Follow the leader, who is...who?

An annual tradition for me is to wake up at the crack of dawn to watch the opening time trial of the Tour de France. That came on July 4 this year, a Saturday, not usually a day I want to get up at 6am to watch TV, but lingering jetlag from my trip to Asia left me wide awake to watch things like Wimbledon finals and, yes, the Tour de France.

The leading storyline from the Tour this year, is, of course, the return of Lance Armstrong. Like Michael Jordan, Lance is returning to his sport for the second time, the first after a long fight with testicular cancer.

But perhaps a more compelling storyline, one that will continue to build and develop during the three weeks of the race, is who is the leader of Team Astana, for whom Lance rides?

There are four possible team leaders, all capable of placing in the race, and the opening time trial didn't exactly clarify matters as all four of them placed in the top 10.

Armstrong led off and came in fourth on his team, tenth overall. Each successive rider from this group of four finished progressively faster. Finishing four places ahead of Lance was Levi Leipheimer. Two places ahead of Levi was Andreas Kloden, fourth overall. And two spots of ahead of Kloden and 2nd overall in the time trial was Alberto Contador.

Kloden hasn't ever been team leader in the past, though he's been one of the best of the rest in past Tours, so I think we can rule him out unless something drastic happens to the other potential leaders. Levi is somewhat similar, among the top riders but perhaps just out of that elite group. He also raced hard as team leader for Astana in the Giro, and in this day and age it seems that winning both grand tours when they are so closely spaced is nearly impossible. So rule out Levi.

That still leaves Lance, the all-time TDF wins leader, making a comeback at the old age, at least in the cycling world, of 37, and Alberto Contador, the last person on the Astana team to win the Tour de France, in 2007. Contador has to be considered the race favorite given recent history and his age, 26, when most riders enter their prime. He has improved his time trialing to the point where it's a strength, as the opening stage proved, and he's widely considered the world's top climber. Though he couldn't ride the Tour de France in 2008 because Team Astana was banned over previous doping allegations, that year he won the other two grand tours, the Giro D'Italia and the Vuelta Espana.

Can someone like Lance Armstrong play second fiddle, though? Contador, Armstrong, and team director Johan Brunyeel have all been diplomatic so far, claiming strong morale inside the team despite press suspicions to the contrary.

Past history reveals tensions, though. Before Armstrong joined Team Astana officially, Contador said, "I think I've earned the right to be the leader of a team without having to fight for my place. And with Armstrong some difficult situations could arise in which the team would put him first and that would hurt me."

In the 2008 Vuelta, Contador was team leader of Astana and led the race going into the final time trial. In that last stage, teammate Leipheimer rode all out in the time trial and won the stage by a huge margin, pulling into second place behind Contador in the final standings, only 46 seconds behind. Contador sounded unhappy that a teammate would ride for the win even though Contador was the team leader.

"It's not normal that someone working for you finishes less than a minute off in the general standings," Contador said. "If [the next-to-last stage time trial] had been 20 kilometers more, who knows what would have happened."

After that first time trial this year, it seemed Contador would be defacto team leader, but no one on the team would commit to that. After today's stage 3, things are even murkier.

In a rarity on a flat stage, a fairly large pack of 29 riders broke off the head of the peloton late in the stage. Massive crosswinds are no fun to ride in, and it was those conditions, along with a peloton that seemed reluctant to chase down the a breakaway group, to create that opening. Team Columbia was annoyed that the peloton wouldn't help flag down the breakaway because they wanted to deliver the stage for their man Mark Cavendish*, currently the fastest sprinter in the world. So they grouped at the front, and after a big 90 degree right turn into fierce crosswinds, they turned on the turbo for a few kilometers, and just like that they tore off the front the peloton. For those who still don't think of cycling as a team sport, this is just one example of where coordinated team action makes all the difference.

Lance showed his experience. Near the front, he jumped in with the Columbia group along with two of his teammates, Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia. Contador was caught back too far and never latched on.

"Whenever you see a team lined up at the front like that, you have to pay attention," Armstrong said referring to Columbia. "You know what the wind's doing, and you see that a turn's coming up, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that you have to go to the front." (source)

One might read in that statement a hint that Contador, while a great rider, lacked the experience to read that situation, and Contador's inexperience is something Armstrong has hinted at in the past. Asked about the team leader situation, Armstrong played coy but hinted he won't be content being relegated to domestique this early in the race.

"I have tried to stay out a little bit of the debate about who is the leader?" Armstrong said. "I have won the Tour seven times, so I think I deserve a bit of credit."

Contador would only say, "I'm not going to evaluate the team strategy because everyone will draw their own conclusions anyway. In any case, the Tour won't be decided by what happened today."

He's probably right, Lance and Alberto are still closely bunched, and the race is far from decided. Still, it was an odd day. It can't be easy to be Johan Brunyeel and try to keep the team cohesive this year, though that is all speculation. On his Twitter account, Lance posted after today's stage**:

At dinner with the team. Despite what some might think, morale is sky high. We're psyched for tomorrow.

Tomorrow morning is the team time trial, always a beautiful event to watch. For one day, Astana will ride as one group. Friday, though, is the first mountain stage in the Pyrenees. If you want a front row seat for the next huge chapter in this unfolding drama, that's a day to get out of bed early and tune in. Who will lead out for whom for Team Astana that day? If Armstrong is in yellow but Contador feels strong, will Contador attack? What if they end up as the only two contenders going into the final mountain stage and end up out front together. Will they just agree to race each other to the top? Rock scissors paper? Flip a coin? This year's Tour is going to be a doozy***. If you've tuned out the past few years because Lance was gone, it's time to reengage.

If I had to predict, I wouldn't bet on Armstrong and Contador being on the same team next season. It just doesn't seem optimal to allocate team leaders this way if seen in terms of game theory--a potential team leader should prefer an unambiguous leadership position with a team dedicated to helping him win.

There is one clear winner in all of this, and that's all of us, the Tour de France fans. I'm excited Lance is back, and I am kicking myself now that I didn't just head over and suffer up a few mountains despite not being in enough shape to ride over a severe speed bump right now.

2010, though...



* Cavendish is himself a source of entertainment in this year's Tour, his fantastic results paired with a true sprinter's bravado. After today's stage, he had no sympathy for teams damaged by Columbia's late move. "The riders with the teams who wanted to ride like juniors got results like juniors."

** This is an interesting example of something I've been meaning to write about recently, and that is the disintermediation of the press by celebrities posting to Twitter. When the Shaq to Cleveland rumors began, and when they became true, the place I looked first for comment from Shaq was his Twitter account, not the mainstream press. And how many stories in the news now quote from celebrity tweets, the same tweets anyone can read in real-time?

*** Hollywood smells story here, too. Sony Pictures has a crew including director Alex Gibney at this year's Tour shooting a $3.5 million documentary of Lance's comeback.