Bruyneel announced the Spaniard as the team's leader on the official Astana website. "I've asked Johan to explain that to me, because if there's going to be a leader, then everybody should know it," he was quoted as saying.
"It would be better to be open and honest. If you say that there's a leader, that's it, then everyobody works for him. But this discussion never took place... Most people consider Alberto as the favourite and I think that he is the best stage race rider. But you shouldn't forget Leipheimer."
Indeed, Astana has more than 'just' two riders able to contend for the top honours in Paris. There is also Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden. "I wonder why everybody is focusing everything on Lance and Alberto," continued Bruyneel. "Let's not forget that there are other riders in other teams, and that we even have other riders in our own team.
"Everybody always asks about a rivalry between Alberto and Lance, but why does no-one ever ask 'is there going to be a rivalry between him and Levi?' Because Levi was always close to him. In 2007, he was third in the Tour, I think he was only 30-something seconds behind [Contador]. That's not a whole lot over three weeks. And at the Tour of Spain last year, he was second and only 41 seconds behind him."
The Belgian team manager then said that the press was trying to create tension between his teammates - where there supposedly was none - but with so many options, one cannot help wondering if the information given is consistent. "I know there will be a lot of attempts to divide the team or create polemics within the team, but we will try to remain focused on this race only. We are here as a team, and we don't have any rivals within the team. The rivals are the other teams," he said.
In any case, Bruyneel insisted that having several cards to play for the Tour victory was a safer bet for the team. "When you have only one leader, you know that you play all your cards on that one guy," he explained. "If something goes wrong, you lose everything. For example, last year, in the Tour of Spain, Alberto was the team leader and had Levi Leipheimer in second. But in the last week, with three or four days to go, Alberto crashed. Nothing happened, but he could have broken his collarbone, and everything would have been lost. So if you have more cards to play, it's also a safer situation for the team."
Luckily, the betting will soon be over, as Saturday's stage one will already be "a good indication" of who will be Astana's strongest rider. Contador, who knows how important the stage will be for his overall objectives, however refused to draw any conclusions from it. "Tomorrow is a day where you can already make a difference on GC, so it's definitely an opportunity worth taking, also for the stage win," he said when asked if he thought the day would finally set up Astana's pecking order. "But it's also a stage where you'd have to take certain risks - and I have nothing to prove to anyone."