The story of the intra-team rivalry between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador during this year's Tour de France was perhaps the biggest cycling story of the year, but now that the two have gone separate ways Armstrong is looking to avoid letting their personality differences become a distraction from his goals in 2010. At the Radioshack team camp in Tucson, Arizona this week, Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel spoke extensively about the heavily reported conflict, how the press inflated its severity, and how being on separate teams will change the dynamic of their rivalry.
Despite the difficulties, Armstrong surprisingly said that he wouldn't change the experience at this year's Tour, and that, in a way, the "personality conflict" was good for cycling because of the attention it brought to the sport.
"Over the last 10 years there was always been this built in conflict with Jan [Ullrich] ... and later [Joseba] Beloki," he said, recounting the reports in the pre-Tour build ups comparing his preparation to that of his competitors and likening it to the great rivalries in other sports. "There's always a rivalry - that's what people want, it's what they pay attention to, it is why they sit in front of their TV screens to watch on game day.
His run-ins with Contador were of a different quality - a battle for supremacy he politely called "a personality conflict". "Not to say my personality is good or bad, or his is good or bad. We're on separate teams now, I'm sure he's glad he went left and I'm glad I went right, I wouldn't change the experience,” said Armstrong. “I wanted to do what I wanted to do, but I was loyal to Johan and I had to be there."
Even five months after the Tour and despite the team's success in getting both riders onto the final podium and winning the teams classification, the battle between cycling's two giants still gets press. Bruyneel hoped to play down some recent reports of him being critical of the Spaniard.
Living in Spain, Bruyneel has felt the full brunt of the Spanish view that Contador was wronged, but has also seen the opposing view from the Americans. But he insisted that the conflict was not as bad as it was presented in the press.
"It was not good, but it was do-able," said Bruyneel. "I never had the feeling I could not get through it. My relationship with Lance is a lot stronger, and I could be considered not neutral, but I think I was very neutral. I always made the right decisions in the race for the good of the team and for trying to win the Tour."
The problems began more than a year ago when Armstrong announced his comeback, and later confirmed that he would do so at Bruyneel's side - something that Contador perhaps felt threatened his position as team leader which he had built through winning the 2007 Tour and 2008 Giro d'Italia.
"There was nothing I could have done differently,” said Bruyneel. “I was in a tough spot - I was constantly in between two opposed egos.
"I always had in mind that the strongest rider would win the Tour, and that made my job easier,” he added. “Alberto was the strongest guy. I also knew that Lance was realistic enough, and he's enough of a team player to accept when someone else is in a better position."
Now that they are on separate teams, Armstrong and Contador are free to go head-to-head. Yet both Armstrong and Bruyneel both agree that beating Contador in the Tour will be no easy feat.
"On the bike, I'll say Alberto is the biggest and best talent we have now, and maybe the biggest we've ever seen," said Armstrong.
"I come from the perspective from being on the team with him, I saw physically how good he was in the race, I also saw mentally and emotionally how strong he is off the bike,” he added. “I'm not a fool, I've sized up plenty of competition in my day, and he's going to be very difficult to beat - some would say impossible. He's a complete rider, it's tough to beat someone who can climb and time trial that well."
While Contador may be the biggest talent, it doesn't mean Armstrong can forget about the young Luxembourger who finished second in the Tour ahead of him.
"I think Andy Schleck [will play] an interesting role here,” he admitted. “The cycling critics would look at it and say talent-wise, they're better matched - and perhaps that's the big showdown. The more we can let that play out the better for us, it's less distraction.
Whether or not the Contador/Armstrong rivalry will be the hot topic in 2010, Armstrong said, depends on how well his early season and Tour preparation play out. "Obviously the more successful you are the bigger the buzz - the press and the fans will run with that,” he said. “I think it's good for cycling, but better that both he and I try to distance ourselves from that because it can be a distraction, and neither of us want that."
Bruyneel sees the strength of his Radioshack team as an advantage over Contador's well-gutted Astana squad. "Every season you start over, and you never have a guarantee you will be on the same level. We just have to hope that Alberto won't be on the same level," Bruyneel said about the chances for a 2010 Tour win.
"It's not only about being the strongest,” he added. “You have to have a good support team, a team of coaches and people around you that have the experience, and then there's the tactics. Race circumstances. Cycling is not an exact science. A lot of things can happen."
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